Martin Mull Essay - Critical Essays

Mull, Martin


Martin Mull 1943–

American humorist, songwriter, and actor.

Mull's humor conveys an innocent tastelessness that studies American kitsch by becoming part of it. Though he parodies middle-class America, he does so with affection. His songs reflect a fondness for wordplay as well as bizarre subject matter, such as "Partly Marion," the tale of an amputee, or "Margie the Midget," a declaration of his love for dwarves. While satirical, these songs are not considered cruel; they are merely an extension of Mull's stage character. Mull has created an egomaniacal persona who flaunts his ignorance by feigning ultrasophistication.

Mull attended Rhode Island School of Design, where he received a Master of Fine Arts in painting. His most distinguished project was an art show held in the men's room of Boston's Museum of Fine Art, entitled "Flush with the Walls (or I'll Be Art in a Minute)." An interest in conceptual art evolved into his desire to perform musically. After graduation he sent several songs to Warner Brothers, who hired him as a staff writer. Mull wanted to perform as well; however, the only bookings he secured were nonpaying. During this period, Mull created his stage personality. He developed a tongue-in-cheek, slightly arrogant attitude for introducing such songs as "Dancing in the Nude."

Mull produced four albums under a recording contract, and while they are considered apt examples of the genres he mimics, lack of exposure limited their success. The sole exception, "Dueling Tubas," is the Deliverance theme rendered by offkey tubas. Other songs reflect his interest in the idiosyncrasies of life. "Normal," for example, salutes a couple's decision to maintain a dull, suburban lifestyle. His songs are considered irreverent, but inoffensive. Mull considers them an answer to message songs, noting that "messages should be sent by Western Union."

While Mull was on tour, television producer Norman Lear saw him perform and asked him to play the wifebeating Garth Gimble on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Mull's improvisational abilities redeemed a repulsive character, so that when Garth was fatally impaled on a Christmas tree, Lear created a twin brother, Barth, to host a new television show, Fernwood 2-Night. While Fernwood 2-Night gently mocked all elements of middle-class Americana by serving as a trailerpark version of Johnny Carson, Barth is seen as the most elaborate parody of all. Barth's ignorance—of his guests, of discussion topics—is masked by bravado. Mull, rather than pointing out and mocking bad taste, personifies it. Critics, however, found the show questionable and crude, and many failed to see the parody at all.

Originally a thirteen-week series, Fernwood did attain sufficient popularity to become another series America 2-Night. Mull altered the format by moving the show to the West coast and utilizing celebrity talent. While purportedly still a study of audiovisual tastelessness, critics felt that the show's concept was weakened by using guests who, in real life, would never associate with a Barth Gimble. Ultimately, viewers tired of the gag, feeling America 2-Night and Barth Gimble had both run their course.

Mull, while still performing musically, has temporarily abandoned broad satire for lucrative ventures in cinema that, while well received, do not depict his stage persona. His parodies have not always proved successful because of their highly conceptual nature. Of his career, Mull simply says, "A lot of people don't understand what I do."

Patrick Snyder-Scumpy

The pop minstrels of the first years of the last decade were outraged idealists venting their passion in livid terms while educating a generation about social injustices, moral atrocities and emotional ambiguities. They determined the key in which the epic opera of the '60s' vast conflagration was played. Now, two years into the '70s, a new crop of musical essayists and commentators has emerged and if they set the tone for this decade as their predecessors did for theirs, it will be a very strange and very different 10 years. Among these new minstrels, the Dylans and Paxtons of the '70s, are Loudon Wainwright, John Prine, David Ackles, Randy Newman and now Martin Mull. Their sensibilities are more soft-spoken, less strident and grandiose, and imbued with a very humane humor that flows from a gently resigned cynicism. The prediliction for allegorical anger has been replaced by a profound openness to and a loving awareness of the diverse eccentricities among men and women whose daily lives create the human condition.

Martin Mull is a very funny man but his first album [Martin Mull] offers much more than a collection of giggling one-liners. He is also a proficient songwriter, an excellent pianist, and a deftly wonderful weaver of words. Anyone who can rhyme "Wyomin'" with "Willy Loman" has got to be something special. Unfortunately for Mull, his work has a surface similarity to that of Randy Newman and it will probably take a while...

(The entire section is 481 words.)

Patrick Snyder-Scumpy

[Martin Mull's] songs are a glossy and smoothly subtle blend of many influences shaped and channeled by a unique and whimsically droll point of view. Some of the songs are hymns in praise of such mundane subjects as eggs and Miami ("The only fish around are Nova Scotia lox") but mostly simply tell stories, exploring the narrow but fascinating range of ramifications spreading out from the dropping of an often tiny pebble of aberration into the placid waters of the American norm: a lover learns ventriloquism, a middleclass maiden loses her ring finger to a washing machine, a man marries a midget, a freak turns to booze and a classified ad for girls "to live in dreams" spirals into a flapper bachannal whose dionysian Dixieland rhythms bring to mind those jungle swing cartoons in which vaguely negroid monkeys kept the beat with coconuts on each other's heads. His lyrics are feasts for semantic sado-masochists addicted to punishment; he tries harder so it hertz. Even his alliterative name shimmers with a score of tempting, awful puns (Mulls it over, Mullti-talented, and, when he's playing the blues, Martin Mullatto) but the album's are better. (p. 45)

Mull's music runs directly and consciously counter to the half-decade old tendency of rock to examine life in terms of mass psychic migrations or as immeasurably profound pirouettes in Shiva's cosmic choreography….

Mull thus places himself firmly among a group of artists...

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Stephen Holden

Stan Freberg, Spike Jones, Tom Lehrer, Frank Zappa, Randy Newman, even Homer & Jethro are but a few of the influences that have shaped the sensibility of singer/humorist Martin Mull. Though he is almost never as funny or savage or heartbreaking as any of the above-mentioned at their best, the difference between his first and second albums suggests that by the third time around Mull may have evolved a comic identity that has the power of institutional subversion.

The first LP consists entirely of humorous songs a la Lehrer and Newman, but lack the venom of the former and the metaphysical dimension of the latter. "Ventriloquist Love," "Livin' Above My Station," "Partly Marion," and "Margie The Midget" are essentially one-joke songs about freaks and freakish relationships, in which an idea is presented but not developed…. The funniest song, "Miami," works as well as it does, because its subject is the development, to no point, of lethally monotonous Miami Beach cocktail music, the bulk of its lyrics a maddening little refrain that is repeated over and over: "Am I in heaven or am I in Miami."

The new release, [Martin Mull and His Fabulous Furniture in Your Living Room], is much funnier…. The character Mull plays throughout is a superficially self-effacing egomaniac, who ridicules his own pretensions, as well as those of the pop world in general with the music he makes….


(The entire section is 456 words.)

Ralph J. Gleason

[Despite his youth, Martin Mull manages in his first] two albums to carefully and inexorably carve up almost every stereotype in popular music from Fletcher Henderson through the theme for A Man and a Woman, bossa nova, hotel cocktail groups, John Coltrane, Merle Haggard, late-night dance band broadcasts, motel cocktail lounge combos, drunken songwriters, Randy Newman, Roger Miller and anybody else I may have overlooked here at this point in time.

The satire works on several levels simultaneously. On the one hand there's a line like, "The bag I'm in is just a package from a package store," with its oblique and subtle reference to Freddy Neil and the rest of the lyric with its puns and allusions. On the other, there's the freaky lyrics of love songs that have a twist to them either about midgets, dogs or what-have-you….

There's the sound of Merle Haggard as well as the lyric content, and there are the puns which look horrible in print but are hysterical when he utters them….

Like every comic I have ever heard, on or off the record so to speak, MM is inconsistent. Being funny is the most serious kind of occupation there is and one of the hardest. It's remarkable when anybody is funny at all these days and more remarkable when, as MM, the comic can be funny a good part of the time….

Lyrically, he has the capability of using words in phrases and encompassing puns and allusions at the level of Roger Miller, whom I consider a superb songwriter….

The mind that is displayed in these songs and this music is so wildly comic and so superbly gifted in a technical, musical sense that in my heart I know he's right….

Ralph J. Gleason, "Perspectives: Martin Mull & Monty Python Make Me Laugh," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1973; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 144, September 27, 1973, p. 9.∗

Michael Watts

[Mull's] mind has more dark corners than a chimney nook. His heart belongs to dada….

He satirises the crassness of rock culture with light, deft touches, never savagely, so that absurdities are as delightful as they're never less than truth….

He's the Good Soldier Schweik, and, what's more important, the best musical satirist since Spike Jones; better, in fact. In "Straight Talk About The Blues," for instance, he turns on its head both the notion of young white snots playing the blues and, by the authenticity of his vocal takeoff, those wrinkled, geriatric bluesmen who're continually being "rediscovered" by the Alan Lomaxes of this subworld.

His ear for jazz...

(The entire section is 162 words.)

Robert E.A.P. Ritholz

[Martin Mull has] made some of the funniest, but most neglected, records around.

The problem seems to be that Mull's field is musical parody, and the record-buying public does not appear to be ready for him yet. (p. 25)

It is too bad that music is taken so seriously now. Satirists like Mull help to define and clarify musical styles by condensing and exaggerating them through the very act of parody. For example, on his first album (cleverly entitled Martin Mull), Mull presents a parody of country and western music called "Livin' Above My Station." Were one to listen to it casually, it would probably sound like just another of the countless C and W songs. However, if one...

(The entire section is 509 words.)

Rob Patterson

Mull's persona, a nice guy version of the blindly self assured and patronizing Garth Gimble character he so successfully portrayed on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, is so visually based that his records have rarely done his humor justice. Bringing Martin Mull and His Fabulous Furniture right into your living room is a task for video discs, not records, and it's a testament to his insanity that he comes across on vinyl so well anyway.

[I'm Everyone I've Ever Loved] works the best of all his albums, due for the most part to the intermixture of comic vignettes that recall the wonderful early records of Stan Freberg and Bob Newhart … with uncannily realistic song jokes. Hence when he goes...

(The entire section is 301 words.)

Steve Simels

[Martin Mull] is a songwriter of almost depressingly facile wit and also the purveyor of one of the funniest club acts in the history of Western civilization. Unfortunately, his studio albums are disappointing, lacking both audience feedback and the visual antics of Mull himself.

[I'm Everyone I've Ever Loved] is no exception. Despite some marvelous material (the title tune, a disco parody to end all disco parodies, the thoroughly scandalous Humming Song) and valiant support by an all-star cast …, it is only fitfully amusing, which is not what I want from a man who in performance has reduced me to rolling uncontrollably in some very crowded aisles.


(The entire section is 130 words.)

Paul Slansky

Through six years as a singer of loony tunes that found inspiration in the mundane ("Dancing in the Nude," "Margie the Midget," "Noses Run in My Family") and earned him a diminutive but devoted following, Martin Mull maintained a mighty sense of self. If no one showed up at his gigs, it was their loss, not his. Out of a combination of defensiveness and egomania, he created a stage persona that exuded a smug arrogance totally out of proportion to the degree of success he had achieved—a character superficially similar to, but significantly smarter than, the one Steve Martin is currently overexposing. So when he was offered a part in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a show that exalted the banal, he certainly wasn't...

(The entire section is 470 words.)