Martin Mull Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."