Martin Mull: The History of White People in America

Today we celebrate suis generis Caucasian comedian and kindred spirit Martin Mull (b. 1943). Can I say enough good things about Martin Mull? No. No, I can’t.

Originally from Chicago, as we wrote here Mull studied at RISD in the mid-60s and started out as a comedy songwriter/musician, a career he pursue through the mid ’70s. He gained national fame as Garth Gimble on Mary Hartman Mary Hartman (1976-77), playing that character and his twin brother Bart Gimble on that show as well as its spinoffs Fernwood 2 Night (1977) and America 2-Night (1978), all in that dry-as-a-bone, deadpan style I will always associate with him. This led to a series of movie roles in FM (1978), Serial (1980), My Bodyguard (1980), Take This Job and Shove It (1981), Mr. Mom (1983), Michael Nesmith’s Television Parts (1985), Clue (1985) and O.C. and Stiggs (1985). In 1991 he got another burst of prominence as the character of Leon on Roseanne, a character quite different from the previously flip, unearnest persona that had been his bailiwick heretofore.

Today being the age of “Karen” and Tiki torch wielding maniacs in polo shirts and khakis, it seems a good time to look at what may be Mull’s creative highwater mark The History of White People in America (1985-86, with an additional sequel in 1988). Mull co-wrote and co-produced this limited series for Cinemax with Allen Rucker (an actual documentary film-maker). Directed by Harry Shearer for Cinemax, it built on Mull’s persona from the Fernwood projects, and clearly paved the way for Christopher Guest‘s mockumentary films beginning with This is Spinal Tap a few years later. (That said, this show has less improv, and is more tightly scripted, and is hence to my mind much more solid than the Guest movies.) It is in part a parody of PBS’s 1971 An American Family series, with an added “minority consciousness” upending that owes something to Roots. White people are looked at anthropologically: tragically conventional, boring, affluent, clueless, callous, unhip, and lacking in soul.(I’m over 90% Anglo by the way, with traces of German, French, Scottish, Irish, Dutch and Scandinavian, with ancestors who came over on the Mayflower and settled Jamestown. If you’re in the majority and you can’t laugh at yourself, that should be looked at). Mull is the presenter, with his frequent collaborator Fred Willard front and center in the cast, along with other folks like Steve Martin, Mary Kay Place, Edie McClurg, Jack Riley, Terri Garr, and — wait or it — Bob Eubanks.

Interestingly, this show came out at the height of Reaganism, and captures that moment wonderfully. But it feels more apt for the times we’re living in right now, though these times if anything call for a stronger satire, if comedians brave enough can be found. Or, to flip that — the joke of this show back in the day was that ALL U.S. histories as then presented tended to be histories of white people. Now we are beginning to get more books and films on the REAL, unbowdlerized history of white people in America, and the story being peeled back is anything but funny.

The various episodes are available on Youtube at this writing — I recommend it highly.