'God Bless Steely Dan': Oh, Hello Stars Nick Kroll and John Mulaney on their Musical Inspiration
Few would think it possible that Steely Dan, the band famous for songs about criminals facing certain death, gambling addiction and a loss-ridden Wake Forest football team, could provide inspiration for a hit Broadway show. And yet, Oh, Hello, the two-man show from comedians Nick Kroll and John Mulaney which played at the Lyceum Theater last Fall and premieres on Netflix today, includes not only a heavy number of references to the group but also a Steely Dan-inspired tune sung by the show’s protagonists, Gil and George, a pair of tuna-obsessed, seventy-year-old Upper West Siders mourning the Manhattan of their youth.
A day after presenting at the Tony Awards, Kroll and Mulaney sat down with Billboard to speak about how the band came to play such a large role in their show and whether Donald Fagen is a Gil or a George.
Take us through how the Steely Dan storyline came to be.
Nick Kroll: When we were writing the first version of the show, they [the characters] were on trial for the murder of someone by too much tuna and in their trial, their defense was based around the fact that they were like Steely Dan.
John Mulaney: Right. ‘You just don’t get us, because we’re a little impenetrable. But we’re cool and we’re hipsters and we’re hepcats of the night.’
NK: And so, for some reason we just immediately glommed on to that and then we wrote “Sweet Rosalie,” based on “FM.” I think we can say that.
JM: ‘Yo dee da doidle dee, the girls don’t seem to care…’ Yeah, it’s “FM.”
NK: So then we do the show, we grow the amount of Steely Dan references in it and how important they are. Our director, Alex Timbers, when we did the Broadway show, had Steely Dan blasting for the entire pre-show. And then Donald Fagen came to the show and he liked it.
JM: He liked it, he came back stage.
NK: He came backstage afterwards and said if you guys ever need any music, my career is… and he motioned his hand going downwards. Which is hilarious because they still sell out the Beacon ten nights in a row and have Venetian residencies and Dodger Stadium. They’re doing quite well. But that to me was the highest praise that we could get was Donald Fagen was like I’ll make music with you guys.
Because his reaction could have gone either way.
NK: It could have gone either way. But it is true love for Steely Dan’s music.
JM: They are, as they would say, bodacious cowboys.
Do you think it’s grown awareness and appreciation for Steely Dan, from a younger generation?
JM: I hope so, yes. There hasn’t been any good music since Steely Dan. A lot of the pretenders are bubblegum pop princesses.
NK: It’s all autotuned. John’s a real purist.
JM: The best music is precise rock-pop-jazz in a studio, on a multitrack. Do you think it has?
NK: I think what it did was we had a lot of people come to the show, people our age would be like ‘my Dad listened to Steely Dan so much.’ And I’m like ‘did your dad smoke pot?’
JM: I was in a car when I was like twenty and I heard “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and then “Pretzel Logic” and I was like, ‘who is this?’ So if someone came and saw the show and heard the preshow music, I’m sure some people were like,’ what is this and why are my hips moving so?’
NK: We would come out to “Birdland” by Weather Report and I think there’s something about that late ‘70s/early ‘80s jazz fusion.
JM: The masculinity of it is very funny.
NK: And like Jaco Pastorius comes out of Weather Report and gets a huge record deal to make his bass driven jazz fusion album that’s pop.
JM: And then plays stadiums in Tokyo shirtless just being like ‘bawmmm’ and people are going crazy.
NK: It’s such a specific time. The first video we did years before we did the show the peg was the music on the video. Just from the moment we started, it always was the right music.
JM: It’s the funkiest white music can get.
NK: They do predate what has become the cool nerd phenomenon. They were the first ones who were like we’re kind of dorky but we’re smarter than you.
JM: Asshole nerd. ‘We go to Bard, man, so why don’t you step over there?’ That type of thing.
Do you see personality elements of Donald Fagen and Walker Becker in your characters, Gil and George?
JM: A little bit. My perception as a fan is that Donald keeps it together and Walter is more of a free spirit. But within any relationship, Gil and George or Donald and Walter, different people have different power moves they can pull. Walter’s is elusiveness, Don’s is cracking the whip.
Which is which, with you two?
JM: With Nick and John I don’t know but with Gil and George, Gil can drift off and boogie to his own beat. Shake his little tight butt to his own beat and George is like, I’ve got to rein him in, thinking that’s power. True power, though, might be what Gil has, which is that he can shake his tight little butt to his own boogie and he’s got this rocking ass in these corduroys.
NK: I saw Steely Dan at the Hollywood Bowl and it was fascinating because Walter now gets to talk more. Like I think Donald is just like, I’m going to let Walter talk more.
JM: I think for years they both had a strict no talking policy.
What was your process for writing the lyrics for the song within the play?
JM: It took us about three minutes. I think the only thing we said before we started in real time free associating the song was that we should have some flavored wine because of the “Time Out of Mind” [lyrics], ‘the water will change to cherry wine. So we started, we just went like, [we need] a New Jersey reference, a local but tri-state reference. Not a New York City reference.
NK: And we wanted a girl’s name. Some sort of exotic, but not too exotic women’s name. We settled on Sweet Rosalie and there’s a nostalgia to the five and dime, which I think those guys like. Train back to Hackensack (New Jersey transit) with rosemary wine (flavored wine). And then the most important lyrics for us, [sings] ‘deedle doidle dee, cocaine. We both like to do cocaine!’ For a long time it was ‘we both like to smoke cocaine.’ The audiences did not quite understand that.
JM: Couldn’t hear smoke that well as a lyric. It didn’t play on the melody.
NK: It’s also slightly off-putting to think about two old men freebasing.
JM: There’s no evidence that they’ve freebased.
NK: No, not at all. Yo deedle doidle dee is something that I try to work into every song I sing, I’ve ever sung. We like to yoidle, we like to deedle and we like to doi.