“Hey, Ellen”: Pritzker Prof. Ellen Mulaney on her son’s childhood, fame and sense of humor


Courtesy of Ellen Mulaney

Ellen Mulaney and her son, comedian John Mulaney.

Ellen Mulaney joined the faculty of Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in 2006 as a senior lecturer. She also holds another title: Mom.

Ellen Mulaney is the mother of stand-up comedian and former “Saturday Night Live” writer John Mulaney. At Pritzker, she teaches a required first-year course called “Torts” in addition to “Legislation” and “Basics of Contract Drafting.”

However, she is known to her son’s fans as the woman who took John Mulaney to a Bill Clinton campaign event, excited to see the man who had previously walked her home from the library when they attended Yale Law School. (Die-hard Mulaney fans may be surprised to learn that this did not happen during their time as undergraduates at Georgetown University.)

While at the event with her son, Ellen Mulaney famously pushed past all the reporters and photographers — and the Secret Service agents — covering the event.

“We land at Bill Clinton’s feet,” said John Mulaney in his 2015 “The Comeback Kid” comedy special. “Bill Clinton turns, looks at my mom and says, ‘Hey, Ellen,’ ’cause he never forgets a bitch, ever. My mom melts. She goes, ‘Hi, Bill!’”

While recounting the incident to The Daily, Ellen Mulaney said she was “pretty sure” her son’s description was accurate.

“He never crosses the line — most of what he says is 95 percent true,” Ellen Mulaney said. She added, however, that her son never asked if he could feature her in his act.

Despite being the son of two lawyers and the sibling of another, John Mulaney always aspired to go into show businesses, his mother said, especially as a comedian or actor. Additionally, his siblings had a similar sense of humor, which resulted in the four of them bouncing lines off each other before dinner, Ellen Mulaney said.

However, Ellen Mulaney said she and her husband originally worried about their son entering show business, given how hard it is to succeed.

Around the time John Mulaney graduated from college, her husband Charles “Chip” Mulaney asked if he was sure he wanted to go into comedy. John Mulaney answered with a question of his own, asking his father if he would be prouder of him if he were an investment banker or bond trader. After that, his parents told him to follow his dream.

“He just loved performing and he was pretty good at it,” she said. “He seemed pretty confident that that was what he was interested in.”

The Mulaneys’ fears were quelled when he began to succeed.

“I was like, ‘OK, we were right — he’s really funny,’” Ellen Mulaney said.

John Mulaney is not the only Mulaney child to enter comedy. Ellen Mulaney’s daughter Claire also wrote for “SNL” and has worked as a writer for FOX’s “Last Man Standing.”

“It was kind of a surprise that Claire, when she went to college, was talked into going into the improv club,” Ellen Mulaney said. “She called me from college, ‘Mom you’re not going to believe what activity I signed up for.’ She says ‘improv’ and I was stunned.”

Dean Meyer, a rising Pritzker third-year, was a student in Mulaney’s “Legislation” class this spring. According to Meyer, most people he talked to outside of his own class weren’t aware of the connection between the comedian and his professor. However, that soon changed when the professor’s son joined his mother’s Zoom lecture on the last day of the class.

Now, Meyer said, the word has gotten out.

During the Zoom call, students asked the professor’s son questions such as his favorite Trader Joe’s item — which, according to Meyer, is the Organic Sriracha and Roasted Garlic BBQ Sauce.

Although Meyer said the professor never directly addressed their relationship in class, Meyer did say she mentioned a trip she took to “SNL” and an afterparty she attended when her son hosted earlier this year.

Over the years, Ellen Mulaney said she visited “SNL” on several occasions, sat in on his “Kid Gorgeous at Radio City” comedy special in 2018 and usually sees a few shows when he’s on tour.

When asked whether she likes her son’s comedy, Ellen Mulaney said she and her husband enjoy it.

“For the most part, you know, as comedians go, he’s pretty clean, which we’re also happy about,” Ellen Mulaney said.

Mulaney added that although she has seen “Big Mouth” — a raunchy Netflix cartoon about puberty, starring characters voiced by John Mulaney and his friend Nick Kroll — she did warn her husband off it.

“We’re senior citizens at this point and it’s a little shocking,” Ellen Mulaney said. “But I get it.”

Although Ellen Mulaney has taught at the law school for more than a decade, she said she has only started getting regularly recognized by students in the last three or four years.

“I know by now that I’m known as John Mulaney’s mother,” Ellen Mulaney said. “I thought I was done being known as somebody’s mother, but not so. I think it’s fun.”

Ellen Mulaney added she thinks it gives her some street credibility: “It also makes them more likely to laugh at my jokes.”