John Mulaney John Mulaney

The pilot for Fox's Mulaney features one of the show's two stand-up comedian characters struggling to write a joke that sets up what the comic has already decided will be his catchphrase punchline.

In the same way, the series — created by and starring John Mulaney, a former Saturday Night Live writer and one of the sharpest, funniest stand-up comedians working today — has all the ingredients needed to create laughs, but it just can't seem to find a consistent way to deliver them.

Fall TV: Check out all the must-see new shows

Not surprisingly, the best parts of the early episodes feature Mulaney doing his stand-up routine for the live audience in front of his darkened apartment set. (Yes, it's a weird setting, but go with it.) But when the action shifts to the character of John Mulaney, who lives with his longtime college friend Jane (SNL

's Nasim Pedrad) and fellow stand-up Motif (Seaton Smith) and works for a larger-than-life game show host Lou Cannon (a scenery-devouring Martin Short), things feel clumsy and flat.Mulaney is never as comfortable acting as he is delivering his stand-up, and he's the first to admit it. "I had to learn a lot and continue to learn a lot every week ," Mulaney tells TVGuide.com. "That's one reason I really wanted to do the show with a live audience. I was used to and really enjoyed performing for an audience. So, in one way stand-up was a good skill set for that. In another way, it was very different. Luckily, I filled the show with amazing actors who are much better than me. So, I get to do scenes with people like Elliot Gould, and when you work with people that good, it really raises your game."Gould plays the trio-of-roommates neighbor Oscar, a flamboyant hippie who pops up with little rhyme or reason. But the character is slightly more absurd than the others, and it's when the show leans on absurdity — Jane trying to woo her new cat into sleeping in the bed with her, John dating a doula who helps the roommates with a problem in a set piece that mimics childbirth — that it shows the most potential.

Mulaney Video: Watch John Mulaney's stand-up in new special An Opening Act

"The show's been a blending of the personal stories I do in stand-up and the very weird, silly stuff I liked to write for SaturdayNight Live," Mulaney says. "It has got of a lot of big, visual weird live audience moments and they're framed in these stories that really happened to me."It was very important to me," Mulaney continues. "I grew up on The Cosby Show and that was a very big influence on me. We could never be The Cosby Show, but what I did want to emulate was how even though it was a very real-life show, they had very loose, strange rules for reality. There's a whole episode where they turn the house over to look like the real world to teach Theo about what the real world is like. We kind of did a nod to that in our Christmas episode. We have a full musical number in our Halloween episode. I just wanted to do a traditional sitcom that didn't stick to the rules of reality."Of course, Mulaney is most easily compared to Seinfeld. And even though there is a meta in-joke in one of the early episodes, Mulaney doesn't fully accept the comparison. "We would never compare ourselves to Seinfeld," he says. "Seinfeld is absolutely the best half-hour comedy of the past 30 years. Everyone making TV is influenced by it so much that it's just in the DNA of how shows look and sound. I was very aware of that and never wanted to make it like Seinfeld at all. We're very different stand-up comedians — he is great and I'm me. I have a very different perspective on things and the show tries to do very different stories. If we could ever be even a tiny fraction as good as Seinfeld, we'd be very lucky."

Fall TV: Where have we seen this before?

But Seinfeld wasn't an out-of-the-box hit either. It had a long road to success, albeit in a time where networks could be a bit more patient. And although Mulaney has had its own circuitous path — the show was developed at NBC before moving to Fox — there are moments in the five episodes Fox made available to critics that show hints of the funny series it could become if it's allowed to fully find itself.To that end, we'll try to remain optimistic like Mulaney's TV alter ego. "My character is the idealized version of me in that he's normally pretty hopeful and kind of wide-eyed," Mulaney says. "He's almost like a character in Our Town: He thinks he's going to get the best of people and he's constantly disappointed by that."We know the feeling.Mulaney premieres Sunday at 9:30/8:30c on Fox.

Gotham's Robin Lord Taylor on becoming the villainous Penguin: