John Mulaney Has a Lot to Get Off His ChestPhoto courtesy of Netflix Comedy Reviews John Mulaney
The beginning of Baby J, John Mulaney’s new special, is a bit disorienting. We dive right into it with Mulaney’s voice talking over a black screen, then the camera pans down to show him already in the groove of his set. Very rarely do comedy specials start without some sort of introduction—a sweeping shot of the city, a little scene of them backstage, or at the very least, footage of the comedian walking to the microphone. Yet here is Mulaney, already performing in a bright mulberry suit, far bolder than any of his previous navy or gray looks, signaling that yes, this is the same comedian, but a lot has changed.
To his credit, Mulaney acknowledges the odd introduction (including an extended riff about attention that leans a bit dark towards the end), noting that it would be even more odd to start super upbeat before diving into the crux of why we’re all here. Mulaney, the catalyst of a thousand discussions about parasocial relationships, overcame a drug addiction, went to rehab, got divorced, and had a child with Olivia Munn, all within the span of five years. He knows his reputation is different now, and he is ready to talk about it.
Before you ask—he doesn’t touch on the divorce, nor does he mention his new relationship or his decision to have children. What he does discuss, at length even, is his struggle with addiction and his time in rehab. Viewers of his Seth Meyers interview have already heard the story of his star-studded intervention, but in this special he chronicles the night and following days with more details, and more frank confessions about his drug-fueled self. “As you process and digest how obnoxious, wasteful, and unlikable that story is,” he notes after a particularly egregious anecdote, “Just remember, that’s one I’m willing to tell you.”
A lot of comedians may needle their past selves, and Mulaney has certainly done that before, making his own actions the butt of the joke. But this special almost feels like he is harpooning his past self, mercilessly mocking conversations he had when he was high and exaggerating his mannerisms so his past self becomes an almost grotesque caricature rather than a real person. After a while, it almost feels like a case of punching down. Even though the John Mulaney onstage is healthy and happy, that doesn’t mean the John Mulaney of the past deserves such contempt. Even Mulaney’s description of calling his past self a “junkie” emphasizes how little sympathy he has for someone who was so clearly in desperate need of some help.
Mulaney is an adept storyteller, but his strengths have always included tying together different narratives rather than, for example, really bearing down on one specific incident. The majority of the special follows the chronology of his intervention to his time at rehab, and while his material is no doubt polished, there is a repetitiveness that comes from the narrative being so centralized. The punchlines of the special as a whole don’t necessarily come from a comedic zinger or funny parallel to a given situation, but rather, the outrageous thing Mulaney said or did while under the influence.
There are certainly good bits; a small misunderstanding about Al Pacino and Mulaney’s own offense at not being recognized at rehab are two stand outs. Yet those stand out because Mulaney isn’t drawing comedy from how much of a mess he was, but more so, how stable he was in the presence of a messy world. That is, of course, the core of what made him so popular to begin with. He was always the plain white guy in a suit, playing out the world around him which was full of characters like nosy real estate agents, strict fathers, and gray-haired puppeteers. In this special, he himself is the character, the instigator of odd conversations and strange experiences. It’s a role reversal for Mulaney, and I wonder if the treatment of his past self as a character is almost a way to separate that persona from where he is now. Does Mulaney know that guy is still part of him, and always will be? Or does he imagine that the more he jokes about himself, the more distance he puts between the two?
I can’t say that I loved the way Mulaney ended his special—reading the transcript of a GQ interview he has no memory of because he did it while very high. Apart from the fact that there is little to watch as he reads from a piece of paper, it felt a bit like reading someone else’s embarrassing texts out loud, thus laughing at someone who wasn’t even in the room to defend themselves. By the end of the special, I realized how little he talked about what he is up to now. He briefly touches on a short anecdote about going out with his son, but I am certain he could drum up some juicier bits about fatherhood, living in Los Angeles, or even touring. Perhaps that will have to wait until his next special.
Much like a rehab center, this special felt like a detox. “Here is what happened,” it tells us. “Let’s laugh at how out of control I was.” Maybe this is the new John Mulaney, or maybe now that he’s said his piece he’ll have the freedom to return to the more everyday topics of his earlier specials. Ultimately, we don’t get to choose how and when our favorite artists evolve. Though in the light of how severe his issues were (“What, are you gonna cancel John Mulaney?” he jokes, “I’ll kill him. I almost did.”), I’m just glad he’s still here.
Baby J is currently streaming on Netflix.
Michelle Cohn is a New York-based writer and pop culture enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter @michcohn.