John Mulaney Reinvents His Persona in an Uncomfortably Vulnerable New Show

Comedy Features John Mulaney
John Mulaney Reinvents His Persona in an Uncomfortably Vulnerable New Show

Who could’ve predicted John Mulaney would have the most tabloid-covered year?

The former SNL writer turned beloved stand-up comedian went through a divorce, a stint in rehab, a highly publicized relationship with actress Olivia Munn, and now has a baby on the way. In the midst of it all he returns with a new stand-up show, the first since the highly acclaimed Kid Gorgeous, titled From Scratch. The title and the poster design, that of Mulaney as a child, promised a more personal set than usual and an attempt to reinvent his comic persona after it fell apart.

I saw a show from his most recent stint in Philadelphia. It’s important to state that the show is undeniably funny. Mulaney, a true “comedian’s comedian,” long ago perfected his delivery. He knows how to write for his own voice and knows what material is most reliable. But while his new show is littered with a few short bits that would be expected from a post-Kid Gorgeous show, those aren’t the segments that this show is really about.

Mulaney’s new show makes it clear how intensely he is aware that the public has generally turned on him. It’s hard to avoid referencing the fact that everyone hates his baby (his words), and that he is not exactly the same person audiences knew him as. And while there are undeniably conflicted feelings about this turn, Mulaney seems to want to use this as an opportunity to reinvent himself as a comedian.

From Scratch has Mulaney trying out new areas of comedy that have previously been more distant for him. The most notable is an increased amount of impressions, which he puts on display during the headlining bit of the show about his “celebrity packed” intervention filled with fellow comedians. He also ventures into new types of physical comedy, stepping away from his energy-filled strides across the stage and replacing them with waddling feet and other mannerisms more akin to an actor than a writer. He becomes more exaggerated when doing his most prominent impression: himself, when he wasn’t sober. Mulaney admits that his high-energy performances are behind him. The comedian is older and trying to stay sober so he is creating a new type of persona that adapts to his new reality.

Mulaney’s show seems to be motivated by a desire to talk about what has happened the past year but the boundaries are inconsistent. There are no jokes about his divorce and he only even mentions it once. During earlier versions of this show he had more bits about being in rehab but these have been mostly cut. There are obvious territories Mulaney won’t cross into, for good reason, but he’s still leaving some uncomfortable pieces of himself on the stage. While his delivery is perfect, as an audience member it’s hard to laugh at jokes about how his substance abuse issues began at only five years old. There is a setup that describes how to get illegal drug prescriptions that should definitely be cut. Sometimes a bit will get so specific that it feels like he is telling you something only a close friend would.

But that’s the problem, and the main boundary Mulaney is trying to establish: he is not your friend. No one in the audience knows John Mualney, we have only known the persona he has created. Mulaney makes reference to his fanbase of teenage girls and the fact that everyone seems to have an opinion on how he should live his life and he is sick of it all. While his material is changing slightly he wants his audience to change too.

The biggest issue at the heart of From Scratch undercuts the whole show: Mulaney is clearly not removed enough from his situation to talk about it on stage. The boundary between stand-up and personal realization has been blurred in recent years. Hannah Gadsby’s Nannette is a prime example but there were also stand up shows like Jenny Slate’s Stage Fright and Simon Amstell’s Set Free that put vulnerability on display as the comedians discussed intensely personal details from their life. But these comedians talked about events years in the past, or realizations they had come to make after a long length of time considering and evaluating their thoughts.

Mulaney has only been out of rehab for eight months. He talks about his addiction in the past tense, but he is still deep in recovery. While he talks about gratitude for being out of the place he was last year, he is not far enough away to be doing an hour long special about his struggles. Mulaney is trying to get comfortable talking about his background to an audience but until his emotional state has settled from such a tumultuous year (frankly, several years of addiction struggles, he confesses) he is not ready to be talking honestly about what has happened.

There is a moment when Mulaney talks about his relationship with his former drug dealer that stands out. He is trying to make jokes but the story at its core is so heart-wrenchingly sad there were hardly any laughs. The audience reacted in a chorus of “oh nos” and “awes” like they had just seen a puppy rescued from danger. The background of the joke was so depressing that we weren’t ready to laugh.

Mulaney is clearly at a crossroads. He wants to move on and reinvent himself to create a new persona after his previous one has been ruined. He wants to mature, to try new things, to be a different and better comedian. But he also needs more time than he’s giving himself to work through what he’s feeling. Mulaney got out of rehab in February, his first performance of this show was in May, and he’s already getting ready to go on a bigger national tour with a baby on the way. That’s a lot.

The biggest takeaway I had from this show is that this awkward transition might be necessary. Maybe he has to work through this period in a messy way to move on. There is a sense that the show after this one might be incredible. A Mulaney further removed from this situation, who’s had his baby and isn’t tabloid fodder anymore, could bring some measured clarity to his new comic persona.

At some point in the show when a joke didn’t land very well, Mulaney said, “well that joke was cathartic for me.” That might be true of From Scratch as a whole; maybe he needs this mess as catharsis so he can move on to his new identity as a comedian. I just hope he doesn’t leave too much of himself on the stage now before he’s ready.

Leila Jordan is the TV intern for Paste Magazine. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila

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