After the trainwreck of mediocrity that was the Fox sitcom Mulaney, it seemed like John Mulaney was likely done for. Before the show, many of us had seen bits of his standup, and we knew he was an SNL writer during some of its more solid years, but Mulaney was our big introduction to him as a performer, and it tanked. Now, though, Mulaney has a new one-hour standup special on Netflix, appropriately titled The Comeback Kid, and it is so good, it will make you forget all about his brief days at Fox.
One of the most incredible things about The Comeback Kid is that it makes it immediately clear why people thought his work would make a good show. It’s even clearer why that show was being marketed as a new Seinfeld. Mulaney specializes in mesmerizing you with the mundane. Some of his very best bits in the special are five minute segments teased out of ostensible nothings: the semantics of one specific Catholic call and response, or the weirdness of the entire plot to Back to the Future. Mulaney is the funniest guy you meet at a party. His stories have that feel of regular conversation, and his talent is that he makes his phrase turning and killer timing, his eye for the everyday absurdities, seem so easy. You can watch his work and it’s obvious why a sitcom based around him seemed like money in the bank. But as Linda Holmes put it in her spot-on NPR piece “Please Don’t Judge John Mulaney By Mulaney,” the show neutered and flattened out his work. The sitcom served only to “take a really sharp, pointed piece of social commentary and make it something very generic and much less interesting.” After watching this special, I would love to see Mulaney back on television, or get some big hit in any form, but it’s really nice to see him back in his element, doing his best work.
A lot of the material in The Comeback Kid is based around Mulaney’s favorite subject: his baby face. But he’s also matured a lot, and is actively in the process of maturing, which is a delight to watch. He’s 33, he just bought a house, and he just got married. It’s beyond depressing that if you go to any standup show or open mic anywhere in the country, you will more likely than not see at least one (only one if you’re lucky) male comic talk about how much he hates his girlfriend/wife/all women he’s ever slept with/all women who won’t sleep with him. It’s refreshing and wonderful to watch a man talk about how much he loves his wife, and make brilliant comedy out of that love and respect.
John Mulaney has a special kind of brilliance. He possesses that ability to create an intimacy on stage, both in front of a packed house at the huge and historic Chicago Theatre, that also translates seamlessly to your television screen. He can focus in on seeming mundanities with such tight crosshairs, it makes the effort and skill behind them almost invisible. This, I suppose, is why his wit seems easy to take for granted, which the people behind his sitcom clearly did. And I will admit that I may be biased for anyone who can drop an extended reenactment of my very favorite movie, the cinematic masterpiece that is The Fugitive, into a standup special.
I don’t care if that makes me biased. I’m just so happy John Mulaney is back.