By Kayleigh Donaldson | TV | April 26, 2023 |
By Kayleigh Donaldson | TV | April 26, 2023 |
The horse is free from the hospital but now there’s an elephant in the room. When John Mulaney entered rehab at the end of 2020, followed by some very public changes in his private life, it became the pop culture obsession of the moment. Everybody had something to say about the comedian, his ‘likable’ image, the definition of a Wife Guy, and how parasocial entanglements impact our relationship with celebrity. Things got messy, weirdly personal, and far bigger than the life of one mere funny man. Mulaney was Discoursed to hell and back (and I’m hardly exempt from participating in this.) His drug addictions, split from his wife, and new relationship and baby with Olivia Munn were all-consuming topics online. It felt inevitable that, when Mulaney made his stage return with a new Netflix special, he would have to acknowledge at least some of this. But how much? And what was anyone actually ‘owed’ from it?
Baby J opens with Mulaney’s jokes already in progress, discussing his need for attention from an early age, including a very funny bit on some lies told to him by his siblings. Then, he admits he’s had a tough time lately, and getting on stage in Boston to crack jokes about it when everything is so different feels like a challenge. He’s aware that, for many people who previously adored him, their previously untarnished image of him is gone. It would have been very easy for him to dwell on that for the entire special, but he mercifully moves on quickly and gets to the tough, messy meat of it all: his drug dependency.
Mulaney’s history with substance abuse was never a secret, least of all from his fans, since it was a frequent feature of his comedy (‘Do my friends hate me or do I just need to go to sleep?’) In 2020, as lockdown devoured us all, he hit a new low that climaxed in several of his friends staging an intervention and sending him to rehab. In-person and via Zoom, Mulaney’s closest came together to plead for his recovery, an experience he admits he didn’t handle brilliantly at the time due to all of the cocaine in his system. His comedic talents have always been best applied in teasing out the ludicrousness of everyday life. When in the midst of something deeply un-ordinary, like having Fred Armisen and Seth Meyers ask you to quit drugs, he finds the laughter in his own sense of hindsight. In retrospect, it’s hilarious that his friends made a pact not to do comedic skits when begging for his sobriety. His recounting of his addled attempts to outsmart rehab staff are delivered less with self-deprecation than a sense of careful wit.
This is a special where Mulaney walks a thin line between total rawness and appropriate boundaries for his audience. He’s keenly aware that a lot of the Nice Guy image he previously became associated with is rooted in what fans took from his jokes, whether or not he intended them to. They didn’t want to be disappointed by him because those gags were so funny, so inviting, so seemingly those of a guy whom they could get behind. Well, now, here’s the truth, and it’s a far different thing for a fan to want to associate themselves with an addict who did gross, pathetic, desperate things for a fix. After opening up about the lengths he went to for coke money, involving buying and selling a Rolex, he then poses a question to the audience: if that’s what he’s willing to tell the world, imagine what he won’t admit.
Mulaney doesn’t ask for sympathy. The special notably does not open with him walking onto the stage, where he was undoubtedly greeted with an eager standing ovation. He’s not spilling details about his divorce or life as a new father. It’d be easy to say he’s seeking to destroy his old image, but that’s not true either. This is still very much a John Mulaney stand-up special, complete with his typical delivery and tangents on relatable life details like Venmo and iMessages. Even as he dissects the lowest points of his life and the pathetic nature of it, it’s less confessional than punchline-focused. The content is certainly more piercing but this isn’t Nanette. But there are obvious differences here, if only in Mulaney’s mere acknowledgment of his Persona. When he jokes about his need for validation, it hits differently when he admits the ways that can be truly soul-sucking, such as when he’s embarrassed to admit how disappointed he was that nobody in rehab recognized him.
After his rehab visit, divorce, and the birth of his son, every aspect of Mulaney’s life and work has been picked over for ‘evidence’ like it’s a conspiracy on 4Chan. As Mulaney has almost entirely avoided press in the past few years, it’s likely that Baby J will offer further fuel for those unfortunate fires. If they’re looking for enemies then Mulaney is ahead of them. ‘What, are you gonna cancel John Mulaney?’ He scoffs at one point. ‘I’ll kill him! I almost did!’ If he can’t hit rock bottom and make jokes out of it, who can? And the jokes are good! I’m not sure it made me laugh as consistently as ‘The Comeback Kid’ did, but given the subject, he mines a lot of hearty guffaws out of moments mundane and dramatic. Mulaney fans will be thrilled. The new skeptics won’t be won over, disappointed that his candour only goes so far. Still, when you’ve had your image taken away from you and torn to shreds, why not make lemonade from those lemons?
John Mulaney: Baby J is available to watch now on Netflix.