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Arts And Culture

John Mulaney Still Goes For The Laugh First

4:22 PM EDT on April 28, 2023

John Mulaney on stage
Netflix

Without getting into too many of the murky details and tabloid rumors, at the tail end of 2020, John Mulaney went to rehab. He'd started doing drugs again, a combination of cocaine and prescription narcotics, and he was going hard. You can see the toll the drugs were taking for yourself on an appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers. When he got out of rehab, a lot of things changed for him, but most notably (and infamously) he got a divorce from his longtime partner and began seeing Olivia Munn. In what felt like just a couple blinks of the eye later, they announced their first child together.

Now, you, the well-adjusted reader, might have seen this and thought: OK. But a whole lot of people online really cared about the unraveling of Mulaney's old image. They hadn't followed the comedian from his early standup days or his time writing on Saturday Night Live, where he was the baby-faced, intelligent joke machine with a rambunctious childhood. Instead, many had developed an affinity for Mulaney as a good-natured avatar of "positive," lighthearted comedy in an era where many in his line of work (particularly straight, white, and/or male comedians) cried about "being canceled" and punched down to offend people in the name of "transgressive art." Mulaney was clean-cut, soft, seemingly sweet. He played a grumpy old man on Broadway. He created a funny, subversive children's TV special. Maybe most importantly, he was a wife guy. As a result, people projected a whole lot of ideals onto him and his marriage.

Mulaney's new standup special on Netflix, Baby J, premiered on Tuesday. It's his first proper standup release in five years, and by extension, many people's first look at him since his private life publicly exploded. The entire special finds Mulaney, suited and booted, as polished and sharp-witted as ever, getting into much of the messiness of his addictions.

Longtime Mulaney heads know that he's talked about being addicted to drugs and alcohol in his standup before. The story roughly goes that he got into them early as a middle schooler living in Chicago, so much so that he'd already had enough by his early 20s and quit. It might cut against the legend of Saturday Night Live that Mulaney was able to maintain sobriety while working there, but he found the structure helped keep his mind off it. By 2019, however, he had relapsed, and he didn't come up for air until December 2020, after what he calls in the special a "star-studded" intervention, full of "the biggest names in alternative comedy."

Mulaney straddles the line between glorious self-deprecation and bitter resentment perfectly throughout. He's happy to indulge in the embarrassing ways he debased himself while high on drugs and also while trying to stop. But there's also a gleam in his eyes while he talks about being mad at his friends for saving his life that lets you know he means it on some level. A joke about how he'll always have to pick up the tab for 12 different people because they "saved his life" is especially good. Mulaney gets into his need for attention and his disappointment that no one at his rehab facility knew who he was. He also has fun with the perception that Pete Davidson and their vaudeville comedy-act friendship is what got Mulaney back into drugs.

But if you were wondering how much Mulaney would get into his changing relationships, you'll probably be disappointed. The closest he gets to anything referencing his ex-wife or his new partner is when he sings in showtune-style about getting divorced and his reputation now being "different." It's a shame, because Mulaney is one of the best working comedy writers around, and he certainly could've made gold out of that situation, or—if it's all still too raw and you'd rather protect the parties involved—out of the resulting online firestorm that came when the news leaked.

But in the end, it's probably for the best that he kept things focused on what started it all: himself. Over the course of 80 minutes, Mulaney takes a concept used by some of the most popular comedians working—the deep, emotionally complex, confessional hour—and turns it on its head by continuing to prioritize jokes over epiphanies. He even ends the special by reading out of a GQ interview that he did while in the throes of addiction, that he now says he has no memory of. It's a hysterical bit of drug humor that takes skill and finesse, but it's also a bit of a trick, because he's still just reciting lines that were public years ago. In Baby J, you're getting the personal in an impersonal manner, and that's the way Mulaney probably likes it. None of us really know him anyhow.

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