Photo from Netflix
This review contains mentions of substance abuse and self-harm.
John Mulaney has had a rough few years. The stand-up comedian was initially vaulted to fame through his segments on the show “Saturday Night Live” and his Netflix specials “New in Town,” “The Comeback Kid,” and “Kid Gorgeous.” His combination of boyish charm and mature witticism drew primarily millennial — as well as some Gen Z — fans in droves, and it wasn’t uncommon to see Twitter accounts with quotes from his offbeat speeches.
In December 2020, as the world reeled from the COVID-19 pandemic, Mulaney announced that he was checking into rehab for drug addiction. This initial move was generally met with support online, especially as Mulaney had been relatively vocal about his previous struggle with alcohol and drugs. A few months later, in May 2021, the comedian went on to announce his separation from artist Anna Marie Tendler, his wife of eight years.
Mulaney immediately faced much more backlash online, especially after his romantic linkage with actress Olivia Munn in September and their pregnancy announcement in November of that year. This might seem interesting to followers of celebrity culture, as Mulaney’s “sins” were not nearly as grave as figures who have been accused of serious crimes. However, a significant portion of Mulaney’s stand-up routine was based on his clean-cut 1950s image and his life with his wife. Most egregiously, Mulaney had mentioned his aversion to children in his specials; fans saw his pregnancy announcement as a betrayal.
As for me, I feel that the entire scandal proved that sexism is still alive and well, even amongst the young women who constitute most of Mulaney’s fanbase, and that struggles with substance addiction are still colored with stigma. This was proven through the hordes of followers accusing Munn of plotting to steal Mulaney away from Tendler, and the rampant speculation on the timeline of the relationship. Additionally, armchair experts posted advice on not entering a relationship when starting sobriety, let alone having a child.
Mulaney’s new special, “Baby J,” was released on Netflix on April 25 this year, his first since the 2018 Emmy-winning “Kid Gorgeous.” The title is oddly fitting; the 80-minute experience marks the rebirth of his persona. Gone is the comedian who pranced and jumped around the stage with enthusiasm; this Mulaney is visibly older and more tired, standing next to the microphone with muted hand gestures.
He explores his journey into rehabilitation and sobriety, quipping, “I was the best-looking person at my intervention,” because of his cocaine use causing weight loss, while all his comedian friends had been delving into the joys of ice cream and wine during the pandemic. Over the course of the special, Mulaney details humorous experiences such as ordering DoorDash to his inpatient facility, the difference between using a baby-changing station to snort cocaine and actually changing a baby, and having an intervention on Zoom.
Unlike his previous specials, Mulaney goes into detail about the sordid — but mostly just tragic — life of an addict. A story about buying and pawning a Rolex watch to buy drugs comes across as desperate and wasteful, not funny, and the same goes for the last part of the show, which is a long segment about an interview he allegedly did while high. He does acknowledge the elephant in the room, saying, “When I’m alone in a room, I’m with the person who tried to kill me.”
Mulaney had spoken about his experiences with drugs and alcohol in his prior specials, but had always spun them as the inevitable amusements of a college student with too much time and money, not serious problems. In “Baby J,” Mulaney recalls sitting outside of liquor stores as a 13-year-old, asking passerby to purchase 24-packs of beer for him and his friends. This special has a very different feel; gone is the polished, prematurely middle-aged choirboy.
Is this the “real” Mulaney? I’m not so sure — about that or the special. The piece is certainly more raw, but it could’ve used some workshopping, especially at the ending, which felt a bit predictable and weak. Compared to his previous tightly-woven monologues, this special is somewhat rough around the edges, with meandering parts that don’t quite connect.
However, I think this special was necessary, for both Mulaney to grow as a comedian and the audience to understand his new career path. No matter how true the rest of the special is, Mulaney is showing the audience that he is a real person — with struggles — for the first time, and that deserves some credit. Three out of five crabs from me!
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