John Mulaney has never been an especially self-deprecating comedian. For most of his career, he styled himself as the type of broadly appealing throwback showman who was smarter, funnier, and better-looking than everyone else in the room and wanted you to know it. That was before everything fell apart.
Baby J, which arrives on Netflix today, is Mulaney’s first stand-up special since revealing to the world that a relapse on cocaine (and various other pharmaceutical drugs) fueled a tumultuous 2020 that culminated in an intervention from his famous friends and an extended stint in rehab.
The 80-minute special contains some of his darkest and most compelling material to date. The laughs may come ever-so-slightly fewer and farther between than in his previous work, but Mulaney’s willingness to peel back the curtain on his inner turmoil in a way he’s never done before adds a new depth that, by the end, only makes the special funnier. It’s no wonder he’s not sure how he will be able to follow it.
This darker tone for Mulaney starts even before he broaches the elephant in the room. Before we see him on stage at Boston’s Symphony Hall, wearing an impeccably tailored red suit, we hear him tell the audience that he’s “done a lot of work” on himself over the past couple of years. “And I’ve realized that I’ll be fine as long as I get constant attention,” he jokes.
That line leads to an opening bit about how he spent his early childhood secretly wishing that one of his “unimportant grandparents” would die so that he could get special treatment at school. He soon explains that he started on such a “dark note” because he didn’t want things to feel “way too upbeat,” lightly mocking the overly energetic showbiz style that infused prior specials like Kid Gorgeous at Radio City.
The subtitle for Baby J is “a wide-ranging conversation”—revealed in Mulaney’s hilarious closer to be a reference to a GQ interview he has no memory of giving just days before his intervention. And the comedian does spend most of the special going deep on the very real struggles he was still trying to hide from view at that time.
Mulaney has spoken publicly about the December 2020 intervention before, but never with this much excruciating detail. And he manages to maintain his self-assured persona while joking that given his fresh haircut and cocaine habit, he was easily the best-looking person in the room of comedians who had been sitting on their couches for nine months during the COVID lockdown.
He goes on by expressing how disturbing it was to be in a room full of the funniest people on the planet, none of whom were doing bits. “Fred Armisen was serious,” Mulaney says. “Do you know how off-putting that is?”
Like Armisen, Mulaney is not known for his sincerity, but he does take a moment to acknowledge that his friends’ actions “totally saved” his life. Seconds later, however, he shuts down the applause by joking that he’s still “pissed off” at them for putting him eternally in their debt.
Over the next hour or so, Mulaney delivers some brilliantly constructed set pieces about his time in rehab, including the several missed calls he received from Pete Davidson, who was saved in his phone as “Al Pacino,” and an even more unnerving breakdown of the lengths he went to to get cash for drugs after asking his business manager to cut him off. This segment in particular, about trying to buy and then pawn an enormously expensive watch, is so vivid that it feels like watching the opening scene of a heist film.
“Don’t believe the persona,” he says, almost as an aside at one point, in response to the intervention leader who “heard he was nice.” In many ways, it feels like the project of Baby J is exposing the gulf between the Mulaney people thought they knew before his rehab stint and the man who was hiding below the surface the whole time and only emerged in brief flashes, like that time he ranted incoherently in a trench coat and sunglasses on Seth Meyers’ couch.
Mulaney may look as smooth and put-together as ever in this new special, but through the stories and details he shares about his lowest moments, he exposes a deeper truth about himself that fans have never seen with this much clarity.
“I used to care what everyone thought about me so much. It was all I cared about,” Mulaney admits near the end of the special. “And I don’t anymore.”
This thought stems from the realization that no one could do something worse to him than what he tried to do to himself through his addiction. And it leads to perhaps the best joke ever about the futility of “cancel culture” in a medium where comedians love to complain about how powerful it can be.
“What, are you gonna cancel John Mulaney?” he asks. “I’ll kill him. I almost did.”
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