In “The Original Kings Of Catchphrase Comedy”, a memorable recurring sketch from 2010s era Saturday Night Live — a show John Mulaney served as a writer on for several years around that time — we’re introduced to several 1980s style stand-up comedians whose entire on-stage persona centered on the delivery of a criminally awful catchphrase, each more cringe-inducing than the last. The sketch’s humor lied in the realization of how forced that era’s standup scene was in retrospect, with every comedian relying on an over-the-top shtick for laughs, compared to the increasingly personal and honest comedy scene of the modern era.
But truth be told, all comedians still — and forever will — have a shtick. The best stand-ups simply convince us we’re watching a close approximation of their true selves, with a few extra jokes peppered in. John Mulaney had this down to a science. In his first four comedy tours, Mulaney honed his persona as the doting husband and nuanced, detail-oriented observer of human nature who came off as intelligent and mature beyond his years. His shtick was being the chipper, squeaky clean Midwestern boy-next-door with a distinctive delivery and clean-cut look… until it wasn’t anymore.
Baby J Review
As Mulaney explains to an 11-year-old fifth-grade boy he’s a bit concerned to see in the audience early in the set of his new Netflix standup special Baby J, he’s got “kind of a different vibe now.” Mulaney seems genuinely a bit rattled by a youngster attending the taping, but it winds up being a fortuitous opportunity to set up the theme of the show, for the boy and the audience as a whole, both in the theater and watching at home.
Indeed, Baby J is quite a bit edgier and more raw than Mulaney’s previous specials. But Mulaney didn’t make this decision to veer into more R-rated territory in a vacuum. The move was undoubtedly a result of his finding himself in the public spotlight after a series of unfortunate personal events that happened to Mulaney starting in late 2020 as if that year needed any more reason to be officially labeled a dumpster fire.
It was very publicly reported in December 2020 that John Mulaney had been checked into a drug rehabilitation center in Pennsylvania for alcoholism, cocaine addiction, and prescription drug abuse. Then, a few months after emerging clean and sober from rehab, he filed for divorce from his wife of seven years, artist Annamarie Tendler. Shortly after announcing their separation but before the divorce was finalized, it also became public knowledge that Mulaney had started a relationship with actress Olivia Munn and the two were expecting a child together. Maybe it was the cloistered fog of the early pandemic we all found ourselves in at the time, but all of this information proved very hard to square with the image Mulaney had created for himself on stage, and his fans started to freak out a bit.
So, like so many of us had to do during this uncertain time, Mulaney pivoted. It was time to fess up to the fact that the polished and meticulous John Mulaney we all knew and loved from his standup sets was actually a whole lot messier and more human in real life. Thus Baby J was born, a special that is by far his most personal and anticipated comedy show to date — and not surprisingly, may also just be his funniest.
For those tuning in to see how much Mulaney reveals about his tragicomedic trifecta of rehab/new significant other/new baby, you might be disappointed. His divorce and new relationship are only briefly touched upon, and his new baby is mentioned in just one joke toward the end (although it bookends the show quite nicely, with a memorable callback to Mulaney’s confession of doing coke off one of those Koala baby changing stations in his addict days).
Although for those who put all their chips into wanting to hear about the rehab portion of Mulaney’s brush with infamy, you are in luck because this makes up the majority of Mulaney’s set, and the rehab stories shared are painfully funny. The “different vibe” Mulaney professes to have now is, in short, that of a public personality who no longer cares about being well-liked. He confesses in the show that maintaining that likability felt like a prison of sorts, and so he proceeds to rip it off like a band-aid. Among Mulaney’s more embarrassing (and hilarious) over-shares center on his realization that he desperately seeks attention. He seems to crave the spotlight almost as much as any of the substances he went to rehab for. So he cheerily humble-brags that his intervention which preceded the rehab stint was a star-studded affair, or as he puts it, “a ‘We Are the World’ of alternative comedians over the age of 40.”
Among the famous laughers name-dropped by Mulaney are Fred Armisen (who Mulaney does an on-point imitation of), Nick Kroll, and Seth Meyers. Mulaney also tells an excruciatingly hysterical story of getting a call from Pete Davidson while being monitored by a nurse in his early hours of rehab. Davidson, who changes his cell phone number often, was apparently stored as “Al Pacino” in Mulaney’s phone as a lark, which prompted the nurse to wake up Mulaney so as not to miss a call from the revered Oscar winner Pacino. What follows is Mulaney doing an extended Pacino impression of what he presumes the nurse is imagining from the other side of this phone call. It’s one of the show’s highlights, to say the least.
The fact that Mulaney is still searching for humor in a situation even during his darkest hour speaks to the dedication he has to his craft, and may just be what led him to comedy in the first place.
A later story, whose punchline is revealed in the teaser trailer for Baby J, has Mulaney explaining how he bought and then quickly pawned a Rolex to have some quick cash on hand to buy drugs. The story ends with his confession, “And, as you process and digest how obnoxious, wasteful and unlikable that story is, just remember, that’s one I’m willing to tell you.”
Wherever his comedic inspiration comes from, Mulaney’s confession that he’s a lot more flawed than he’s been willing to reveal in the past may just make for his most satisfying standup special to date. Mulaney is human, and he’s ready to start finding the humor from within, blemishes and all.
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