John Mulaney, once one of the internet’s premier Boyfriends and widely beloved as a baby-faced good guy of the comedy scene, has, by his own admission, had an interesting few years. In December 2020, he went to rehab for drug addiction, and after emerging in February 2021, he quickly sought a divorce from his wife, artist Anna Marie Tendler, someone he referenced in his previous stand-up specials a great deal and posted about on Instagram incessantly. Then, quite swiftly after that, in November 2021, he had a baby with the actress Olivia Munn.
When news of Mulaney’s rehab stint, divorce, and new relationship hit the internet, people lost the plot somewhat. There was a palpable sense on social media that Mulaney had somehow betrayed his fans by proving to be a real person with significant personal failings, rather than a pinup puppet. “John Mulaney A WIFE GUY has divorced his wife and is now going out with a woman he met at church AFTER BEING AN I DON’T GO TO CHURCH GUY,” one person tweeted. The breakdown of this very publicly gooey relationship inspired reams of comments about love not being real, that kind of thing.
Baby J, released today on Netflix, is his latest stand-up special. It covers his period in rehab, the shameful lows of his drug addiction, and what life looks like from the other side, clean and recovering. It’s funny. Mulaney has very much still got it. But what makes this latest hour particularly interesting is how Mulaney has managed to walk the line between being entertaining (it’s a stand-up special, so there have to be jokes) and acknowledging that what we are seeing when we watch John Mulaney on stage is not John Mulaney the person; it’s John Mulaney the character.
At the beginning, he notices a young boy in the audience, who turns out to be 11 years old, and addresses him directly. “If you’ve seen me do stand-up before, I have kind of a different vibe now,” he says. He does. John Mulaney the character has changed. “When I was a younger man I’d come out on stage and be like”—he starts babbling madly and jumping around—“and I wonder what caused that. Well, those days are over.” He’s calmer in his demeanor, and his material is a little edgier, more overtly unlikable. In fact, in a mock-musical number early in the show (and if I have one gripe it’s that I would have liked more of this kind of thing, which Mulaney has always done so well), he sings that “likability is a jail.” He talks about feeling resentful that he has to be grateful to 12 separate people for saving his life, as they were the ones at his intervention, and wondering why the six people who attended from Los Angeles via Zoom didn’t care enough to fly in. Compounding the sense that this material might not be especially relatable is the fact that this event was, by Mulaney’s own admission, a “star-studded intervention,” one whose “ ‘We Are the World’ of alternative comedians” included Seth Meyers, Nick Kroll, and Fred Armisen. (In the end credits, he thanks each attendee by first name, allowing viewers to piece together that the group likely also included “Natasha” Lyonne, “Bill” Hader, his agent Mike “Berk” Berkowitz, John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch co-writer “Marika” Sawyer, and a few others whose identities will surely be the subject of further internet sleuthing.)
Still, the material’s not edgier by much. He’s always done jokes about doing drugs and behaving badly, but before, we as an audience were able to kid ourselves that he was, mostly, joking. The only line in the teaser trailer for Baby J that came out last week was “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.” In the special, it comes after he tells a story about buying a Rolex to pawn it immediately, because, after telling his accountant to stop giving him money to prevent him from buying drugs, he found one credit card that still worked. The line gave me déjà vu. It reminded me of a bit from Kid Gorgeous, his 2018 special. He tells a story about his father and then says, “I’ve never talked to my dad about that, but I figured I would tell all of you.”
Mulaney’s stand-up, like all stand-up, has always been a curated version of events: things he has chosen to disclose or not disclose in order to make himself come across a certain way. The difference is that he’s now being more explicit about it. The jig is up: We’ve seen who John Mulaney the person might be. Stand-up is a form that often makes the line between man and material difficult to draw. Lots of stand-ups build on their own lives, tell personal anecdotes, as part of their set. But it is bananas to think that what we’re getting up onstage is an unvarnished look at a comedian’s inner life. This stuff is polished to death—they refine, rehearse, tweak for effect, obscure, and exaggerate. In Mulaney’s case, we can even chart fairly precisely how he has edited this material, as he’s been talking in public about that fateful night he went to rehab for more than a year now, including in a lengthy interview on Late Night With Seth Meyers, and gradually massaging the story into its most palatable form. That’s why it’s comedy and not therapy. He’s nailed the brief here: address his failings but continue doing what he does best and what he is paid to do, which is make people laugh.
The message is pretty clear, though. It’s always going to be a performance. It’s always going to be a stylized retelling of reality rather than a court hearing. It’s revealing that he mentions his divorce only once, in passing, and doesn’t mention his new partner at all. He’s selected what to tell and what not to tell. John Mulaney as wife guy is long gone. He says it himself about halfway through the set: “Don’t believe the persona.” And this line doesn’t get a laugh.