After John Mulaney finishes a stem-winder of a story in which an increasingly desperate and delusional character—himself—buys and immediately pawns a Rolex for half the price to get cash for drugs, the comedian addresses the audience. "I feel your judgment. You must think I'm pretty stupid. … 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."
Mulaney became one of the past decade's biggest stars of stand-up with brilliant bits like these, building slightly off-kilter stories up to an unhinged, hyperbolic finale, followed by some wry remarks on whatever he's just unpacked. But in "Baby J," Mulaney's first stand-up TV special in five years, we know the hyperbole is limited and the target is Mulaney himself. Specifically, the John Mulaney of 2–3 years ago who was very genuinely crashing his way through addiction and early recovery.
It may be a stereotype that comedians struggle with substance use, but it's rare for one of Mulaney's level of popularity to get so candid about it on stage. Mulaney's earlier stand-up, TV shows and "SNL" stints (he's a five-time host) often turned dark, bizarre and self-deprecating, but his reputation as a clean-cut nice guy and devoted husband had helped him achieve mainstream acclaim. He'd also, in earlier years, talked about being sober since 2005, a recovery success story.
That all came apart during the pandemic when news broke that Mulaney had checked into rehab for addiction to cocaine and an array of prescription drugs; months later he split from his wife. The lead-up and aftermath of the former event provides most of the material in "Baby J," filmed at Boston's Symphony Hall in February 2023 and released on Netflix last week.
We often write that addiction should be met with compassion, and it's true: Mulaney credits a "star-studded" intervention of comedian friends with saving his life. He also riffs on why the approach can be a little more challenging in practice. In the midst of the pandemic, some friends appeared at the intervention via Zoom. "You may be thinking, 'Hey if that was me, I would have been like, "If you're so worried about me, how come you didn't fly in?"' Don't worry," Mulaney admits, "I said that multiple times throughout the night."
"I felt powerless. I felt very angry." Then it's off to the early days of treatment, where the feelings of bewilderment, frustration and hurt pride that are familiar to the newly sober become extremely funny (though never trivialized) in Mulaney's hands. At first, he's worried he'll be recognized. When no one knows who he is, he becomes increasingly flustered by his humbled status, even intercepting a newspaper that had reported he'd gone to rehab—and leaving the page flipped open in hopes that the other patients would see it.
"It's weird to be a recovering drug addict," Mulaney muses, now two-plus years sober. "I'm doing great, but when I'm alone, I realize I'm with the person who tried to kill me. … [But] it gives me a strange kind of confidence sometimes. I used to care what everyone thought about me so much. It was all I cared about. And I don't anymore. Because I can honestly say, 'What is someone gonna do to me that's worse than what I would do to myself?'"
Watch the full set on Netflix!
Photo: Marcus Russell Price/Netflix