No, Really, I’m Awful

In John Mulaney’s new Netflix special, Baby J, the comedian brilliantly destroys his likable persona.

The comedian John Mulaney onstage with a microphone in his hand

The worst, most clichéd part of any filmed stand-up special usually comes in the opening minutes, before a comedian takes the stage. In an attempt to build anticipation, some directors show the audience filing in; others concentrate on the performer backstage, deep in thought. John Mulaney’s 2015 Netflix special, The Comeback Kid, featured a soaring view of the Chicago skyline and a cute bit where he talks to his dog in a greenroom. In his 2018 follow-up, Kid Gorgeous, Mulaney arrived at Radio City Music Hall and proceeded through its majestic lobby before charging the stage to cheers.

I don’t begrudge any of these intros that much—stand-up-comedy monologues are not very cinematic, and it can be hard to set the scene without leaning on familiar imagery. But I was struck by how Mulaney’s latest effort, Baby J (now streaming on Netflix), just starts. We hear the comedian’s voice over a black screen, and when the picture fades in, Mulaney is already onstage, mid-joke. There’s no fanfare, no zhuzhing things up, and certainly no roaring applause. Mulaney is here to talk, and he’s become weary of the glitzy frame that has grown around him.

Still, that doesn’t mean Mulaney is shunning the spotlight entirely. “The past couple years, I’ve done a lot of work on myself, and I’ve realized that I’ll be fine as long as I get constant attention,” he says. So begins a very revealing, amusingly unflattering routine about how, as a young boy, he was so desperate to be noticed that he prayed for a grandparent’s death so he could get sympathy at school. That sets the tone for an 80-minute show that deals with the aftermath of tabloid-y personal crises that have engulfed Mulaney in recent years: a stay in rehab for cocaine and alcohol abuse, followed by a very public divorce, a new relationship with the actor Olivia Munn, and the birth of his son.

All of that is very far from the kind of material Mulaney has dug into for his previous specials. I’ve loved him since he released his first album, The Top Part, in 2009, when he was a young writer on Saturday Night Live. His skill has always laid in fine-tuned observation, with sprinklings of nonsense, childhood recollection, and carefree jabs at his own inability to be a grown-up even as he got married and experienced more success. Well, he’s a real adult now, and Baby J takes a hammer to the baby-face image Mulaney has cultivated over the years.

Early on in the new special, the comedian imagines a ritzier opening with a song-and-dance number trying to summarize his recent life experiences. “We all went to rehab and we all got divorced, and now our reputation is diff-rent!” he warbles. “No one knows what to think, all the kids like Bo Burnham more because he’s currently less problematic! Likability is a jail!” That last line, which Mulaney drones like the bass of a barbershop quartet, is the rueful undertone of Baby J. Yes, his supernova career saw him playing bigger stages to more adoration, but being the star everyone could picture themselves being pals with—chatting about old Law & Order episodes or how annoying it is to fly with Delta Airlines—also proved stifling.

It’s not that Mulaney didn’t touch on darker subjects before—his first hour-long special, 2012’s New In Town, deals with his addiction struggles. But it also undercuts that revelation by falling back on his innocent image. “I used to drink, and then I drank too much, and I had to stop. That surprises a lot of audiences, because I don’t look like someone who used to do anything,” he says. “I look like I was just sitting in a room in a chair eating saltines for, like, 28 years.” In Baby J, Mulaney works to dispel that notion completely. We get stories about him scoring prescription pills from weird doctors he found on the internet and buying a Rolex on credit just to sell it for drug money.

It now seems much more important to Mulaney that the audience understands what a jerk he can be. He recounts in wincing detail his arrogance during his intervention, then reflects on how irritated he was that nobody at his rehab program recognized him. The story of preteen Mulaney hoping for a grandparent to die is particularly telling, not just because he leads the special with it, but because it implies that he’s always had a nasty streak.

The reason Mulaney has to work extra hard at convincing us of this is that he remains, even in this grimmer show, an incredibly winning and relatable figure onstage. He almost can’t help but drag the audience onto his side, even as he tries to slow down the Spalding Gray rat-a-tat patter and the bouncing physicality that defined his earlier work. “If you’ve seen me do stand-up before, I have kind of a different vibe now,” he says. There’s undoubtedly a lot more weight on Mulaney’s shoulders, and more retrospection in his storytelling. But few comedians are currently working with his kind of natural talent. Nice guy or no, Mulaney will remain appointment viewing whenever he decides to open up next.