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John Mulaney Escapes the 'Jail' of Likability With Baby J

The comedian digs into his darkest days while still delivering a hilarious special.
  • John Mulaney in his stand-up special Baby J (Photo: Netflix)
    John Mulaney in his stand-up special Baby J (Photo: Netflix)

    “If you’ve seen me do stand-up before, I have kind of a different vibe now,” John Mulaney says at the top of his new Netflix special Baby J. In the years since the comedian released his last stand-up special, 2018’s Kid Gorgeous at Radio City, he very publicly went to rehab, divorced his wife, started a new relationship with a muddled timeline, and became a father, all of which contributed to the phrase “parasocial relationships” joining the lexicon.

    People who used to herald Mulaney as a rare “nice guy” comedian suddenly turned on him, personally offended that he would do such things. The tone shift that Mulaney references seems to be a result from not only getting sober but coming to terms with the fact that he was no longer America’s most likable comedian.

    But what Baby J really shows is that his vibe is not so much different, but evolved. There’s no mistaking that this is Mulaney’s voice and style, high-energy (though not “high on cocaine” high) and goofy even when the material itself is dark. It’s hard for Mulaney to drop his on-stage persona completely — the cadence of his joke delivery is what makes so many of his punchlines work. What’s different is the stories he’s willing to share about himself now that he’s less concerned about living up to everyone else’s expectations of him.

    When Mulaney first started touring with the material that ended up in this special, things seemed to be heading in a bleak direction. A Paste magazine review of an October 2021 performance on his From Scratch tour called the new material “uncomfortably vulnerable,” saying that it was clear that Mulaney wasn’t yet far enough away from the life-changing events he was addressing to successfully turn them into jokes. Even though Baby J wasn’t filmed until February 2023, allowing plenty of time to hone a new approach, these early reactions to Mulaney’s new material implied that his next special would be decidedly more dour.

    On the contrary, Baby J is a showcase for a John Mulaney who is just as hilarious as his previous incarnations, but who is now less afraid of sharing his true self with the audience. And it shows that getting deeply personal is the best use of his ability to weave cleverly crafted jokes into a long and winding story. In the past he applied that structure to talk about less dramatic moments, like meeting Bill Clinton with his mother or apartment shopping with his then-wife. Here he uses it to reveal the details of his intervention, time at rehab, and some of the darker days of his drug use.

    At this point it seems that enough time has passed for him to find the funny in those moments, while still being able to acknowledge how completely awful — not to mention humorless — it was for him at the time. As he describes what he calls a “star-studded” intervention, Mulaney observes that not a single one of his comedian friends made a joke. “Before I got there, they promised each other that they wouldn’t do bits,” hey says. “I was going psychotic... Fred Armisen was serious. Do you know how unsettling that is?”

    Mulaney realizes that it would be equally unsettling for him to change his persona completely and turn this special into something wholly sincere. First and foremost, this special is funny. Mulaney’s comedic timing is impeccable as always, he’s able to think on his feet and riff when he realizes an 11-year-old is in the audience, and he delivers some extremely satisfying callbacks. As open as he is, there are still personal details he keeps to himself — he makes only brief mention of his divorce and his son with Olivia Munn, as if he’s not yet ready to joke about those aspects of his life. But there are also some deep insights, ones that Mulaney likely grappled with in much more serious contexts that he’s now able to deliver with a wink and smile.

    “Likability is a jail,” Mulaney sings during a bit that runs down all the major events of his life that were very publicly on display. In many ways, Baby J is just roughly an hour-and-a-half of Mulaney trying his best to share just how unlikable he can be. By accepting his current position in life, he finds a sweet spot for his comedy, unlocking a new approach that still suits his style. When Mulaney’s jokes are more personal, they have a bigger impact. Baby J is still jam-packed with the kinds of endlessly quotable punchlines that are present in all his specials, but now there’s more heft and meaning to them. In letting go of his “nice guy” persona and joking about some of his most vulnerable moments, Mulaney has made himself all the more endearing.

    John Mulaney: Baby J is streaming on Netflix.

    Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R. 

    TOPICS: John Mulaney, Netflix, John Mulaney: Baby J, Fred Armisen