John Mulaney Makes a Grounding Return in ‘Baby J’
On April 25th, comedian John Mulaney released his first Netflix special in five years, “Baby J.” This marks his first special since his life unfortunately became something of a public spectacle, between his struggles with addiction and the ins and outs of his personal life. Many a discussion about “parasocial” relationships with celebrities was had with him at the center, making Baby J significant insofar as it’s the symbolic corking of this scandal.
Unlike past specials, such as the beloved “New In Town” and “Kid Gorgeous,” Mulaney’s tone is noticeably more subdued and even-keel. He plainly acknowledges this in Baby J, stating that, quite honestly, he was nowhere near sober during the filming of those specials. Almost the entirety of this new special concerns his struggles with drug addiction, striking a tone that’s at once sardonic and somber. As someone who’s familiar with recovery, I understood where he was coming from with much of this material: once you’ve made it back from over the edge, you cannot help but find humor in the darkness.
A lot of this humor was also tinged with frustration, however, as recovery is a process that can feel alienating and patronizing, as necessary as it is. Many of his jokes were dripping with annoyance regarding his situation, both as a recovering addict and as someone who’s been so overexposed in the public eye. One of his opening bits pokes fun at how people compare him to Bo Burnham, singing about how he’s now a “problematic figure” and, with great candor, that “likability is a jail.” Being self-aware is an endlessly frustrating thing, as Mulaney repeatedly makes clear.
As for the set itself, much of it uses workshopped material from his last tour, “From Scratch,” which first broached the subject of What Happened to John Mulaney without giving away too much. Phones were not allowed during the set, so fans often took to the internet to share their experiences. Many were upset with the comedian for touring alongside Dave Chappelle, even hugging him on stage, when Chappelle had already made it clear where he stands on issues regarding trans rights. What’s more, many were quick to point out that Mulaney’s career (and subsequent stardom based on his parasocial “unproblematic white guy who loves his wife” persona) skyrocketed largely thanks in part to young queer audiences.
All of which begs the question: what is Baby J all about, and who is it for? I wondered this while watching the special, finding the jokes to be told with the comfort of someone who doesn’t have to try so hard anymore, whose career is largely solidified, yet who is still occupying that limbo space where we, the public, aren’t quite sure what to make of them after all’s been said and done.
In the end, I concluded that this special was designed to put a cork in the career of his past. He deftly recounted his exploits from the last few years, from the weird doctors he saw to the humiliation of not being recognized in rehab. Yet as other writers have noticed, he didn’t overshare, as he did in the past. He didn’t feel the need to tell us everything. He told us what he figured we’d want to know, and withheld what wasn’t meant for us, with a mature sense of humor that also had a tinge of callousness. The callousness in question—its purpose—was signified in one of his closing remarks: “What’re you gonna do, cancel John Mulaney? I’ll kill him. I almost did.”
In other words, he is no longer making himself available to be pigeonholed, even if it alienates some old fans and makes his future plans seem unclear. After finishing the special and marinating on all of this, I myself am still a little unsure of where I stand. But I must say, I’ve never seen him more relaxed and centered on stage.
(Featured Image: Netflix)
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