Almost every joke in the new John Mulaney special Baby J sacrifices the same guy, John Mulaney, circa 2020-2021.
2023 John Mulaney wants to talk about going to rehab to treat cocaine, Adderall, Xanax, Klonopin and Percocet addiction at the end of 2020. He wants to talk about his outrageous and self-destructive behavior when he intervened, early in his rehab, active drug use, and the moment he realized how bad things were.
Perhaps wisely, he doesn’t talk about his divorce, or his new relationship with actress Olivia Munn, with whom he currently has a son, or appearing in a gossip column, something he never did before May 2021. Your comedy involving other people seems like a reasonable decision to me. And the special suggests that if his personal choices interfere with the previous image people had of him, he’ll probably be fine. He said in a moment of keen reflection on this point, “A crush is a prison.” Whew.
Mulaney has always talked about his stupid acts as part of his comedies. In fact, in the 2012 special New in Town, he recounts his disastrous efforts to trick doctors into prescribing Xanax. (It looks a lot less ridiculous now.) He mocked his own past as a problem drinker, mocked his talking voice, his appearance, and his awkwardness with strangers. His 2009 album The Top Part recounted her belated realization that he had scared her by giving her the distinct impression of accidentally chasing her on the subway.
Here, however, the story of oneself is not scattered among extensive reflections on politics and pop culture. Instead, with the 2020 John Mulaney story, Baby J is laser-focused and relentless. Mulaney describes his own “star-studded intervention” (which included appearances by Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen and Nick Kroll). He resented and complained before realizing that his friends had saved his life.
He tells of a rehab worker who lied about drugs and acted surprised when they were discovered. He remembers a series of phone calls from Pete Davidson waking him from his hard-earned slumber. He even talks about his life before rehab, including stories of stealing his money in the clumsiest, messiest, most expensive ways you can imagine. Almost every time he makes a joke about a real idiot, and he is that idiot.
It may be uncomfortable to watch as he is only two years away from this experience. So it feels alive and dangerous. It’s helpful that almost none of this material draws big conclusions. There are few lessons learned and no grand accounts of addiction or recovery. Anything along those lines, any effort to organize it into a collection of completed lessons will sound false. This must be the diary of the road he is still traveling on.
Instead, the special reveals some very funny details about the incident that leave his sober self baffled. Not just the deeply disturbing stories of dealing with a drug dealer or drugging a creepy doctor, but also the world of rehab. After all, rehab takes you to a place where no one you know knows. There, you are suddenly asked to relinquish all control over many aspects of your life to the staff and bare your soul to strangers. He makes a compelling case for being a strange experience above all else.
What works well for Baby J is what works for many good comedies. It’s a combination of awareness and bewilderment when you see something that is true but seems impossible. He certainly isn’t the first person to see his life this way. It’s an important part of Mike Birbiglia’s work, for example. Birbiglia became famous for talking about his sleep disorder in an instantly recognizable way that was genuine and scary, but also absolutely geeky and sometimes silly.