‘Baby J’ Review: John Mulaney Keeps Guard Up In Netflix Special

 ‘Baby J’ Review: John Mulaney Keeps Guard Up In Netflix Special

Late in his newest special “Baby J,” John Mulaney spins a yarn about a desperate quest for cocaine. In the summer of 2020, the comedian bought a brand-new Rolex, then pawned it at a steep discount to get some hands on some quick cash. “As you process and digest how obnoxious, wasteful, and unlikeable that story is,” Mulaney concludes, “Just remember: that’s one I’m willing to tell you.”

There’s a lot Mulaney isn’t willing to tell us — at least, not yet. The stand-up has never been particularly personal in his work, instead favoring Seinfeld-style observation and sketches (“Saturday Night Live,” “The Sack Lunch Bunch”) that stand on their own. When Mulaney did discuss his own life, it was either a childhood memory recalled from a healthy distance or an anecdote about his then-stable, long-term partnership with his girlfriend-turned-wife. Even these details were jumping-off points for broader bits about buying real estate or dads’ obsession with World War II, not occasions for deeper disclosure. 

A master craftsman with a well-defined style, Mulaney could have continued in this mode indefinitely. But in December 2020, Page Six broke the news that he had checked into rehab for drug and alcohol abuse. (Mulaney had previously gotten sober in his early 20s, well before he was a public figure.) In May 2021, Mulaney announced the end of his marriage to artist Anna-Marie Tendler, whose own statement made clear the decision was not mutual. Just days later, he was romantically linked to actor Olivia Munn; months after that, Mulaney confirmed Munn’s pregnancy on “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” a clip that curious and confounded fans analyzed like the Zapruder film. Mulaney had previously discussed his and Tendler’s decision to remain child-free in his act, just one of many ways his new status as a tabloid fixture broke from the performer’s previous public image.

“Baby J” is Mulaney’s first major release since these developments, though voyeurs hoping he might address them at length will come away disappointed. The special is subtitled “A Wide-Ranging Conversation,” taken from a GQ interview Mulaney did under the influence and reads from as his closer. But in truth, the 80-minute monologue isn’t wide-ranging at all. Recorded at Boston’s Symphony Hall in late February, the show is tightly focused on a specific series of events: The lead-up to and fallout from Mulaney’s December 2020 intervention. Divorce is mentioned exactly once, toward the special’s beginning; so is Mulaney’s son Malcolm, toward its end. Circumstances have forced Mulaney to be more forthcoming about his personal life, but that hardly means he’s gone full confessional.

Some of the most interesting bits in “Baby J” address audience expectations head on. “I’ve had a weird couple years; you’ve had a weird couple years,” he says by way of an icebreaker. Then he breaks into song: “You know what I mean / We all quarantined / We all went to rehab and we all got divorced and now our reputation is different / No one knows what to think!” Yet he doesn’t do much to dispel that uncertainty. The elephant in the room is acknowledged, but never tamed with a comprehensive account of when Mulaney relapsed, or why, or how his fame and fortune affected his addiction, or what it felt like to watch everything play out in the press. “Likeability is a jail,” he says, a line that in a different special would cue up an hour of meta introspection. Here, it’s a final reminder that what we’re about to watch may be funny, incisive and impeccably honed, but it’s not an indication of who Mulaney is offstage. Or, as he tells the woman hired to lead his intervention: “Don’t believe the persona.”

Said intervention was the subject of Mulaney’s most recent “SNL” monologue, performed a year to the date before the taping of “Baby J,” as well as the aforementioned Seth Meyers appearance. A special is a more permanent, enduring artifact than a TV spot, but there’s a chance “Baby J” will be the third time some dedicated followers have heard Mulaney tell stories about getting a haircut at Studio 8H hours before his friends confronted him, or crack jokes about how the January 6th insurrection wouldn’t have happened on his watch. (He was still in treatment at the time.)

To state the obvious, “Baby J” is not any more or less rehearsed than any other John Mulaney special — or any other stand-up special, full stop. Comedy often involves the illusion of spontaneity, but a routine is tweaked, refined and edited over countless stops on the road. Mulaney in particular has always reveled in linguistic precision and formal presentation, delivering burnished one-liners in a signature suit. (From “Baby J”: “My backpack is swinging side to side like an old lady’s bosoms when she jumps up and down on the Showcase Showdown.”) It’s the nature of Mulaney’s new material that calls attention to this careful framing. When it comes to subjects like substance abuse, we’ve been trained to expect raw, unguarded vulnerability, or at least the pretense of it. “Baby J” refuses to flatter those illusions. This is comedy, not memoir, in which a story about Mulaney’s stint in detox is largely a setup for a killer Al Pacino impression.

Mulaney doesn’t alter his delivery for this new set of themes, and he often cushions their impact by returning to more familiar ground. “Baby J” opens with a classic Mulaney tale of youthful naiveté and Reagan-era references. Even while discussing his drug problem, he goes on tangents about iMessage etiquette and Venmo — the kind of banal, universal experiences that are catnip to the shrewd comic mind. “If you’ve seen me do standup before, I have kind of a different vibe now,” Mulaney cautions an 11-year-old in the audience. But even though it’s been half a decade and a lifetime’s worth of headlines since his last special, “Kid Gorgeous,” in 2018, much of “Baby J” belies that caveat.

What revealing moments there are in “Baby J” don’t directly concern its more sensational elements. They start with the opening line. “The past couple years, I’ve done a lot of work on myself,” Mulaney says. “And I’ve realized I’ll be fine, as long as I get constant attention.” The remark leads into a riff well in his wheelhouse, about elementary schoolers making the most of a dead grandparent. But it’s echoed later on when Mulaney admits he was annoyed by not being recognized in rehab, to the point where he left out a newspaper article about him for other patients to see. More than his struggle with drugs and alcohol, a condition millions of people share, it’s this desperate need for validation that feels like a specific window into the life of a world-famous entertainer at a career crossroads, and an admission of something a little bit unsavory or potentially off-putting.

Mulaney ties off this thread by claiming recovery has made him much less invested in the opinions of others. “What, are you gonna cancel John Mulaney?” he scoffs. “I’ll kill him! I almost did.” Judging by the crowd’s rapturous response, Mulaney is in no real danger of losing his livelihood anytime soon. He is, however, managing a transition on his own terms. Outside of friendly venues like “Late Night,” Mulaney has done no major media interviews since his public relapse, divorce, and new parenthood. Performances like “Baby J” are the only insight into his mindset we’re likely to get for the foreseeable future, even as they pointedly remind us they’re just that: a performance.

“Baby J” premiered on Netflix on April 25.

Updated: An earlier version of this review misquoted one of the jokes in “Baby J.”