John Mulaney Breaks Free From Likability Jail in ‘Baby J’
Near the beginning of John Mulaney’s new Netflix special, Baby J, Mulaney sings a little a capella ditty that he composed all by himself:
Hey Boston, it’s time to laugh!
Raise up your smiles, lower those masks
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 — hey, yeah
All the kids like Bo Burnham more because he’s currently less problematic
Likability is a jail! (jazz hands)
If that last lyric is true — likability is a jail — then Mulaney has spent the past year tunneling out of maximum-security entertainment prison. Showing off material he honed during his never-ending From Scratch tour, the embattled comic starts Baby J by revealing a childhood wish that one of his grandparents would die so he could get a little third-grade attention, maybe even an extra turn in the beanbag chair. Oh, he wouldn’t kill one of the important grandparents. But, he suggests to God in prayer, “You could kill one of the unimportant ones.”
Before Sack Lunch Bunch co-conspirator David Byrne croons over animated opening credits, Mulaney apologizes to the audience for starting the show on such a bleak note. But he doesn’t mean it. It gets a lot darker from there.
It’s tempting to liken Mulaney’s Baby J to Richard Pryor’s Live on the Sunset Strip, but because the latter might be the best comedy concert ever recorded, it’s a comparison I don’t want to make lightly. Let’s say, at the least, that the two specials were recorded under similar circumstances. Both Mulaney and Pryor were acknowledged as the top stand-ups in the game. Both succumbed to addiction, with drug mishaps sending Pryor to the burn ward and Mulaney to rehab. Both wore striking monochromatic suits — Pryor, a red number that brought to mind searing flames, and Mulaney in a purple Joker ensemble apparently swiped from Heath Ledger’s closet. Both had baseball bats taken to their public reputations — in Sunset Strip, Pryor calls out the audience for telling “Pryor on fire” jokes while he struggled for survival. And as Mulaney’s opening song illustrates, he knows that fans think less of him now, maybe even more so for leaving his wife (whom he so publicly worshipped in earlier comedy routines) than for struggling with his addictions to — deep breath — cocaine, Adderall, Xanax, Klonopin and Percocet. Or as he calls the combination to the delight of the Boston crowd, “the Providence Special.”
But let’s end the comparison there for now. Pryor’s concert was composed of straight-up bits about making Gene Wilder movies, traveling to Africa and romancing Playboy bunnies, typical goofy stand-up fare. It’s only toward the end of the special that Pryor lets us inside his fateful night with the crack pipe, a harrowing tale that ends on notes of growth and hope. Mulaney, on the other hand, spends his entire special recounting a trip to hell, and instead of sharing his redemption, he’s intent on taking us with him.
When I saw his On Scratch tour in August, Mulaney told most of the same stories of intervention and subsequent recovery, but he wove them among lighter bits as well, like a series of gags about wayward museum employees hastily assembling dinosaur bones without knowing how they fit together. He ended his Chicago show with a reprise of “The Salt and Pepper Diner,” a more or less wholesome prank favorite from 2009’s The Top Part special. But in Baby J, Mulaney has trimmed away all the lighthearted routines. The focus is squarely on drug-seeking, intervention and rehab, and it’s clear that he doesn’t care whether we're having a good time as a result.
Like a good-guy grappler ready to write a new Wrestlemania chapter, Mulaney embraces his heel turn. When he spills the story of his star-studded intervention (Fred Armisen, Nick Kroll, Seth Meyers and Natasha Lyonne were among the concerned friends), Mulaney isn’t exactly exuding gratitude. Of the 12 people intent on setting Mulaney straight that night, six were with him in New York while six more joined via Zoom from Los Angeles. “You may be thinking, hey, if that was me, I would have said ‘If you’re so worried about me, why didn’t you fly in?’ Don’t worry — I said that several times,” he jokes.
The intervention incensed Mulaney. The room was made up entirely of comedians, “but no one said a funny thing the entire night!” He was determined not to go to rehab, aka “lose.” Why should Mulaney have to listen to people who he knew had problems of their own? “I was truly an asshole that night,” he admits, but hey, he was furious. His own friends were trying to tell him how to live, forcing him into months of rehab. A year later, he confesses that they indeed saved his life, but he’s still pissed because he owes them now: “They bring it up a lot.” And did there really need to be 12 of them? Now, for the rest of his life, Mulaney has to pick up the check for 12 separate people. (Six, he reminds us, who joined over Zoom.)
In Live on the Sunset Strip, Pryor discovered grace in the burn unit. “Pain sure stops racism quick,” he mused. “Wasn’t no color in there except burnt-up motherfuckers. We all got religious. You find God quick when they find your ass dead. But I thank God every day, Jack. I do.”
But Mulaney doesn’t exactly find his personal Jesus in Baby J. He shows up for rehab with secret coat pockets full of cash, pills and two grams of coke. He’s bummed that none of his fellow junkies recognize him from Saturday Night Live. He pranks nurses into thinking calls from Pete Davidson are actually from Al Pacino, then tries to con his Philadelphia doctors into scoring him drugs from neighboring New Jersey. Mulaney gets better, but it’s safe to say that rehab doesn’t turn him into a saint.
When he’s not telling sordid tales of his two-month detox, Mulaney goes back further in time, telling his audience how to find doctors who will prescribe just about anything. (Pro tip: Scroll WebMD for the docs with the lowest ratings — the one-stars are happy to provide pills because they really need the business.) Mulaney’s main dealer turns out not to be a dealer at all, just a painter who liked the comic and was scared he’d buy dangerous stuff on the street. Their transactions only started in the first place because Mulaney wouldn’t stop asking. “There are many tales of drug dealers who turn innocent people into drug addicts,” he says. “I might be the first drug addict to turn an innocent man into a drug dealer.”
In one of Baby J’s final stories, Mulaney desperately tries to drum up cash to score more drugs. With nearly all of his credit cards dead and access to his own money cut off, he uses his one working card on a ridiculous scheme that loses him thousands of dollars. Mulaney knows he looks like an idiot, admitting that he comes off as obnoxious, wasteful and unlikable. But it could be so much worse. If you think that’s bad, he says about the credit card story, “just remember that’s one I’m willing to tell you.”
Early in the show, Mulaney preemptively apologizes to Henry, a fifth grader in the audience whose parents were likely thinking they were in for a different kind of show. Mulaney gives the family fair warning: “I have kind of a different vibe now.”
It’s the vibe of a man who has been paroled from the Jail of Likability. “I used to care what other people thought about me so much,” he explains. “It was all I cared about. And I don’t anymore. I don’t because I can honestly say, ‘What is someone going to do to me that’s worse than what I would do to myself?’ What, are you going to cancel John Mulaney? I’ll kill him. I almost did.”
Post-rehab Mulaney is in a better place, but you might not admire him as much. Throughout Baby J, you could find him rude, indifferent, petty, selfish, flippant or arrogant. He can be lots of the good stuff, too. But at least now he’s honest about all of it. And that’s what separates Pryor and all the pantheon comics — unflinching honesty, even in the face of possible rejection. That kind of candor can be tough, but Mulaney looks relieved, a man freed of the burden of caring whether you like him or not.