To quote essayist Ro Ramdin: “Fuck John Mulaney.” Yeah, that’s a bit of a tone-setter, but this is the stage we have to set before we give Mulaney (“Documentary Now!”) the spotlight. To be clear, I refer not to the parasocially fueled drama of his personal life, but more specifically to his very public decisions, like his choice to feature comedian and “old man yelling at the trans community” Dave Chappelle (“What’s in a Name?”). It’s why I hope this article will not serve just as another platform for Mulaney but as a necessary addition to the conversation because now that the stage is set, audience laughter is what rings in his latest special, “Baby J.” As the lights slowly fill Boston’s Symphony Hall, Mulaney opens by acknowledging his past years of tumult, stating: “The past couple years, I’ve done a lot of work on myself.” He then very appropriately adds, “And I’ve realized that I’ll be fine as long as I get constant attention.”
Of course, the largest source of upheaval for Mulaney’s life and the main subject of this special is his experience with drug addiction. The first seven minutes give no indication of this, however, as he follows up his introduction with a tangent on attention-getting in elementary school and the deaths of grandparents. Comedy is tragedy plus time, but even before Mulaney broaches the comedic potential of his personal tragedies, he presents himself above his problematic peers — not repeating tired transphobic tirades or taking shots at the women in his life, but still just being funny as he deconstructs the mechanics of who gets to sit in the beanbag chair during reading time. After a short self-aware a cappella song, Mulaney apologizes for the aside and begins the meat of his special with a simple, “Here’s what happened.” It then cuts to an extended intro credits sequence and makes you wonder if Mulaney’s comedic confessions will be skipped — as well as be shocked that David Byrne (“The Last Emperor”) is scoring it.
It’s at that point that the intentionality of the special’s editing is evident. In addition, its multi-camera setup has some placements for extremely specific shots. The camera moves closer or farther from Mulaney depending on if his physical self-caricaturization needs to be captured. The comedian’s back is shown as he addresses the audience directly and their role in his comedy. One very low shot in particular that captures a ceiling spotlight forming a halo behind Mulaney’s head as he states, “They think I’m dirt. I’m not. I’m God.”
Mulaney’s self-exposure is at points very obviously uncomfortable, but he still acquires comedy from this uneasiness, earning repeated laughs from his tales of addiction. That particular line above is Mulaney recalling his coke-fueled train of thought while committing h(igh)jinks, but it’s definitely not the last of his memorable writing from the special. What stands out the most is when he drops the stand-up act to be sincere — acknowledging that even through his absurd actions at his “star-studded intervention,” his friends saved his life, or the very sobering (pun unintended, I promise) realization that “When I’m alone, I’m with the person who tried to kill me.” Of course, this is a comedy special, so things can’t stay serious for long as Mulaney exclaims, “What, are you gonna cancel John Mulaney? I’ll kill him! I almost did.”
What really is funny is that as unhinged — almost Kanyesque — as these statements sound in writing, Mulaney’s delivery is transformative, his oft-discussed “boyish charm” now tinted with a certain edge. He elevates his writing to some of the best punchlines he’s ever struck, all while doing very important work in destigmatizing addiction and condemning his self-destructive actions. What’s complicated, however, is that Mulaney’s public, “cancellable” acts — like the one referred to at the start of this review — aren’t things that harm only him, something he could escape from by sardonic threat of suicide or by the claim that they’re just jokes. He and the rest of the stand-up community wrapped up in their commentary on cancel culture miss or just don’t care about the material reality of the marginalized groups they can harm; the same way my own puns just now do nothing for addicts and the mentally ill, their material forms the national culture on how we perceive vulnerable people.
This drapes the special in another layer of discomfort, one that can’t be escaped through comedy alone. Even as the set is called “a wide-ranging conversation,” it doesn’t address his responsibility to at the very least make sure his audience feels safe seeing and supporting him. One of the special’s last statements and the punchline that defines its teaser was his self-cognizant conclusion for that cocaine story mentioned earlier: “As you process and digest how obnoxious, wasteful and unlikable that story is, just remember, that’s one I’m willing to tell you.” I still want to be told more. And maybe that’s what he wants.
Summer Managing Arts Editor Saarthak Johri can be reached at email@example.com.