In the three years since John Mulaney’s last stand-up special, the 33-year-old entertainer has gotten married, bought a house and created one abject failure of a sitcom. Yes, it’s hard to believe that someone as witty as Mulaney could create something as unfunny as last year’s “Mulaney,” but the comedian persists with his new special, “John Mulaney: The Comeback Kid.”
Performing in The Chicago Theatre, Mulaney never directly addresses his experience of making a failed TV series, but the challenges of change make themselves clearly present. With an oddly boyish appearance, the comic seems to defy aging itself — but that doesn’t stop an aging point of view.
The girlfriend Mulaney referred to in “New in Town,” Annamarie Tendler, is now the stand-up’s wife in “The Comeback Kid.” At one point, Mulaney says someone warned him, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” in regards to his marriage. Mulaney’s penchant for breaking down the inherent insanity of certain subjects comes into play as he points out the initially insulting and nonsensical meaning behind the statement. He also uses the arguments own logic against itself. “Why buy the cow?” he asks himself before answering, “Because everyday the cow asks you when you’re going to buy it.” Mulaney continues, “Because a lot of people think that you like bulls,” before concluding, “because you love her.”
Mulaney’s delivery and ability to inhabit several characters allows his setups to take shape, portraying memories as slightly absurd reimaginings. In one instance, Mulaney describes his grouchy French bulldog as an old French woman who easily asserts her Alpha status over the Mulaney household, prompting a dog trainer to tell him, “You need to show dominance over your puppy.” “These are things people say to me,” the comedian marvels at his own weakness.
But there is a growing maturity in the man. This isn’t the guy who gets pushed around by Delta Airlines in “New In Town.” Instead, Mulaney is able to assertively ask that his wife board the plane with him. Yet, the man’s childishness never escapes him. Filled with references to ’80s and ’90s hallmarks like “Back to the Future,” “Saved by the Bell” and Jonathan Taylor Thomas, “The Comeback Kid” paints a picture of Mulaney’s adolescence, applies a universality to it and contemplates the encroaching concept of adulthood. “I am very small and I have no money. So you can imagine the kind of stress that I am under,” Mulaney says of his mindset as a child, but also capturing the Millennial experience.
Mulaney’s parents are prominent figures in his special, especially his father, lawyer Charles Mulaney. Starting as background figures, the parents become a recurring theme throughout the performance as Mulaney sees that they aren’t so different. At one point Mulaney tells how his father, with a car full of children, went into a McDonald’s drive-through, and ordered a single cup of black coffee. Despite childhood frustration, Mulaney says, “In retrospect that is the funniest thing I’ve seen in my entire life,” as he calls his dad his hero.
Mulaney closes his set with an extended look into a childhood memory, much like he did with the Salt and Pepper Diner closer from 2009’s “The Top Part.” Now, the comedian details the time he met Bill Clinton, the political Comeback Kid, during his first presidential campaign. Amid recollections of the finale of “The Fugitive” and his parents’ clashing ideologies, young Mulaney is swept up in childhood wonder at meeting the personable Clinton. This contrasts with his father’s cynicism towards the future president, an outlook punctuated by the bit’s final act of irony.
At one point, Mulaney remembers an old employer, Mr. Finch, who once said that he was “Too old to be a duckling.” The odd statement perplexes Mulaney every day, but it begins to take on meaning as “The Comeback Kid” comes to a close. Mulaney has changed; he’s too old as well. His views have shifted with time and what was simple becomes complex. Youth has left Mulaney behind and has been replaced by the responsibility of adulthood. He looks back at his childhood fondly but he doesn’t disregard its difficulties. This ubiquitous challenge faced by all ages is emphasized in Mulaney’s final story where obligation trumps personal opinion. Despite his own struggles, Mulaney’s witty sense of humor continues to persevere, allowing him to communicate growing up in a way that only he can.