In his new special, John Mulaney is a modern Prodigal Son with a message about mercy
I like John Mulaney. I really do. Maybe it’s because he is from the suburbs of Chicago, like I am, and he seems to have had a better time there than I did. I still cannot think of the stunt he pulled as a teenager at an all-night diner without laughing.
But it is his bit about Donald J. Trump from his 2018 “Kid Gorgeous at Radio City” special that really sealed the deal for me. Whereas most comedians who talked about President Trump excoriated him, Mr. Mulaney’s take was less freaked out and more hopeful. “It’s like there’s a horse loose in a hospital,” he says. “I think eventually everything’s going to be O.K., but I have no idea what’s going to happen next. And neither do any of you, and neither do your parents, because there’s a horse loose in a hospital. It’s never happened before.”
In the years since that special aired, Mr. Mulaney’s own life took on a similarly chaotic quality, with a stint in rehab, a break up from his wife followed almost immediately by a new relationship and then a baby with the actress Olivia Munn. Today his words about Mr. Trump could be used to describe John Mulaney himself: “No one knows what the horse is going to do next, least of all the horse. He’s never been in a hospital before. He’s as confused as you are.”
Consequently, I went into Mr. Mulaney’s new Netflix special “Baby J” with concern about what I might find. And much of the show, while funny, retains that sense of discomfort, as Mr. Mulaney attempts to smooth out some of the rough edges of his life. But slowly, over the course of the special, he seems to come to a greater self-acceptance. And his journey has something of value for all of us in our struggles to face the messy truths of our lives.
A lot of “Baby J” is what you would expect: stories of the intervention Mr. Mulaney went through, his rehab, and crazy vignettes from his life as an addict, most of it delivered in his characteristic combination of whimsy, observation and “don’t take me seriously right now” meanness. “Wrong energy,” he says to the intervention guide when she says hello to him in a soft voice. He then admits to us: “My plan was to destabilize the leader lady. If I could get the others to question her authority, I thought the whole thing would fall apart like a house of cards.”
Right until the last 10 minutes of his new special, “Baby J,” John Mulaney is like a latter-day Prodigal Son who has only just arrived back at his father’s home. He is trying to make it seem like things weren’t that bad.
Much of it, while funny, feels packaged. Despite describing himself as “feral” going into his intervention, the rawness of that experience has been all but sanded away. Likewise, Mr. Mulaney devotes a considerable amount of time to describing how he got money to buy drugs after telling his accountant not to let him have access to his bank account. When he is done he says, “As you digest how obnoxious, wasteful and unlikable that story is, just remember, that’s one I’m willing to tell you.” But in fact his dialogue in the story is so absurdly funny and the plot has so many similarities with the Rowan Atkinson shopping scene in “Love Actually” that the story comes across not as unlikable but just unlikely.
But throughout the special lie other moments, often ones that Mr. Mulaney himself doesn’t seem fully aware of, where the walls come down. After telling us how grateful he is today to those who did that intervention, how they saved his life, he admits, “I’m still kinda mad.” His voice drops as he says it; for the first time in the special, he sounds not like John Mulaney doing a bit but just a normal person. “Do you know what it’s like for 12 people to save your life?” he asks. “It’s too many people.” He quickly turns this into a joke, but the weight of what he has said remains. Screwing up your life to the point where you have to be rescued is nearly unbearable.
Similarly, in talking about the shady doctor from whom he got his prescriptions, he describes how the man would insist he take off his shirt and get a flu or B-12 shot every time he came for a prescription. A silence descends on the more than 2,000 people in attendance. “You’re all uncomfortable right now,” he says off the cuff, realizing this isn’t playing the way he wanted it to, “but I’m way over it.” But in fact it’s the most troubling thing he says all night, the moment that gives the clearest glimpse of how bad his life had gotten.
He offers other revealing stories of life as an addict, too, like stopping at truck stops to snort coke in the bathroom off Koala Kare baby changing stations in the bathrooms. “What? That’s what those are for,” he tells the groaning audience. ”You think you’re supposed to put a human baby on that mousetrap of a device?” Addicts, he says in a throwaway line that stays with you, “see the world in terms of surfaces.” The whole moment is delivered with so much delight and humor, you could easily miss the desperation in what he’s describing.
The Prodigal Son story is a story of God’s mercy, yes, and the mercy that others show us. But it is also a story of the mercy we at some point must show ourselves.
Right until the last 10 minutes, Mr. Mulaney is like a latter-day Prodigal Son who has only just arrived back at his father’s home. He is trying to make it seem like things weren’t that bad, perhaps out of embarrassment, but more likely because he doesn’t want anyone to help him out of pity. “I’m fine,” he is trying to tell us. “I was a real mess, but I’m fine.”
But then at the end, the Mulaney who admitted being angry at his friends returns. “It’s weird to be a recovering drug addict,” he says. “It’s strange sometimes. I’m doing great, but when I’m alone, I’m with the person who tried to kill me.” He turns this stark line into a bit about the fact that he no longer cares what people think about him, but this time the comedy sharpens the truth rather than smoothing its edges off. “I can honestly say, ‘What is someone going to do to me that’s worse than what I do to myself?’” he asks. “What are you going to do, cancel John Mulaney? I’ll kill him,” he says in the voice of the addict within, as the shocked crowd laughs. “I almost did.”
He ends the show reading portions of an interview he did with GQ three days before his intervention. And he plays it as two characters—present day John/the interviewer and addict John. Asked by Interviewer-John, “What are you up to today?” Addict-John replies, “I walked past what is supposedly the most haunted building in New York City.” When Interviewer-John tries to roll with that, Addict-John delivers an insane series of rambles about sensing ghosts in New York and Los Angeles.
It is unexpectedly the funniest part of the entire evening. And I think it is because it is the moment that Mr. Mulaney no longer feels like he has to apologize for or hide the guy who had made all those terrible choices. Instead, he allows himself to simply be both that guy and the person he is today.
Few will know what it is like to snort coke on a baby changing station in a truck stop. But eventually we all learn what it is like to come face to face with the worst parts of ourselves, the choices that do damage that cannot be repaired. And as uncomfortable as it is, eventually there is nothing we can do but look in the mirror and accept what we see. The Prodigal Son story is a story of God’s mercy, yes, and the mercy that others show us. But it is also a story of the mercy we at some point must show ourselves.
Correction: An older version of this article used the wrong name for one of Mulaney's previous comedy specials.