While I loved Mulaney for his pristine suit collection, his old-timey charm and, of course, his dog, Petunia, it was the way he spoke about his former wife, Anna Marie Tendler, that made his stage persona so endearing. So when that persona shattered, and the person I had decided he was was challenged, I was left confused, disillusioned and frustrated that he did not live up to the characterisation I attempted to enforce on him.
For the better part of my adolescence, and until recently, John Mulaney’s work defined my sense of humour. I imparted to loved ones the aggressive teachings of JJ Bittenbinder, forced them to appreciate the punchline to his Victorian nightgown joke, and rewatched Kid Gorgeous over and over again. Even still, I continue to return to Big Mouth year after year for his voicing of the troubled, gross little man that is Andrew, and I will occasionally swipe right on someone who says they love Oh, Hello.
While I loved Mulaney for his pristine suit collection, his old-timey charm and, of course, his dog, Petunia, it was the way he spoke about his former wife, Anna Marie Tendler, that made his stage persona so endearing.
So when that persona shattered, and the person I had decided he was was challenged, I was left confused, disillusioned and frustrated that he did not live up to the characterisation I attempted to enforce on him.
Fans of Mulaney and his now ex-wife felt required to choose sides, fooling ourselves into thinking our opinion mattered, as though we even had the right to an opinion in the first place.
Yet, with Tendler’s Instagram feed turning into a series of heartbreakingly vulnerable self-portraits, many fans, myself included, quickly found ourselves siding with her, growing angrier with John for having hurt this “dynamite, five-foot, Jewish bitch” that he once so proudly adored before audiences.
In one post, she wrote,
“So how does one digest grief?... We call our friends; we allow ourselves to laugh. We cry in parked cars. We work; we rest. We throw plates just to watch them break; we make things with our hands. We write, we read, we watch movies. We listen to music. We run, or walk, or sprint, or dance. We ask for help or learn to ask for help. We love or learn to love again.”
So, naturally, the announcement of his latest comedy special, Baby J, was one I was hesitant to embrace. I knew it would be hilarious, and I longed for the laughter he’d so effortlessly induced in his earlier specials. Yet, my tensions regarding my perception of him as a comedian, but more importantly, as a man, made me quietly wish it would fail. I didn’t want to enjoy the special. It was easier to believe that the man who once made me laugh - the man who gave us “Grandma’s Boyfriend Paul” - was a different John.
Like Mulaney’s other Netflix specials Kid Gorgeous and The Comeback Kid, Baby J cleverly weaves childhood anecdotes with present-day ideas to construct a holistic persona, one of a distant Catholic upbringing and odd familial relationships. Mulaney recounts his love for attention, one that has been with him since he was a child, quietly praying one of his “unimportant” grandparents would die so he could milk the grief during school hours.
And while the opening anecdote is the perfect level of darkness to distract from the obvious elephant in the room, Mulaney does not avoid the topic much longer. He gives a whip-smart recount of the past few years, addressing the personal events that have shaped his life, and the way his reputation shifted as a result. He says, “We all went to rehab, and we all got divorced, now our reputation is different… all the kids like Bo Burnham more because he’s currently less problematic.”
In divulging the details of his relapse, Mulaney does not refrain from sharing the most intimate of details. He reasserts his comedic expertise as a man who has always been able to charismatically weave through challenging conversations without ever dwelling on their seriousness. He strips the content of its emotion, leaving the audience instead responsible for colouring the anecdotes with feeling, allowing them to decide how to react when he describes himself as the “best-looking person at [his] intervention.”
And the topic of his intervention is one he explores in tremendous detail. Using his sobriety to reflect on his “obnoxious, wasteful and unlikeable” moments comedically, he describes himself then as “cocaine skinny with a new haircut,” and critiques the number of people it took to save his life - an embarrassingly large number he believes should have been smaller, and he “know[s] who they could’ve cut.” In recounting his time in rehab, he once again dilutes the deeply personal stories with crafted moments of superficiality, saying, “When I first got to rehab, one of my greatest fears was that everyone was gonna recognise me. Gradually, a new fear took over…fucking no one knew who I was, and it was driving me bananas.”
The denouement of this stand-up set solidifies not only a change in sobriety, but a drastic shift in how Mulaney responds to and yearns for the love of those around him. In a concluding note of self-reflection, he speaks to the empowerment of having once recklessly held his life in his own hands. He says, “I used to care what everyone thought about me so much…and I don’t anymore, because what is someone gonna do to me that’s worse than what I could do to myself? What are you gonna do, cancel John Mulaney? I’m gonna kill him.”
Through poignant vignettes of self-reflection and awareness, the emotion of Mulaney’s trying times breaks through the on-stage caricature. He is the same man who once yelled “street smarts,” he’s just been through some things. And this special does exactly what it had to do in reminding fans of this humanity. He is not dismissive of his hurt, nor is he dismissive of how his past may have altered the public’s perception of him. Most importantly, and it’s a quality I can now appreciate rather than condemn, he is unapologetic, for the simple reason that he has nothing to apologise for, not to us at least.