Baby J, as John Mulaney’s new special is called, is an exercise in modified limited hangout, heavy on intimacy theatrics, light on revelation. Halfway through the comedian pads to the very front of the stage; there he crouches and says, “Please don’t repeat this.” Note that he’s talking to strangers while being filmed for Netflix. At the start of the show he pulls a similar stunt and it sets a tone. “I’ve had a weird couple of years,” Mulaney says. “You’ve had a weird couple of years. I didn’t want to come on all phony.” Now he’s going to level, it’s coming. “Okay,” the star says, “here’s what really happened.” Slam cut, opening credits (David Byrne theme). Back to Mulaney and what really happened. Letdown: it’s rehab material.
If Mulaney wants to level, he can tell me about his ex-wife and why he dumped her. Her lawyers may not be cool with that, but I resent being fobbed off with drug stuff. A New York Times op-ed reminds us that even a confessional performer doesn’t have to share everything. But this performer carries on like he was. Further, the price of his dodge isn’t that nosy people go unsatisfied. As Baby J demonstrates, his chances of doing something really good are now lower. We do get cute anecdotes about being coked up and the asshole behavior that goes with it. But since there’s no background, these stories are more about the drug’s behavior, not his. Moving out on your wife is too big a topic; hold that back and you’re headed for schtick, in this case drug schtick. Intervention, star-studded (“Fred Armisen was serious. Do you know how off-putting that is?”); treatment and confinement, onerous; the patient, devious, desperate. Stephen King covered this in a few pages of On Writing. People covered it like a goldfish going around in a bowl. Mulaney covers it better, but not by much.
The comedian’s still funny, which is bound to make a comedy special worthwhile. But the emphasis is on “still.” Some old tricks show up again, such as the mock-heavy closing line to a long story, as with New in Town’s “And he wore reading glasses to show that time had passed.” For Baby J, we have “And why is Minerva always sleeping?” Still a good device, unless you’re looking for more freshness. But the story it goes with is a retread of the reading-glasses story, the one Mulaney told so long ago about the male nurse with the Batman stethoscope. Each time you have the same Mulaney on the same quest—pills—and along the way he reaches a nadir of abjection. But these are two different nadirs. In Baby J, Mulaney takes off his shirt for Dr. Michael. In the reading-glasses story, he was getting probed. He had his face in the exam table and feared that his shit had just oozed into another man’s hand. “I’m sorry,” then-Mulaney bleated, or “I’m saaawrr-ee.”
The poor boy had stumbled into this degradation, this pit below the self, this rupture in the pretense of being a person, not because drugs had done him in, but because he was John Mulaney. That morning had been like any morning. But he wanted some pills for the airplane, and next thing you know—the abyss. He was set up wrong, and his life as lived meant disaster for his self-respect. Winding up as less than a self just by being who he was, the poor boy lived out a constant gyp: an existence of padding across the rickety floor of his identity, never knowing when his foot would break through and there he’d be, not a person anymore, just an orifice and a bleat, with a big strong man standing by to watch his shame.
I’m dramatic about that routine because I keep forgetting the ones in Baby J. This time around there’s less degradation and more chemical excuse. Comedy-wise the results are skim milk. The same goes for the whole special. Mulaney clobbered himself with all those drugs because he was angry, and he can’t talk about why he was angry. In the meantime we have cokeheads do the darnedest things.