Venmo is for drug dealers
Twelve people is eight too many when staging an intervention.
Likeability is a jail.
Don’t believe the personae.
These are just a few of the wise things that masterfully meta-observational, self-reflectively cock-sure stand-up comedian, author, one-time Saturday Night Live writer and media content creator (e.g. The Sack Lunch Bunch, Documentary Now!) John Mulaney lets his audience in on during his just-released, hour-plus-long, new Netflix stand-up special, Baby J.
With each of his televised stand-up comedy specials – 2012’s New in Town, 2015’s The Comeback Kid and 2018’s Kid Gorgeous at Radio City – Mulaney, incrementally and intentionally, honed a personae of NYC/Hollywood backstage gossip, quick takes on having a dominant force of a wife and a life with their dog, Petunia, revelations on an uncomfortable life with his mom and dad, and lots of cocaine jokes in what became a definably sharp and witty, fast talking erudite performance style. Quite frankly, there was (is) no one like Mulaney when hitting his mark as a stand-up comedian. If smart, speed-speaking screwball comedies of the 1930s such as Bringing Up Baby and The Front Page were human beings, they would crack wise like John Mulaney.
That cocaine driven haste of his immediate past wasn’t lost on Mulaney during Baby J – this his first stand-up comedy special for Netflix after his famed intervention and rehab of 2022 – as he wondered aloud whatever could have fueled such protean energy and rapid-fire delivery in his previous specials. Then again, watching a fresh faced and newly sober/drug free Mulaney, the stand-up on 2023 (February is when Baby J: “A Wide-Ranging Conversation,” was taped before a live audience, recorded at Boston’s Symphony Hall) is no less fiery, fired-up and ferocious in his delivery or his observations. Only this time, save for some early jokes about having a dad with dashed dreams and a meltdown during a family photo session during his childhood, Mulaney is even more savagely self-reflective than in his past as he name-drops those famous friends (disappointingly to Mulaney, a room full of comedians with none of them doing their bits) who pushed him into a secret intervention (after he bought a huge bag of cocaine and Percoset, and more), and the belittling personal muck he had to go through, during his time as a coke addict and while in New Jersey rehabilitation.
Mulaney might state, during Baby J, that he’s not telling you everything with the revelation that he bought a $12,000 rose gold brand-new Rolex during a desperate rush for cash for cocaine (only to make $6,000 hard on the pawned deal). “As you process and digest how obnoxious, wasteful, and unlikeable that story is,” Mulaney stated “Just remember: that’s one I’m willing to tell you.”
But Mulaney is telling a lot during Baby J: “A Wide-Ranging Conversation,” rapidly and without having lost a beat or his wit post-rehab.
Kicking off early in the special with “I’ve had a weird couple of years; you’ve had a weird couple of years,” and a song (“You know what I mean, We all quarantined, We all went to rehab and we all got divorced and now our reputation is different, No one knows what to think”), Mulaney recounts his time in intervention (where he came two hours late after buying cocaine and getting a haircut) with this line: “Don’t believe the persona.”
Mulaney doesn’t glorify drugs or vilify rehab save to say that his friends’ intervention saved his life (and made him the party who has to pay for 12 dinners for the rest of his life). He doesn’t state that he is a better or clearer man now than he once was, even though he’s just a s sharp and rapier-fast as when Kid Gorgeous first hit Netflix. And have no doubt, as impromptu as Mulaney makes his Baby J stand-up sound (and it feels freshly conceived, down to the live interaction with a fifth grader in attendance during February’s Boston show recorded for Netflix), every beat and punch line of Baby J is honed to perfection – I caught Mulaney during his lengthy run at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia and fondly recall several of these jokes in their nascent birth stages. Making an intervention from comic giants such as Seth Myers, Fred Armisen, Nick Kroll and Bill Hader sound not like so much fun takes work and time. Reminding audiences that his best friend Pete Davidson was never behind Mulaney’s drug use a chore, as Davidson has tattoos. Stand-up comedy, sharpened to speed-driven perfection, takes time. And Mulaney is a diamond cutter with a delightful sense of language and rhythm (“My backpack is swinging side to side like an old lady’s bosoms when she jumps up and down on the Showcase Showdown” is sheer poetry) to go with its rapid, riveting pace.
Even when he closes Baby J, reciting from the GQ interview he gave while coked-up that gives this stand-up special its subtitle – using another man’s observations, along with his own – Mulaney never loses his footing, his face or his pace.
Baby J is masterful stand-up stuff that you’ll watch again and again, just as you have previous John Mulaney comedy specials such as Kid Gorgeous and its Mick Jagger impersonations. Only this time, John Mulaney is operating in a manageable human manner when the lights are off, and the streaming has dimmed.