In John Mulaney’s own words, likability is a jail.
The comedian’s latest standup special “Baby J,” directed by Alex Timbers and executive produced by Timbers and Mulaney, spends over an hour ensconcing viewers in Mulaney’s familiar humor and rhythm, but takes a difficult look inward at his immense fame and the very-public turbulence in his personal life since the pandemic.
Mulaney is not the first celebrity to fall off a pedestal nor will he be the last. The internet era lends itself to microscopic levels of scrutiny for public figures, from politicians to comedians to influencers. In just a few years — as he notes in his opening, sing-song style — Mulaney got divorced, went to rehab, and became a father. As each of these events came to light, his loyal online fan base was made increasingly aware of something that had always been true: We don’t really know celebrities.
Watching anyone experience so many major life changes in a short interval of time can be jarring to an outsider, and confusing to process when that person is in fact a stranger. Mulaney has been described as an “internet boyfriend”: a non-problematic, charming male figure whose work or appearances give the illusion that his audience knows him. It’s exponentially easier with Mulaney because his work is often autobiographical, but “Baby J” is a definitive wakeup for anyone who hadn’t already made the leap to imagining him complexly — “Don’t believe the persona,” he warns during the special.
The “Baby J” Netflix special doesn’t offer any new revelations — Mulaney has been touring the act for over a year and publicly acknowledged the addiction on television — but it’s a reminder of the perils of putting anyone in such an inherently difficult position. Public figures can act however they see fit, but there is always the risk of widespread perception and judgment. Some celebrities keep their relationships quiet in order to protect their privacy and their partners. Some abstain from social media, whether it’s because they want to avoid trolls or don’t want old posts resurfaced without warning.
But as disclosures about a celebrity’s private life grow more insidious, adoring them also becomes more dangerous. Part of Mulaney’s appeal was being an adoring husband, talking about his wife and dog on stage. Fans felt betrayed when that was no longer the case, changing not only Mulaney’s status but the jokes and stories that endeared him to them in the first place. His comedic material and suited-up stage persona gave the impression of a squeaky-clean former dork who believed in ghosts; even though he spoke openly about his past with drugs and alcohol, the rehab news shook his fan base, which maybe says more about the audience than the man in front of them. The ongoing news about Jonathan Majors shows how quickly and nastily the relationship with an internet boyfriend can sour, and why we maybe shouldn’t have them in the first place. Idolizing a celebrity is irresistible, but implicitly precarious.
All things considered, Mulaney’s path — challenging though it was, and he makes that clear — feels like a victory. He lays his struggles as bare as he can, noting more than once what it means for him to be sharing anything in the first place (the implication being that what he keeps to himself is all darkness, no humor). He laughs at himself and the situations that addiction put him in, from turning an innocent man into a drug dealer to trying to sell a brand-new watch to missing five calls from “Al Pacino” (one of many Pete Davidson aliases).
I first caught most of this material at one of Mulaney’s sold-out Madison Square Garden shows in the spring of 2022, where I had two key takeaways: that I was going to be sore from laughing by morning, and that this man has been through it. “Baby J” is 80 minutes of gut-busting catharsis that manages to never diminish how serious these events were — underscoring Mulaney’s gratitude, not just to be on stage performing some of his best material to date, but to be alive at all.
The new Mulaney guards himself differently. He deploys a few effective and expected celebrity names when talking about the friends at his intervention (Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, Nick Kroll), but doesn’t reveal the rest (or milk the secrecy). There is one mention of his son and none of partner Olivia Munn, which might be a hard-won lesson after watching fans mourn his marriage from the outside. But the “old” Mulaney shows up where it matters: in the performance. He still traverses the stage and does old-timey voices, but with focused energy and measured calm. He still knows the value in being able to be the butt of a joke, and that superpower along with his timing are as sharp as ever. “Baby J” will charm new and old fans — while never letting them lose sight of the flawed, fallible human being at its center.
“John Mulaney: Baby J” is now streaming on Netflix.