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Stream It Or Skip It: ‘John Mulaney: Baby J’ On Netflix, The Stand-Up Comedian’s Post-Rehab Return To Center Stage

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John Mulaney: Baby J

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This is John Mulaney‘s third stand-up special for Netflix, but his fifth special overall for the platform, including his Broadway two-hander with Nick Kroll (Oh, Hello) and his variety special for kids (Sack Lunch Bunch). Of course, a lot has changed in Mulaney’s life since last we saw him on Netflix, so will we see and hear a changed man before us? What a great question!


The Gist: Former Saturday Night Live writer John Mulaney hosted SNL for his fourth time on Halloween 2020. Seven weeks later, his friends staged an intervention. He went to rehab. He left his wife. He had a baby boy with Olivia Munn. Then he went back on tour. Mulaney called his 2021-2022 tour “From Scratch” and sold T-shirts at the merch table reading: “I saw him right after he got outta rehab.” He joined SNL’s Five-Timers Club on Feb. 26, 2022 (joking about his intervention in his monologue), and filmed this performance exactly a year later, Feb. 26, 2023, at Boston Symphony Hall.

What Comedy Specials Will It Remind You Of?: As post-rehab specials from all-time great stand-up comedians go, you might think, expect or hope for something rivaling Richard Pryor’s Live On The Sunset Strip concert film. Not quite. Mulaney does name-check Bo Burnham, but more for contrasting purposes.

Memorable Jokes: The 80-minute special opens with Mulaney already onstage, out of frame, telling us how much work he has put into self-improvement over the past two years, with the tacit acknowledgement: “I’ve realized that I’ll be fine as long as I get constant attention.”

For us, Mulaney centers our attention for 15 minutes on his comedy all-star intervention, another 40 minutes or so on his experiences with rehab, and a closing bit involving an impromptu interview he agreed to with GQ magazine over the phone just three days before his intervention. There are plenty of jokes made at his own expense throughout the special, along with observations that might make you ponder why you make any public transactions over Venmo, the actual purpose of baby-changing stations in public bathrooms, as well as sharing in the delight in making strangers think you’re getting talked off the ledge by legendary actor Al Pacino.

John Mulaney: Baby J
Photo: Netflix

Our Take: Mulaney had become an arena act by the time I saw him perform much of this material almost a year ago, at Netflix’s festival in Los Angeles at The Forum. That he chose to film at Boston Symphony Hall (capacity: 2,625) suggests he preferred revealing the details about his rock bottom in a more intimate setting. He even tells us: “I didn’t want to come out all phony, you know?”

But what if he’s been a phony all along? Mulaney jokingly launches into a song-and-dance about how the kids much prefer Bo Burnham, and chooses a Burnham-esque observation about how “likability is a jail” to cement his point. Comedians thrive on exaggerating or outright making up tall tales to keep audiences from discerning how they really feel (at least they did much more successfully in the time before podcasting), and even a performer as confessional as Burnham still keeps his fans at a distance from certain aspects of his personal life. To the point where some tried connecting the dots between his Inside shack to his then-girlfriend’s house, and where paparazzi connected him more recently to singer Phoebe Bridgers.

All of which is to say whatever we think we know about Mulaney’s offstage life is only what we think we know, or what we want to know. So when he tells us near the end of the special after a story of the lengths he went to buy street drugs, “just remember, that’s one I’m willing to tell you,” trust there are plenty of stories he could share that might never make you laugh, or look at him the same way again.

In fact, though, some truths hid in plain sight. When Mulaney asks us,“Do you know how hard it is for a doctor to write you a prescription for a pill you don’t need?” he’d already answered this question for us almost a dozen years ago in his first special for Comedy Central, New In Town, where his pursuit for Xanax led him into receiving a prostate exam.

Similarly, Mulaney’s tales of drinking, drugging and delinquency at 13 with his two best friends, also named John (inspiring the origin story for Baby J) put a new light on one of the comedian’s earliest breakout bits, in which they played “What’s New, Pussycat?” on repeat on a jukebox diner. They were just mischievous kids back then.

Now Mulaney has a child of his own. He made a point repeatedly on this tour (and in the Netflix taping, too) to single out a kid around the same age he was when he began drinking and drugging. The moment serves to remind us that Mulaney once seemed a family-friendly act, particularly having made an entire special for his “Sack Lunch Bunch.” But in this moment, his ad-hoc attempt at a PSA for the fifth-grader in the audience amounts to “I never say this explicitly, but don’t.”

That joke near the end, though, where he claims to not care what people think about him, and laughs off the idea of cancel culture, since society cannot hurt him nearly as worse as he ever hurt himself, that stands in contradiction to his opening thesis. No matter how much work he has put into himself post-rehab, he’s still that guy craving attention. And he still knows exactly how to keep his focused on the parts of himself he wants us to see.

Mulaney’s magic act remains using turns of phrase as his sleight of hand. He’s just now a much creepier magician.

Our Call: STREAM IT. In recovery meetings, speakers share what life was like for them in their addiction, what happened, and what it’s like now. We get two-thirds of the story from Mulaney, but he’s still holding back on us. Whether he’s doing that for his benefit or for ours, we may never know. But he’s still a gifted and often hilarious storyteller. No matter what story he’s selling us.

Sean L. McCarthy works the comedy beat for his own digital newspaper, The Comic’s Comic; before that, for actual newspapers. Based in NYC but will travel anywhere for the scoop: Ice cream or news. He also tweets @thecomicscomic and podcasts half-hour episodes with comedians revealing origin stories: The Comic’s Comic Presents Last Things First.