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The Dartmouth
March 2, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Review: ‘John Mulaney: Baby J’ marks John Mulaney’s rebirth

Mulaney returns with a new Netflix special that explores his controversial past and time at rehab.

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John Mulaney takes the stage with a veteran’s grace tinged with his signature awkwardness. He begins: His siblings insist he is adopted. At age three, this confusing (and untrue) information sends young John Mulaney into a convoluted thought process involving his imaginary, dead birth mother, Miss America and the Statue of Liberty.

In another amusing retelling, Mulaney prays that one of his grandparents, ideally one of the “irrelevant ones,” will die so that his elementary school-aged self can get special classroom treatment.

These are the opening stories of John Mulaney’s third Netflix comedy special, “John Mulaney: Baby J,” which premiered on April 25 and marked his first special since his Emmy award-winning “Kid Gorgeous at Radio City” (2018). 

In 2018, Mulaney had made his mark in the comedy world as an awkward middle-aged man with a relatively ordinary life but who could tell killer stories. This is precisely what Mulaney accomplishes yet again with his first two anecdotes, which send the audience into hysterics.

Then Mulaney calls out to an audience member, whose name is Henry. Henry is just 11-years-old and becomes a critical part of the remainder of his monologue.

“The things that I talk about tonight that I did recently … don’t,” Mulaney says to Henry. 

Mulaney goes on to recount the story of his journey with drug addiction, filled with his  trademark self-deprecating humor with some moments of genuine insight into the lasting effects of substance abuse. “Baby J” introduces us to a new John Mulaney, whose experiences may have changed him, but who remains committed to delivering hilarious — and slightly raunchy — comedy. 

Mulaney took a long hiatus since his last special, making the anticipation considerable for “Baby J.” I kept up with Mulaney during the tabloid buzz: I watched his pre-intervention Halloween “Saturday Night Live” show, interviews on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” and the subsequent post-rehab “Saturday Night Live.” Ironically, being a fan of his that kept tabs on him over the last few years hurt my opinion of this special. Mulaney reused a lot of material. And the stories he recycled were verbatim with the same pauses in cadence, making me question whether I had seen this special before. 

Aside from his reused jokes, this was a different form of Mulaney. As he said in a singsong manner: His reputation is incredibly different. Mulaney made his name as the awkward mid-thirty-year-old comedian who was happily married to his wife and vehemently anti-kids, but a proud dog-dad to his French bulldog Petunia. He has since transformed into someone who was addicted to numerous drugs, went to rehab twice, split from his wife and welcomed a baby with actress Olivia Munn.

Mulaney’s special truly begins with his intervention, which took place at what was supposed to be a dinner with a college friend. He came to find a room filled with six of his friends in New York and six others on Zoom in Los Angeles. Mulaney emphasized that his drug problem was so severe that the second he saw his friends, he knew it was an intervention. In true Mulaney fashion, he accused the LA friends of not caring enough because they did not fly out for the intervention (all of this happened during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic). He then employed some classic double voicing to imitate Fred Armisen and Seth Meyers, who were in attendance. He also remarks how uncomfortable it was for him that his comedian friends were not doing skits with him— they all made a pact to be serious throughout the intervention. His delivery for this section was impeccable, likely because almost none of this content was new.

Mulaney later jumps to stories about his time in rehab, and we finally get new content. He shares an anecdote in which Pete Davidson was saved as “Al Pacino” in his iPhone contacts, resulting in his supervising nurse waking him up to answer his call, despite Mulaney finally being asleep after being awake for an ungodly amount of time. 

However, we then hear the January 6 insurrection joke that was in both his “Saturday Night Live” monologue and “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” with Mulaney claiming that it wouldn’t have happened if he’d been around to stop it. 

The special closes with an awkward transition to a GQ interview he did almost immediately preceding his intervention. John was handed a physical copy of the interview and a mic stand, making the physical transition clunky. He read through parts of the interview, double-voicing himself under the influence of drugs — paranoid about Fruit Loops and ghouls ­— and praising the endless patience of the GQ interviewer. 

One of my favorite things about Mulaney's stand-up is how he often revisits previous jokes throughout his monologues. The end of the special should have arrived back to 11-year old Henry, not a recap of a GQ interview.

Despite the offsetting conclusion of the special, fortunately, Mulaney does revisit jokes elsewhere in the special. For example, he refers to baby changing stations as a “surface” in the eyes of a cocaine user. Much later in the monologue, he recounted a scene where he had to change his son Malcolm, and the audience was already laughing in anticipation of what Mulaney would say. 

This special managed to be personal, despite being in front of 2,600 audience members. Mulaney said, “Please don't repeat this,” and then shared a story about the disappointment he felt when he realized no one at rehab knew who he was. Conversely, there were moments when Mulaney held back saying, “Remember, that's one I'm willing to tell you.” The special felt both intimate and exposing, engaging the audience like they were hearing a secret but keeping them on their toes with the uncertainty of untold stories. 

“Baby J” was a new Mulaney. It was more complex. The topics were more difficult to paint in a humorous light, but he did it. It was hindered by the presence of several reused jokes, but that did not plague his overall performance. He danced effortlessly around contentious parts of his past few years and landed killer stories about his addiction. He addressed his desire for attention but also explained that he doesn't solely rely on the praise of others — people cannot do worse to him than he has already done to himself, as he almost killed himself with his drug use. 

This is John Mulaney now: post-divorce, post-addiction, post-Olivia Munn scandal and new father of son Malcolm. His jokes are even more uncomfortable, but his delivery is still on point. 

“We all went to rehab, and we all got divorced and now our reputation is different.”

Rating: ★★★★☆