Yes, The Comeback Kid is back. After a highly watched hiatus from comedy — one that included a two-month stint in rehab for addiction to cocaine and alcohol, a very public divorce from artist Anna Marie Tendler, and a child with actress Olivia Munn — John Mulaney has returned to the standup stage with his latest Netflix special, Baby J. Forged from the fires of his From Scratch tour, which first kicked off in 2021, Baby J deconstructs the bubbly versions of Mulaney's past and exposes the darker, more unsavory parts of his psyche in an intelligent way.
Gone is the spry young guy who jokes about his continued sobriety. In his place stands a visibly aged man poking fun at the celebrity of his life-saving and "star-studded" intervention, an event that featured the likes of Nick Kroll and Seth Meyers, among other well-known standups.
"All comedians yet no one said a funny thing the entire night," says Mulaney of the guest list. "Before I got there, they'd promised each other that they wouldn't do bits. I was going psychotic. I am sitting there in an awful chair, crashing from cocaine. No one will let me go to the bathroom to freshen up, and the funniest people in the world are staring at me, refusing to do jokes. It was maddening!"
And so continues the positively reviewed special. Expertly careening from joke to joke, Mulaney recounts the intricacies of his post-intervention friendships, his time in rehab, and his altered reputation among fans unsure how to treat the man who once made his love for his now ex-wife a cornerstone of his comedy.
But whether Mulaney succeeds at cracking open his polished persona — one best known for jokes about horses in hospitals and charming Bill Clinton anecdotes — appears up for debate. Sure, the man has a self-admitted obsession with likeability, so much so that even feigning a conceit of unvarnished introspection feels like a departure from his usual style, but did he actually pull it off?
For Lili Loofbourow, the television critic for The Washington Post, Baby J was "terrific," but it was not the "warts-and-all" special she was anticipating. "The show in its current iteration is extremely funny, but traces remain of a version that dug a little deeper," i.e. the one with which he toured.
For Esquire's Abigail Covington, who agrees that Baby J falls short in areas of reflection, the special is "simply an hour's worth of jokes and stories about Mulaney's desperate addiction to cocaine, Adderall, Xanax, Klonopin, and Percocet — or as he refers to it in a smart Boston-friendly joke, 'a Providence special.'" (The project was filmed inside the city's Symphony Hall.) There are pockets of great material, she concedes, but it's clear the comic's "self-awareness may only be skin-deep right now." Indeed, "small, promising flashes of insight," like those related to his "need to be liked and his obsession with attention," prove he's "capable of more and better material. He just needs to keep learning about himself."
IndieWire's Proma Khosla reads things a bit differently. Not only is Baby J "80 minutes of gut-busting catharsis," it also sees Mulaney lay "his struggles as bare as he can, noting more than once what it means for him to be sharing anything in the first place." For years, the comedian has been framed as a "nonproblematic, charming figure," but this new show is surely a "definitive wakeup for anyone who hadn't already made the leap to imagining him complexly." In Mulaney's own words: "Likability is a jail."
To The Atlantic's David Sims, it's apparent the comic is trying throughout the special to underscore his asshole tendencies, something he must work extra hard at seeing as he remains "an incredibly winning and relatable figure onstage." In the end, though, reputation has little place here. "Nice guy or no, Mulaney will remain appointment viewing whenever he decides to open up next."
In a similarly positive review for The New York Times, Jason Zinoman describes the Saturday Night Live alum's material as "spikier, pricklier, sometimes slower while remaining as funny as ever, like he's a pitcher who learned to mix up speeds," before soon alluding to the same guiding truth as Khosla. As it turns out, "we, the audience, can be naïve about our entertainers."
Moreover, we can be disrespectful, even dismissive, of those entertainers when they try to mount a comeback. Watching Baby J, "it's hard not to think of the famous women whose public breakdowns no one has let them forget, especially those raised into adolescent stardom," says Izzy Ampil in The Daily Beast. While Mulaney benefits from a certain race, class, and gender advantage, allowing him to rely on the "potent dramatic irony" of calling himself a "junkie" while still existing "at a safe remove" from the conditions the word calls to mind, many other high-profile women (take Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears, for example) weren't afforded the same degree of privacy or safety when their personal lives took a turn.
Mulaney gets to "stage a successful comeback because he is exactly the kind of celebrity to whom audiences are most likely to extend forgiveness: a mild-mannered rich white guy, well-groomed and seemingly trustworthy." Of course, he's "also a gifted comedian," she says, but "in some ways, that hardly seems to matter."