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Comedian John Mulaney stands on stage with a maroon background complementing his red suit in a mid shot as he holds a mic to his face with a hand out in front of him in the Netflix special Baby J. Photo: Marcus Russel Price/Netflix

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John Mulaney’s Baby J takes parasocial relationships to rehab

The things that the comedian doesn’t joke about are as illuminating as what he does

John Mulaney knows exactly who his fans are. It’s why one of the funnier bits in Baby J, his new Netflix special, comes when he’s in an environment where people don’t know who he is. Mulaney, who thought he’d be chill about this, suddenly discovers he’s quite vain, going so far as to leave newspaper articles about him conspicuously displayed, so they might put together that he’s kind of a big deal.

Shortly thereafter, he shares an anecdote about a friend, Lenny, who asks him what he does for a living, and when he tells Lenny he’s a comedian, Lenny’s shocked that Mulaney can make a living that way.

“Yeah, ask your daughter,” Mulaney retorts with mock petulance. “Or your son if he’s not into sports.”

Also, all this happened in rehab.

Much like Chris Rock’s Selective Outrage, Baby J, Mulaney’s new Netflix comedy special, arrives after a particularly tumultuous series of events for the performer. Unfortunately for Mulaney, his public travails were arguably a bit worse than getting slapped by Will Smith. Across a whirlwind nine months through the end of 2020 and into 2021, Mulaney became a minor tabloid sensation as he checked into rehab, got divorced, started seeing actor Olivia Munn, and had a child.

The reason his troubles became gossip fodder is simple for those who’ve followed Mulaney’s comedy for any number of years. John Mulaney has built a career making jokes under a comedic persona that is decidedly not a divorceé with a drug problem. With a twinkly confessional style, Mulaney delivered years’ worth of gags about his hopelessly straight-laced demeanor, wearing smart suits as he delivered bon mots about being comedy’s foremost Wife Guy who also happened to look like three toddlers in a waistcoat, manically rattling off expertly-crafted stories about what it’s like to be in your 30s and look like Brooks Brothers Peter Pan.

Baby J is partly about Mulaney’s suddenly-public struggle with addiction, the result of two years of workshopped material about his stint in rehab and the intervention that got him there. As much as he stresses his “kind of a different vibe now,” the special is vintage Mulaney: casually rehearsed, self-deprecating, sharp stuff that uses sobriety’s distance to laugh at the darkness of addiction. One gets the sense that it’s part of Mulaney’s healing process, a rebuilt comedic persona: Still the same person, kind of. Like many sober people, Mulaney acknowledges on stage that the person who tried to harm him is still there, every day. He’s accepted that, and gone on to tell jokes anyway.

A wide shot of comedian John Mulaney as he walks stage right against an orange background in a red suit in his Netflix special Baby J. Photo: Marcus Russel Price/Netflix

But Baby J is also doing another kind of rehabilitation.

Mulaney’s aw-shucks grown toddler schtick wasn’t just a creation of his standup. Celebrity is a collaboration between artist and audience — Mulaney’s comedy suggested a persona, and popular reception reinforced it. In this, Mulaney’s relatability became a trap. The version of John Mulaney that existed on stage was a non-threatening, anxious Irish-Catholic liberal arts major, a collection of traits that has a lot of overlap in the media industry, yes, but also resonated with a very particular kind of (white) fan. Like Mulaney tells Lenny in rehab: Daughters and sons who are not into sports.

This is why his stint in rehab and divorce was accompanied by a rash of essays about parasocial relationships, as a man who was arguably too successful at being relatable caused a cognitive break in the fandom he cultivated.

Reviews of Baby J note how the comedian’s polished demeanor undermines the vulnerability of the material. Viewers in the know will note what Mulaney doesn’t talk about: His divorce, new partner, and child. The old Mulaney likely would have — drug addiction wasn’t the reason he overshared; he opens the set with an extended tirade about how much he’s always liked attention. The omission of his life as it is now is perhaps the biggest indication of how the new Mulaney differs from the pre-rehab phase of his career: It’s a Mulaney that, perhaps, has found a newfound interest in boundaries.

John Mulaney knows his audience. Maybe he’s decided it’s time to share a bit less with them.

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