If you’ve ever seen a John Mulaney stand-up performance, you know going into his latest Netflix special, Kid Gorgeous, that the title is self-deprecating. But if you didn’t already know that, you’ll figure it out by the fourth or fifth time that Mulaney mentions his age, 35, and then rolls into his next joke in a prematurely aged voice — an alternately distressed and baffled nasal moan which suggests that, much like his Oh, Hello character George St. Geegland, Mulaney is already 75, or is ready to be.
Halfway through the special, he confirms that suspicion by telling us there’s an age between young and old known as “gross,” and that he has recently begun turning gross, exhibiting a mysterious sweatiness around his tailbone and sprouting weird hairs that prompted his wife to begin absentmindedly sing-songing the phrase “monkey, monkey, monkey man” as she gave him a shoulder rub. At his most anxiety-ridden, Mulaney speaks in a strangled, papery quaver that evokes impersonations of Katherine Hepburn as an old woman (“Norman, you old poop!”). A lot of his complaints about modern life are the kind of thing you’d expect to hear from somebody like Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David, comedians in their 60s who have clung defiantly to a 20th-century mindset. The incongruity of Mulaney’s relative youth and the long, white beard on his mentality is the source of a lot of his best stuff. It’s fun to pinpoint the nexus of a comedian’s obsession, and he’s showing it to us here, which is why Kid Gorgeous might later be seen as a milestone in his artistic development. It’s the special where he tells us what his Rosebud is, often adopting a weathered voice and hunched-over old man posture reminiscent of Mr. Bernstein delivering his monologue about the girl on the ferry in Citizen Kane.
The opening of Kid Gorgeous, which finds Mulaney being led to the stage of Radio City Music Hall by a silent older woman who could be a ghost out of The Shining, retroactively reveals itself as a premonition of comic material to come — a ghost of an immediate comedy future. Age, mortality, and physical decline prove important here, as do childhood memories that keep centering, weirdly and hilariously, on the possibilities of random violence and ghosts haunting the living. (“Ya ever seen a ghost?” Mulaney asks his mother at random, while they’re sitting on a couch “eating Triscuits in silence.”)
This is not to say that Mulaney thinks we’re all actually at constant risk of random extermination. He gently mocks the idea; that’s the whole point of his fixating on it. But the fear is there, it’s pervasive, and it’s instilled in us from childhood. One of the high points of the special sees Mulaney recalling regular elementary school visits by a detective named J.J. Bittenbinder, who had a handlebar mustache and filled schoolchildren with terror at the prospect of being randomly kidnapped and murdered. Some of his language in the Bittenbinder segment, and in the rest of the special as well, is almost Dickensian in its 19th-century literary ornateness. “He was a man most acquainted with misery,” Mulaney says. “He could look at a child and guess the price of their coffin.” The audience laughs uncomfortably — it sounds as if there are some murmurs of disapproval mixed in — and he admits, “That line never gets a laugh, but once you write it, it stays in the act forever.”
Mulaney’s college years are barely a decade in his past, but he talks about them as if they happened a century ago, expressing disgust at having spent so much money on his education (as an English major, “a language I already speak!”), laughing through his outrage at being asked for more money by alumni fundraisers, and describing the totality of college as “a four-year game show called Do My Friends Hate Me, Or Do I Just Need to Go to Sleep?” There’s a long section about what people used to do for entertainment before cell phones (they went to the docks to wave at ships, apparently), and a marvelous bit about how telephones used to work that seems purposefully based on wrong information, or perhaps on the musings of a very small child whose only point of reference is stories told by a grandparent with memory problems. When he works up a rhetorical head of steam, his accent turns old-timey. At one point, he addresses the viewer as “ye,” as if he’s a witch casting a spell on Game of Thrones.
I don’t believe I’ve ever said this about a comedian before, but I can’t wait for him to actually get as old as his Oh, Hello persona. I’m actively rooting for it. Mulaney with white hair, liver spots, and some sort of mild periodontal disease will be pure comedy gold.