Who Should John Mulaney Be Now?

Illustration: André Carrilho

John Mulaney walked onto the stage at City Winery in New York wearing a long-sleeved, striped polo shirt and jeans, a notable departure from the suit viewers have grown accustomed to seeing him in. He was heavier. He looked healthier. Throughout his hourlong set Monday night, his appearance served as a reminder that he, like all of us, is coming out of the pandemic differently than he went in.

Mulaney has had an incredibly difficult year. We knew that he had checked himself into a Pennsylvania rehab facility in mid-December for a 60-day treatment to address his addiction to alcohol and cocaine, and that he and his wife of seven years, Anna Marie Tendler, were on the verge of divorcing; the latter news was confirmed the day of his first City Winery show. On Monday night, Mulaney opened up in ways no one had been expecting. He read aloud from a GQ interview he had no recollection of participating in, and he recapped how, after an initial stint in rehab in September, he relapsed after hosting SNL in late October, then began an unexpected stint as a writer-performer on Late Night With Seth Meyers the following month, to try to impose some structure on his life. In December, his friends staged an intervention that led to his second, publicized rehab stint, which lasted through late February. By the time of his first City Winery show, he told the audience, he was 141 days sober. At which point, we all clapped.

Stand-up is weird, as artforms go, because you have to write in front of people. I’ve interviewed around 150 comedians, and all of them write in some capacity onstage, including Mulaney. It’s one thing when you’re making a joke about airplanes; I cannot imagine what it’s like when you’re talking about something actually difficult. Chris Rock finalized his divorce in the summer of 2016, and I saw him begin to talk about it that fall. It didn’t go well that night; Rock’s process involves intentionally bombing early on, so that the laughs don’t interfere with his read on how the audience feels about certain topics. Stand-ups need the audience to know what’s funny, what’s interesting, what they think. In exchange for their vulnerability, they get connection.

Mulaney’s show wasn’t a show. Candid, loose, sometimes hard to watch, sometimes so funny it made the audience convulse in laughter, it was a writing session. He was doing all-new material, not attempting to work in any of the jokes he was building in outdoor shows before rehab. It was raw, both in its frankness and in the complete lack of polish that we typically associate with Mulaney’s work. It was fascinating to see him try to figure out how to apply his stylistic signatures to more intensely personal subject matter. A lot of Mulaney’s classic jokes hinge on taking not very serious things very seriously — he is a master of faux exasperation — but it is a challenge when the subject matter is, in fact, quite serious. How social anxiety has contributed to his drug use is not something one can easily be flippant about. Pettiness, which has always been in his act in small doses, came to the forefront. He spent a large portion of the set complaining about his intervention, organized by his college friends and his celebrity friends. How dare they trick him into thinking he was getting dinner? Why, in a room of the 12 funniest people he knows, was no one being funny? 

All of this was delivered with his usual, self-aware humor. But Mulaney has never had an issue being funny. The longest road ahead for Mulaney is not how to talk about his recovery onstage, but who to talk about it as. It is impossible to reconcile this material with Mulaney’s “aw shucks” Jimmy Stewart persona. It’s a persona partly defined by a joke in his debut special, 2012’s New in Town: “I don’t drink. I used to drink, then I drank too much, and I had to stop. That surprises a lot of audiences, because I don’t look like someone who used to do anything.” On Monday, he surprised audiences by revealing that not only did he used to be reliant on drugs to get through each day, but part of him still desperately wants to continue to use. He uncomfortably laughed to himself a lot after jokes didn’t get the exact reaction he expected, as if to say, This isn’t what it usually feels like for me to do stand-up. 

Comedy has a long tradition of people leaving, quitting, or taking time off around the age of 40, only to come back a more grown-up, bold, adult artist — Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Dave Chappelle, Maria Bamford. Hannah Gadsby figured out how to combine quitting and evolving in one show with Nanette. By the time this material is filmed, you’ll see less a new and improved John Mulaney, but an older, more mature one. You know how when a caterpillar is turning into a butterfly, their entire body decomposes before recomposing, so if you were to cut the chrysalis open in the middle, it would be just gross goo? Last night was like that goo. With most of the material, Mulaney didn’t come off particularly well; he knew that, and leaned into it. The most exhilarating moments were when he would make fun of the tone of overwhelming support he got when the news of his drug addiction first came out. He would reveal something shitty he did to his friends and quickly remind the audience, “It’s a disease.” When comedians get really famous, their shortcomings become the subject of public scrutiny. But it’s also an opportunity. The comedian then has a chance to contrast public perception. The greatest example of this in the history of comedy is Richard Pryor telling the story of setting himself on fire while freebasing. Mulaney is clearly working in this tradition.

Some audience members didn’t know exactly what to make of a lot of this. One person, towards the end, said they wanted to hear more about what college was like, as if to say, “Remember how much fun you used to be, John?” (He went into an extended riff about the D.C. Sniper.) This was not the worst thing someone shouted out. Some felt the need to “woo!” when Mulaney listed prescription drugs he abused. When he said his relationship with audiences is the longest lasting, most intimate one of his life, many began to clap. He cringed and asked them to stop — he hadn’t meant it was a good thing. The tension underscored the inherent conflict of what the comedian and audience wants out of night like this, and the difficulty of an established comedian trying out a new identity in public, hoping audiences will meet you where you are.

It reminds me of a quote from Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? “Most people live their entire lives with their clothes on, and even if they wanted to, couldn’t take them off,” she writes. “Then there are those who cannot put them on. They are the ones who live their lives not just as people but as examples of people. They are destined to expose every part of themselves, so the rest of us can know what it means to be a human.” Mulaney is trying to create material that is both funny and says something about addiction, public perception, truth, fame, being a good guy, and how a person should be. He is working toward something great, but, for right now, he’s just working.

Who Should John Mulaney Be Now?