John Mulaney is back with a ‘Wide Ranging Conversation’

Ava Carlson

Speaking to a packed audience in the Boston Symphony Hall, John Mulaney performs a stand-up set inspired by his time in rehab. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Five years after his last comedy special, John Mulaney is back to illuminate Netflix’s home page with “Baby J: A Wide Ranging Conversation.” The feature-length stand-up performance’s title is a pairing of a name he gave the cops as a teen in Chicago with the introduction of an interview with Gentlemen’s Quarterly he had no memory of giving. The combination of the two feels like a pretty good way to summarize Mulaney’s range of topics in “Baby J.”

Mulaney has had a difficult couple of years, according to both him and the tabloids. He sings in a surprising song and dance break towards the start of “Baby J,” pretending as if the audience had the same experience of the pandemic as he did: “We all quarantined! We all went to rehab and we all got divorced, and now our reputation is different!” The special spans anecdotes from most of his life, but spends the most of its runtime in one place: a rehab in Pennsylvania where Mulaney was sent after an emotionally grueling intervention held by his friends.

“Baby J” works because of Mulaney’s brutal honesty. The special is fundamentally based upon the premise that he had a serious drug problem, with addictions to what he jokingly calls the “Providence special”: “cocaine, Adderall, Xanax, Klonopin and Percocet.” Mulaney asks fans to understand that the version of him and his comedy that they have come to love is also one entangled with his substance abuse, and that his perspective and humor will now be explicitly informed by his survival of it. He’s in a position to provide valuable insight into the experience of addiction through his comedy, and he does so in a way that feels truthful to the mixed feelings he has about that period of his life.

Beyond his addictions to drugs, Mulaney also opens up about his lifelong addiction to attention, starting in elementary school. He recalls wishing one of his grandparents would die so he could receive the privileges afforded to grieving children, particularly a turn in the coveted bean bag chair. According to him, he’s spent most of the time he’s been alive obsessed with people’s opinions of him. He mocks the petulance and narcissism he didn’t realize he had until being stripped of public attention in rehab, where not one other patient recognized him. The Mulaney we see in “Baby J” is one who has come back from the brink of death due to substance abuse to proclaim likability to be a “jail.” In one standout moment towards the end of the show, he asks the audience, “What, are you going to cancel John Mulaney?” before adding, confidingly, “I’ll kill him. I almost did.”

Released five years after “Kid Gorgeous,” “Baby J: A Wide Ranging Conversation” is Mulaney’s fourth comedy special. (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Despite the more serious, seemingly brash perspective showcased above, “Baby J” still showcases an incredibly “likable” comedian, as Mulaney is able to comb through some of his worst moments from the rock bottom of his substance abuse with humility and still mine sparklingly entertaining comedy from his experiences. He manages to accomplish the difficult task of making that emotionally grueling intervention mentioned earlier truly hilarious, harping on the fact that he accidentally showed up two hours late to his own intervention and that, as it was during the pandemic, half of the friends gathered to help him were present over Zoom. At one point he’s able to weave in an entertaining Al Pacino impression through the lens of a phone conversation in rehab, and at another includes the comical process of “breaking up” with one’s drug dealer while in therapy.

This “Wide Ranging Conversation” is true to its name in traversing a wide range of themes (that do often veer towards the grim), but through Mulaney’s skill as a comedian, “Baby J” is consistently and genuinely funny, as well as a worthwhile watch that could inspire anyone struggling with unhealthy behaviors to remember that recovery is possible.