Much has changed since John Mulaney was last onstage in a Netflix stand-up special. The comedian has weathered a much-publicized pandemic roller coaster—drug relapse, recovery, divorce, a new romance, and the birth of his first child—and emerged, after two years spent workshopping material about this epic trajectory, with a new persona.
“I have kind of a different vibe now,” Mulaney tells the audience of Baby J, the Netflix special that debuted Tuesday, as he salutes the dramatic recent end of his “nice guy” era. Over 80 minutes, Mulaney walks a self-deprecating tightrope—depicting himself at the depth of his addiction as a drug-motivated con artist who stole from himself, hit up New York’s shadiest doctors for prescriptions, and showed up late to his own intervention. But he does so with such sharp punch lines and delivery that the material does not feel oppressively somber.
After finessing his new comedy during a tour, Mulaney reunited with Tony-winning Broadway director Alex Timbers (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Beetlejuice, and Moulin Rouge! The Musical) to create a Netflix special that would introduce Mulaney 2.0 to mass audiences. Timbers, whom Mulaney has called the Fosse to his Liza Minnelli, previously directed Mulaney in his 2016 stage show with Nick Kroll, Oh, Hello, and Mulaney’s 2018 Netflix special, Kid Gorgeous at Radio City. That Netflix special opened with an elaborate sequence that found Mulaney backstage at the famed New York theater, tracking the comedian as he walked onstage and was greeted with applause from the over 6,000 people in his audience.
This time around, to suit the more intimate material and Mulaney’s new “vibe,” Mulaney chose a smaller venue—Boston’s stunning Symphony Hall, which accommodates about 2,600 audience members. Underneath coffered ceilings and an imposing wall of Greek and Roman statues, the stage sits closer to the audience—an intimacy that Timbers and his DP Cameron Barnett amplified for at-home viewers by using steadicams onstage to capture Mulaney at a much closer distance than was captured in Kid Gorgeous.
Mulaney also opted to forgo a traditional opening. Instead, the special begins with a black screen as the comedian is overheard telling the audience, “The past couple years, I’ve done a lot of work on myself.” Baby J cuts to a tight shot of Symphony Hall’s stage, and Mulaney backs into the frame as he continues: “I’ve realized that I’ll be fine, as long as I get a lot of attention.” The camera then spins around to show Mulaney’s POV, looking out into the audience, and getting said attention.
“John wanted to get right into the material,” explains Timbers in a phone call with VF. “Because there’s such an urgency and intimacy, it felt like diving right into the show was the right choice.”
The special was culled from footage taken during three sold-out stand-up shows performed during two days in Boston this past February. Ultimately, Timbers says, he and the comedian reordered the show in the edit room so that Mulaney was beginning Baby J with softer lead-up material, about wanting attention so much as a child that he secretly hoped a grandparent—“one of the unimportant ones”—would die. (Though grim, the bit is a throwback to Mulaney’s earlier comedy about his childhood.)
Onstage, Mulaney acknowledges, “I apologize for starting the show on such a dark note. But I didn’t want to start too upbeat.” He then breaks into jokey song and dance, imagining what that upbeat version of the opening would’ve been: “We all went to rehab, and we all got divorced, and now our reputation is different.”
One mood-lightener in the first minutes was unexpected—Mulaney spotted an 11-year-old fifth-grader named Henry in the balcony of one of his performances. After a playful back-and-forth about what Mulaney was about to discuss, he told Henry, “Don’t.” It takes 10 minutes before Mulaney finally winds up to discuss his intervention, teasing, “Here’s what happened.” Baby J then cuts to opening credits before the special returns to Mulaney onstage, beginning the special’s centerpiece.