More Culture:

April 26, 2023

John Mulaney discusses stint at Pennsylvania rehab in Netflix special 'Baby J'

The comedian shares the depths of his darker side after he relapsed, got divorced and had a kid with Olivia Munn in the span of a year

Over the past few years, John Mulaney took a fairly abrupt, sharp turn from being the darling of stand-up comedy to thrashing his way through a crisis that seemed at odds with the character his work had projected. 

In December 2020, in the throes of the pandemic, Mulaney's friends held an intervention to get him help after he had relapsed on a long list of drugs, in addition to alcohol. Mulaney, now 40, said he was addicted to cocaine, Adderall, Xanax, Klonopin and Percocet. It seemed like a far cry from the midwestern Catholic whose signature bits included musing on his French bulldog's itchy vulva. But from his earliest special "New in Town," Mulaney has referenced his past substance abuse and getting sober as a result of it in his 20s. To many of his fans, he probably gave the sense those days were behind him. 

In his new Netflix stand-up special, "Baby J," Mulaney pulls back the curtain on the life of addiction that landed him in a rehab facility somewhere in Pennsylvania. He doesn't say where, specifically, but the only landmarks he observed were the rehab center and an Outback Steakhouse. The rehab staff denied him a takeout meal because they suspected it could be a "dry-run" for Mulaney to generously tip the delivery driver in an effort to get him to bring drugs the next time around.

Mulaney starts the set with memories from his childhood, admitting that he craved attention "to a sick degree" and was willing to lie about the death of a grandparent to get it at school. He broke the ice with the audience at the Boston Symphony Orchestra by singing a little song about how his reputation had plummeted compared to other rising comics, like Bo Burnham, and finished with the declaration that "likability is a jail."

On the stage, it's hard not to like John Mulaney's command. Press coverage of his divorce from his ex-wife and his instant, splashy relationship with actress Olivia Munn, with whom he now has a child, was a bit jarring in the context of his emergence from rehab. Mulaney had a residency at Philly's Academy of Music at the Kimmel Cultural Campus less than a year later, and tickets were in such high demand that more dates were added. If his reputation has suffered, it isn't because anyone thinks he's lost his touch.

Some of the most entertaining parts of "Baby J" revolve around his experiences in rehab.

He tried to sneak drugs into the facility — already having gotten high on the ride there — and promptly had them confiscated from a coat pocket. When he had his first meeting with a doctor, he demanded the Klonopin he'd been prescribed for an anxiety disorder that may have been fueled by his other, eclectic drugs of choice.

"We are a rehab," the doctor told him. "I cannot give you a schedule II narcotic under Pennsylvania state law."

"Pennsylvania state law?" Mulaney shot back. "Well, what if we go to a pharmacy in New Jersey? You see, I thought he was telling me about a predicament that we were both caught up in."

The most unsettling part of Mulaney's two-month stay in rehab was not the lack of blow, he explained, but rather the blow to his ego.

"F***ing no one knew who I was, and it was driving me bananas," Mulaney said. He became so desperate to be recognized that he left a newspaper clipping about his relapse out for others to see. At group meetings, the other patients there were surprised to learn he made a living as a comedian. 

At the time of his admission, the country was still in the midst of COVID lockdowns. Mulaney lamented that it robbed him of the field trip experiences that the rehab normally offers its patients, including equine therapy at a nearby farm. He empathized with the poor horse whose goal might have been to compete in the Kentucky Derby, only to wind up getting pet by "junkies."

Mulaney was detoxing when the rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. He could have gone anywhere with that, but avoided a political tangent.

"It wouldn't have happened on my watch!" Mulaney said.

"Baby J" holds up with some of the best of Mulaney's work to date. It shows the darker side of his life, the seedy parts that built a sense of humor too twisted to have come from his more polished side alone. And while there must be deep wounds associated with all of the tumult, Mulaney relentlessly masks them with jokes that show a sense of gratitude for the hell he's been through.

It may be because he blames himself for the recklessness that sent him off the rails. And after hitting rock bottom, not caring what others think or say about him is liberating. It makes for good material and he knows it. 

"What is someone going to do me that's worse than what I would do to myself?" Mulaney asked the audience. "What, are you going to cancel John Mulaney? I'll kill him. I almost did."