John Mulaney's 'Baby J' turns the spotlight on himself : Pop Culture Happy Hour John Mulaney wants to talk about drugs. In his latest Netflix comedy special, Baby J, he recounts the intervention in late 2020 that sent him to rehab. He talks about his resistance to giving up cocaine, his schemes to avoid sobriety, and how it feels to have your star-studded friends tell you how worried they are over Zoom.

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John Mulaney wants to talk about drugs. In his new Netflix special "Baby J," he recounts the intervention in late 2020 that sent him to rehab. He talks about his resistance to giving up cocaine and a variety of pills, his schemes to avoid sobriety and how it feels to have your friends tell you how worried they are over Zoom. I'm Linda Holmes, and today we're talking about John Mulaney's "Baby J" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.


HOLMES: Joining me today is NPR contributor Cyrena Touros. Welcome back, Cyrena.


HOLMES: And also with us is Ronald Young Jr. He's the host of the film and television review podcast "Leaving The Theater." Hi, Ronald. Welcome back.

RONALD YOUNG JR: Hi, Linda - glad to be here.

HOLMES: John Mulaney has done several specials for Netflix before "Baby J," including the variety special "John Mulaney And The Sack Lunch Bunch." He sometimes talked about having given up drinking, and he had given audiences glimpses of his life with his then-wife and their dog. In late 2020, he checked into rehab. And in May of 2021, he confirmed reports that he and his wife had split up. Shortly thereafter, he also confirmed that he was in a new relationship with actress Olivia Munn and that they were expecting a baby. Their son was born in November 2021.

The special, "Baby J," out on Netflix now, barely touches on Mulaney's personal life, but it does acknowledge that his image was affected by all these events that landed him in gossip coverage for pretty much the first time. Mostly, though, it is about rehab. He talks in detail about an intervention that was full of very serious-faced comedians. He tracks his rocky experiences in rehab trying to get off of cocaine and pills. And he even goes back to his days as a very young drinker.

Ronald, I want to know what you thought about "Baby J."

YOUNG: So before I watched "Baby J," I went back and watched "New In Town."

HOLMES: "New In Town" is 2012, right?

YOUNG: 2012.


YOUNG: Yeah. As a big fan of John Mulaney, I love "New In Town." I love "The Comeback Kid." I love "Kid Gorgeous." So I just wanted to get reacquainted with John Mulaney as I knew him, you know, and I also knew from his "SNL" days as well. So I finished "New In Town" - still hits, still a lot of jokes I love in there. And I start "Baby J," and I remember that the start of the show was a little jarring for me because it kind of starts, like, kind of like an epic tale just in the middle. We're just in the middle of a comedy special, and he's kind of going. As it started, I remember thinking, oh, I don't know if I like this already. This feels different from what he normally does. I don't feel the same rhythm. And then at one point, he breaks into song.


JOHN MULANEY: (Vocalizing). (Singing) Hey, Boston.


MULANEY: (Singing) It's time to laugh. Raise up your smiles. Lower those masks. You know what I mean. We all quarantined. We all went to rehab, and we all got divorced, and now our reputation is different.


YOUNG: And it blossoms into the John Mulaney that I've always loved. He breaks it to the cadence that he normally does, and it all started to feel familiar to me once again. That being said, this is more what comedy is becoming, that hybrid of storytelling plus jokes where he's telling us kind of a long story here. And in a lot of ways, it reminded me of the comedy special from Martin Lawrence called "Runteldat." And it's the same thing where you have a comedian telling us a story that we've heard in the news from their perspective.

You know, I really enjoyed that. But I did feel a little bit of distance because he doesn't give us a lot of details about his personal life even though there's a lot of those that are also swirling around the rumor mill as well. So overall, I think it's familiar. I think it was what I liked of John Mulaney, but I definitely felt a little bit of, I'm not going to tell you everything. So it felt like vulnerability minus the vulnerability, if you know what I mean.

HOLMES: Yeah, I do. Cyrena, what'd you think?

TOUROS: Yeah, it's interesting because, like Ronald, I've also been a fan for a really long time. I think the very first season I started watching "SNL" was in 2008, which he was a writer for. And I've always really liked his comedy because he's really good at spotting and feeding the neuroses of the characters that he does and playing the straight man off of that. And this special has an interesting problem in its conceit that he has to play both the straight man of, like, the recovering addict, and he has to play his past self who is, like, in the throes of addiction. And I don't know that it always works for me because some points, the outlandishness of his behaviors and particularly his bit about trying to hawk his Rolex watch - at a certain point, the actions are so outlandish that he stops kind of writing the joke about it.


MULANEY: And I decided I was going to buy a Rolex watch with my credit card and pawn it for cash five minutes later.


MULANEY: I'm pretty good at reading a room. You're all very impressed by this plan.


TOUROS: He's great at delivering a punchline, but I don't know that there were as many punchlines as I was expecting from him. He is on a very different level, and those jokes work because of the way he tells them. But yeah, I think it was missing a little bit of substance. I felt like he was playing it safe a little bit. And he almost builds in a deflection of criticism here, too, because he kind of says, like, hey, if you liked that old stuff, well, I was really hyped up on coke when I was doing that. So if you don't like the new stuff, like, well, you should probably be more supportive of my recovery period. And so here, I do feel like he plays this in a way of, like, I'm not that guy anymore. I'm the new guy. And I think it would've been more compelling for him to have, you know, maybe spoken about this - of, like, I did some bad things, and I'm still kind of working through what that means for me as a person.

HOLMES: Yeah. It's interesting because I think that I agree with you about one of the foundational things about this special - but I think I liked it, and you didn't like it - and that is the fact that he is, basically, both the subject of the joke and the teller of the joke. And the thing is, you know, Mulaney has always done a certain amount of this kind of describing his own behavior in a way that acknowledges that he is the butt of the joke. I actually think he's always been very good at that. One of the first bits that I ever heard from him - it's a little thing that he does about realizing he was accidentally chasing a woman in the subway.


MULANEY: I'm almost at her, and then it dawns on me, oh, she's running from me...


MULANEY: ...Because, in her eyes, I'm an adult.

HOLMES: So what I love about this clip is that he really is making himself and his own behavior the butt of the joke. And he's done this with various other things. In fact, one of them is a clumsy effort to get a Xanax prescription...


HOLMES: ...From a doctor. So this is not a first for him. I feel like it's more a diving in very deeply to something that he's always done. And I feel like, in a lot of ways, this is sort of what comedy is - is this combination of recognition and distance. You know, a comedian talks about something, and you sort of recognize it, but the way they talk about it allows you to kind of step back and also laugh at it. And I found it very effective to see him kind of being both people. And I thought that he did a good job of, you know - I don't know if I felt as much that he's saying, like, I'm not that guy. I think he's just realizing what that guy was doing, and he recognizes the ridiculousness of it. But he also, I think, like, is definitely using it to kind of, as Ronald was talking about, go through this story that's been in the news. And I really like the fact that there are moments in this where he's able to step back and recognize that there are still parts of him that relate heavily to John Mulaney late 2020, early 2021. I love the material about the intervention. He talks at one point about exactly who was present at the intervention.



MULANEY: As mad as I was when I walked in there, I was like, this is a good lineup. This is very...


MULANEY: This is really flattering in its own way. It was like a "We Are The World" of alternative comedians over the age of 40.


HOLMES: So, to me, because he can admit that it was a star-studded intervention, that allows you to get a really specific idea of it. And later, he talks about the fact that now all these people who are his friends - he kind of has to act grateful to them all the time. I liked that because it sort of acknowledges that, like, there's still part of him that, like, can see humor in this that isn't only aimed at himself, but it's still mostly. I think we saw this very much the same way, Cyrena. It's just that it worked for me much better than it worked for you. I do agree with Ronald. It reminded me of storytelling - you know, closer to kind of these storytelling hybrid - you know, almost like a Mike Birbiglia kind of thing. He's also another one that tends to do, like, a big, overarching story. I really liked it, but I agree with everything you said about it, in a way, that led you to have mixed feelings.

TOUROS: Yeah. And I wonder if it'll grow on me more, which, I guess, maybe, is my internal conflict right now, where, in the past, when I saw his specials, there was something, like, white-hot about them right in the moment, where I was like, oh, this is rearranging, you know, my foundation of humor. And maybe that's also 'cause I was a lot younger when I watched them. I was of the sort of formative age. We have a lot in common. We both went to the same school in D.C., and I saw him, when I was in college, do a live show in D.C. and, you know, felt a sort of kinship, where we were - both felt, like, a little bit of out of place about where we went to school. And we're kind of, like, deconstructing the people around us.

Here, I also wonder if these will grow on me more, too, because his specials have had such an afterlife on the internet, where I was thinking, like, well, maybe this doesn't work for me as a special. But some of his biggest bits from his previous work - I don't actually know how many people have actually gone back and watched those specials because there are just certain clips that have gone super viral on the internet. So maybe in here there are a couple jokes that I didn't fully lock into in the context of his whole story, but, you know, seeing them replayed on Twitter, I'll be like, oh, well, that was fantastic. So I'm still mulling it over, I think.

YOUNG: I think you're right. I think this special will be a hit. It will be another feather in his cap. One thing they tell us in storytelling is to tell stories from your scars, not your wounds. And I think there's a sense of separation that we're supposed to think that John Mulaney has here that makes him well enough to be able to tell these stories completely. And I think joke-wise, he's still as sharp as ever, and I laughed a lot in this special. But as a storyteller watching this, I remember there was a couple of times where I felt like there was a little bit of a lack of self-awareness. For instance, when he talks about how he procures drugs, here, he talks about Dr. Michael.


MULANEY: I'd go, I want Klonopin. And he'd go, OK.


MULANEY: And as he was writing it out on the pad and tearing it off, he'd go, oh, what's it for? And I'd go, I have anxiety. And he'd go, oh, then you need it.


YOUNG: I really thought that at some point he would reference how he was trying to get Xanax in his first special in "New In Town." And I really thought there for a moment I was like, OK, so there's no real note to, like, kind of your overarching career or how you were trying to do this before by getting drugs for your anxiety. And that idea - and the second part is him not, like, telling us everything, which you don't have to do. And I'm actually an advocate for saying you should definitely have some sort of separation between your personal life and what you do want to tell us.

But if you're being this vulnerable and transparent about all these other things, then it kind of makes the thing that you're not telling us feel a little bit louder because at one point, you casually mention, I'm strolling with my son. And I'm thinking, we only know you have a son from the news. I've never heard it from your mouth. I've only heard it from the news or from, like, appearances you've done. But as a person watching your comedy, that's not news that you've given to me, personally. So he just kind of drops it there and doesn't mention that this was all a part of the story of his rehab, of divorcing from his wife and all of that, which is all deeply intertwined. But if you only tell me one part of it, it just feels like the rest of it feels loudly silent.

HOLMES: Yeah, I get that. You know, I've sometimes seen people who have dealt with some sort of, you know, quote, unquote, "scandal," I - who knows what that means, something in their personal life that's sort of gotten a lot of attention. I've seen people kind of try to do a little bit, but they draw a line, and they try not to say anything. I think in a situation where - especially where other people are involved - your ex-wife, your current partner, your child - I do understand deciding not to talk about it. And there's part of me that thinks if you're not going to talk about it, go out, make your first special and don't talk about it at all. And then rip the Band-Aid off, and people who expect to hear about that are going to come in. They're going to watch the special. And they're going to realize he will talk about this. He will talk about this. He will be vulnerable about these five things.

He is not going to talk about the ex-wife, the current partner, the kid. He's not going to get into it. If you can live with that, then you're, you know, going to get a lot out of this special. If you can't, you don't 'cause he's not going to try to sort of do enough - you know, you always get the feeling people are trying to kind of take the air out of something like that without getting too far into it. I think you're right. He doesn't do that. He just kind of decides to walk away from it. I found that interesting.

The thing that I do think is too bad - and I don't know that it would've been possible to do this without getting into those things about other people who are involved. He does make a very quick reference to likability is a jail, which I think is a super interesting idea that I sort of agree with in his case and a lot of other people's cases. I would have loved to hear more about that, but I understand why he didn't get into it. In some ways, it would just make it worse to get into it and kind of debate his persona with people. So I was fascinated by this. I really thought he went to some interesting places. You referenced, Ronald, the stuff about Dr. Michael. I think there is some funny detail in his explanations of sort of how a person who really wants to get pills - how easy it is to get pills...


HOLMES: ...But also how vulnerable it makes you to, for example, a doctor who - and he treats this fairly lightly - but a doctor who was kind of sexually harassing him. And you can imagine, like, if that's a reality for him, it's probably a reality for a lot of other people. And I think those details - there's a little bit about Venmo that I thought was really funny.

YOUNG: Yes. Oh, yes.


MULANEY: Venmo is for drug deals.


MULANEY: That's what it was for. None of us in the drug world have any clue what all of you civilians...


MULANEY: ...Are doing on our app.


HOLMES: Some of those details, I do think, work really well.

YOUNG: Yeah. And I think, again, I'll say it - like, funny. Like, I'm 100% with you on saying it's 100% funny. And I think the John Mulaney fan in me is really just happy to see him back and be sharp. I will say the part of me that is, like, really considering what Cyrena is saying is saying, like, as for your future, is this what we can expect? Or what is this going to look like? Are we going back to the kind of king of observational comedy - or the prince of observational comedy if Jerry Seinfeld is still alive? But, like, you know, like, the kind of - are we going back to this kind of observational route that we're kind of used to? Or what happens next? Are there going to be more things that you're mining from your life? Or is it going to be more, like, outward-focused comedy after this?

TOUROS: Yeah. You know, to speak to Linda's point about him kind of breaking the fourth wall a bit about the persona, I saw this opportunity in the special that he didn't take to get a bit more meta about it and not necessarily bring in the people in his life by name, like his ex-wife or his current partner or the baby. But I do think, like, coming from the music world, this decade, I would say, so far has been really defined by this idea of metacommentary and about bringing in past parts of your work to comment on now that you're older. I'm thinking, like, Taylor Swift or, like, RM of BTS or, you know, even Shakira. And the most compelling parts of the special to me are when he kind of breaks the fourth wall a bit.

You know, there's a moment where he's interfacing with the lady that his friends hired for his intervention as, like, the professional. And she's like, well, they said you would be nicer. And he was like, don't believe the persona. And so, in some ways, I was most fascinated when he kind of dropped the act, too. And, you know, Linda, I think you brought up, too, when he's kind of saying, like, he's realizing he owes these friends a debt of gratitude for the rest of his life. And he drops his voice at one point and just kind of says plainly, like, I was really angry, too.


MULANEY: I'm still pissed off at them.


MULANEY: I'm grateful. I'm truly grateful. And I wish I just felt that one emotion. But I don't.


MULANEY: I feel two emotions.


MULANEY: I'm still kind of mad.

TOUROS: When he drops his voice, like, his characteristic, like, I'm performing kind of voice...


TOUROS: ...I thought that was so interesting. And he doesn't really get back to that moment, but I see really short glimpses of where he could have done that. And, you know, knowing what I know about the music world and how popular those ideas are right now, I was like, the future of comedy, I think, is in that kernel. And I wish he had gone for that a little bit more.

YOUNG: It just makes me think that the future of comedy is hybrid storytelling with jokes. You know what I mean?


YOUNG: Because I feel like Hannah Gadsby did this, like, a few years back. You know what I mean? And everyone was blown away by that. And there's also - Derek DelGaudio did "In & Of Itself." It feels like there is kind of more opportunities to be vulnerable and relatable in telling a story than there is with kind of just cracking jokes. And a lot of comedians are just cracking jokes. And you can get very far with that, but it just feels like audiences have gotten smarter, and they're demanding more. And you're right. John Mulaney is now in this very unique position where he really can mine from his own life.

But it just makes me wonder if he's not going to - he's not going to do this all the time, like, you know? And this is a very traumatic event that happened to him. So how many more stories can he mine from this in order to keep going forward? But I imagine that, in terms of his ability to tell a story, he did this so well. And all of the jokes that y'all pointed out - there were some that I forgot. Like, that Venmo joke was just brilliant, (laughter) brilliant. So, like, yeah, I'm very interested to see, like, what happens next, not only for him but for other comedians who want to kind of, like, follow in this vein.

HOLMES: Yeah. And I was really struck by what you said, Ronald, about write from your scars, not your wounds because what's interesting about that is I often feel that way when I see people writing, like, for example, a memoir of something that still feels really, really, super fresh. And it always worries me because I always think, I don't know if you have the distance from this to talk about it yet, which, I think, is one of the reasons why I was glad that this special doesn't really go in the direction of saying, here are all the big lessons that I've learned as a person who deals with addiction - that it really stays in the details of being in rehab, dealing with drug dealers, trying to steal your own money.


HOLMES: And I think that's why it worried me less. I was kind of doing the math in my head, like, how long ago was all this? It's difficult, and it does feel kind of dangerous in that way. I feel like if you asked him, could you ever relapse again? - he would say, obviously - you know what I mean? - as opposed to, like, oh, never. I've learned so much now. I'm completely - that's what would worry me more. I think if you asked him, could you ever wind up in this situation again? - I doubt he would say no. So - well, we want to know what you think about John Mulaney's "Baby J." Find us at That brings us to the end of our show. Ronald Young Jr., Cyrena Touros, thank you so much for being here. It's always good to see you both.

TOUROS: Thank you, Linda.

YOUNG: Thanks for having me.

HOLMES: We want to take a moment to thank our POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR+ subscribers. We appreciate you so much for showing your support of NPR. If you haven't signed up yet and you want to show your support and you'd like to listen to this show without any sponsor breaks, head over to or visit the link in our show notes. This episode is produced by Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Linda Holmes, and we'll see you all tomorrow.


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