The only subjects that were off limits in John Mulaney: Baby J were his divorce and his newborn son.
Otherwise, the highly-admired comedian spent his entire Baby J special for Netflix — his first in five years – talking candidly about the “action-packed” time in his life when his friends staged an intervention before sending him off to rehab.
At the moment his friends and family confronted him about his addiction, Mulaney wasn’t exactly focused on its stand-up potential. “I was quite under the influence when I arrived,” he told Deadline.
But after coming out of detox, Mulaney reached out to friend/comedian Joe Mande “to kind of get a handle on what had happened there. He said it was extremely funny that I was giving notes on each person’s letter after they read it and that I told him after the intervention, how I ranked the speeches. He helped me see how the dynamic was funny right away.”
Here, Mulaney talks about the making of the special, which is up for two Emmys and will likely vie for the Golden Globes’ new Best Performance in Stand-Up Comedy on TV category, and why he didn’t expect that some people might feel bad about laughing at the lowest moment in his life.
DEADLINE Is it strange doing interviews about this particular special because it was so personal?
JOHN MULANEY No. I’ve always been very personal and I understand the subject matter is, for lack of a better term, darker or more intimate. But my approach to it felt similar to the rest of my specials, honestly. So I have not found it more difficult to talk about.
DEADLINE You called it a “wide-ranging conversation.” Was that meant to be code for “this might not be what everyone expects?“
MULANEY That was a callback to the GQ article that I ended the special with, which says, ‘we spoke with the comedian in a wide-ranging conversation.’ I found it really funny that my drug-addled self had been so sweeping in that interview, and I also just thought it was a funny turn of phrase. I thought it would be a good subtitle for the special, and then I thought it’s not that wide-ranging of a conversation. It’s pretty much about one topic.
DEADLINE When did you notice that 11-year-old in the balcony?
MULANEY Oh, immediately, because the Boston Symphony Hall is a rectangular room and the balconies wrap around it. They almost feel like they come right up to the side of your head. So I noticed him right away. You see these sort of darkened profiles of adult heads and then there was this tiny head and I thought, ‘oh my gosh. He is really young.’
DEADLINE Yeah, but what a gift. The jokes were pure gold.
MULANEY I just needed to address it for me and the audience that evening.
DEADLINE During the special, you talk about all the comedians at your intervention and how they told each other to not perform bits. But while you were sitting through the intervention, did you have an aha moment over how this could be a great standup someday?
MULANEY No. I wish I had a more wily mind, but no, it was just a bad moment. And I’m someone who through every single thing that’s ever happened in my life, have known it would be funny somehow. It was more the chemical hell that took that away. I was quite under the influence when I arrived. I was both high and unable to keep using because they wouldn’t let me go to the bathroom. So I was in a very agitated state.
DEADLINE Was this something that you felt like you had to clear with your friends before doing the special? Those who participated in the intervention?
MULANEY [Laughs] I cleared it by performing it and then asking, ‘Hey, was that okay?’
DEADLINE And then what did they say?
MULANEY A friend of mine said, ‘how come when you tell the story, you are cool and we are all lame?’ And they were right. I said, ‘because I’m telling it from that little bastard’s perspective where I was the coolest guy in NYC that night and you guys were completely bringing me down.’
DEADLINE In some ways it seems like the jokes wrote themselves. Did it feel that way to you, the fact that some of your friends were on Zoom who you could give a hard time about later?
MULANEY Once I left detox, I started to think about the intervention and I called my friend Joe Mande to kind of get a handle on what had happened there. He said it was extremely funny that I was giving notes on each person’s letter after they read it and that I told him after the intervention, how I ranked the speeches. He helped me see how the dynamic was funny right away.
DEADLINE I went back online to look for some random reviews and each review is tempered a bit, like people find it hilarious, and yet they feel like a horrible person for laughing and they feel like it’s an emotional roller coaster. ‘It feels disturbing,’ one person said. Someone else wrote, ‘please stay well, we need your continued brilliance.’ What kind of feedback have you been getting?
MULANEY I was intrigued to see in a couple that it was dark. It is digested as darker than I thought. And that sounds odd, I know, because of the subject matter, but my goal was to present this as funny as possible with no dramatic pauses. I’m going to bring the room down and speak really honestly and be vulnerable, which means I guess without jokes. And I didn’t want to do that. I wanted it to be a joke-driven special about something that is complex and sad and a little scary, but has a ton of very specific details. It was an action-packed time. That’s what I wanted to get across. People might go, ‘this is harder, sadder, darker, disturbing.’ I really am flattered and happy that it’s been reviewed and discussed. That’s what I like the most is that people talked about it.
DEADLINE You must’ve known that some people would feel bad for laughing at you because this is obviously a very serious subject.
MULANEY I don’t mean to sound naive, but I didn’t, because I’m on stage in a beautiful symphony hall. I’m healthy again for the first time in several years. And in my mind that is the setting. I’m dressed in a suit that, to me, creates a permission structure of like, ‘Hey, I’m fine now.’ So that was how I felt. You all can see this is okay and you can go ahead and laugh. But I understand with addiction, as I live with it, it’s hard to go, ‘well now he’s fine and there’s no problems because it’s a thing you live with, day-by-day.’ So I might’ve been a little naive in that respect.
DEADLINE Speaking of that suit, was that fuchsia?
MULANEY Well, lemme look up fuchsia because I’m not a great color person. Fuchsia is a vivid, pinkish, purplish red color named after the color of the flower, the fuchsia plant. Okay, so we have the suit and then we have the color correct. And then we have your own screen. So I don’t know, I’m not going to say you didn’t experience fuchsia. You might’ve, I don’t know your color settings. It’s like a lighter burgundy. I really love that suit. I got that in England at this place called … well, I won’t say where, in case they don’t like me sharing this. But they make King Charles’ pajamas and he likes really bright-colored jammies. He goes to bed looking like a big bowl of fruit.
DEADLINE Do you think the humor helps people to understand or sympathize more with addiction?
MULANEY I don’t know the answer to that, actually. That would be something other people maybe could answer. I do know that in every rehab I’ve been in, or every meeting I’ve been in with other addicts or every group therapy session I’ve been in, it’s extremely important and it is extremely frequent that we can sometimes laugh hard at these things.
DEADLINE You didn’t talk a lot about being a new dad. Why did you make that decision?
MULANEY I’m still hesitant to talk about it because I’m his dad. It’s a very, very straightforward relationship. The crazy thing about this guy is, I almost feel like I’d be talking about him behind his back. He’s my main friend. There’s something about it that I’m just not sure how to discuss. It’s just a new and very pure, special thing, and a lot of comedy comes from some kind of dissatisfaction or complaint and I have none. A child is not a sober companion. He happens to be this amazing gift I got at the same time that everything else changed. And if I went right into, ‘I’m going to do dad now,’ it would feel a little like wrapping it up in the type of bow I didn’t want.
DEADLINE Same for your divorce?
MULANEY It just was something I wasn’t going to get into.
DEADLINE There’s another great joke in your special that how, even as an addict you looked better than so many people because of your athletic build and you look great. I’m assuming everyone else looked like shit or something?
MULANEY Well, I have never had anyone, let alone a journalist say that I have an athletic build. So I can’t thank you enough for that. And congratulations on being the first person ever to say that. I am walking on air right now. It was mid-pandemic when a lot of people had put on some weight and also a lot of people were home and I was out. So I just was dressed up a little and had remained svelte through pretty unhealthy means. Everyone there was adorable in their own way. That was more kidding than they looked like shit.
DEADLINE Earlier this year, you had a surprise cameo in the now-infamous family dinner scene from season 2 of The Bear. How did that come together?
MULANEY We filmed that in April of 2023. [Creator] Chris Storer, who I knew, sent me this part to do, and I was already such a huge fan of the show. I can’t tell you how exciting it was to be asked to do anything on the show, let alone a really fun character, let alone in a talent-stacked episode. It was crazy being at the same table as those other actors.
DEADLINE What were those days of shooting like? Was it a barrel of monkeys?
MULANEY Bliss, totally bliss. Chris runs the nicest, most fun, most alive set. Everyone has the best attitude, loves the show, and they make the days really fun. We were in a house on location in Chicago, in the suburbs for the kitchen, living room scenes. And then the dining room was on a set because a car needed to drive through it.
DEADLINE One last thing: did you really do coke off of a Koala Baby changing table in a public bathroom? You spoke of that in the special.
MULANEY Of course. And not just once. I mean, it’s a good idea. A lot of addicts’ ideas are good ideas.