Is there anything inherently funny about your own personal hell?
If you’re John Mulaney with 201 days’ worth of sober retrospective, the answer is yes.
I haven’t decided yet.
Mulaney has returned for a 17-night run at the Troubadour for his show From Scratch, a deeply symbolic comeback for a legendary venue nearly lost to COVID, and an intensely literal comeback for a comedy favorite whose very public relapse and rehabilitation drew collective gasps from the Internet not heard since the Tristan Thompson Cheating Scandal of 2019.
All 17 nights of the show’s Los Angeles run sold out immediately (as did, as far as I can tell, his next group of recently-announced multi-city visits), a testament to his celebrity and the vigor of Mulaney’s fan-base. But there was an anxious anticipation as the audience sat down, as if we were all bracing for our alcoholic uncle to show up for the family barbecue for the first time since getting sober. No one knew what we were going to get. This could either go really well, or really poorly.
Mulaney got ahead of that anxiety by cutting right to the chase. Yes, he looks different. In a casual sweater and sneakers, Mulaney stood on stage a bit weathered and worn, but ready to give it to us straight: he is not the pristine charmer we’re used to seeing on Netflix specials, and we were all naïve to assume he was.
I’m not sure we were ready for that realization.
Not surprisingly, the majority of his content focused on his addiction. The jokes rolled through his drug abuse and subsequent star-studded intervention, made hilariously awkward by some other darlings of the comedic universe. His preposterous arrogance at rehab upon check-in and a case of mistaken identity involving Pete Davidson and Al Pacino at the treatment center drew both laughter and relief: the comic lives. Drug abuse did not kill the hilarity.
But I, and I can safely assume many others in the crowd, could not deny the internal conflict this ignited, similar to the hodgepodge of feelings induced by Tig Notaro’s 2015 performance at Largo following her cancer diagnosis, Hannah Gadsby’s vulnerable reflection on bigotry Nanette, and, most recently, Bo Burnham’s painfully relevant reflections of Inside, which teeters on the brink between depression and humor.
No, material that made fun of a nightmare wasn’t shocking. That’s what we came for. What was surprising was how deep his drug addiction went. When news of his rehab stay broke, maybe you were like me in assuming it was an effort to catch himself before he fell off into the deep end.
Sure, he might have slipped here and there, and things weren’t looking so good, so better get into treatment now.
But there is no way that Mulaney – the Comeback Kid – was at the level of buying a $12,000 Rolex watch only to pawn it off for half its value 20 minutes later and use the cash to finance a drug binge. John Mulaney wears a suit. He loves his wife. Sure, he might have an emotionally-aloof father and an alcoholic-fueled youth. But he adores his French bulldog Petunia. There is just no way. Right? Right?
Well apparently, yes, that is exactly how rough it got for him, and anyone who has in some way been touched by the disease of addiction can grasp how heartbreaking that is.
That Friday night, when Mulaney asked the crowd if anyone else there had ever been to rehab, only one man raised his hand.
I have a feeling if the comic had widened the scope to include anyone who has known an addict in their lives and been affected by the disease, far more hands would have lifted. Someone very close to me was an addict who used to steal my car to travel to downtown L.A. and endure sexual assault to buy drugs. I’ve had friends get sober only to be murdered by pills upon their first relapse. The homelessness crisis of the city, exacerbated by untreated addiction, landed in my literal back yard this year when two men experiencing homelessness and addiction shot up drugs at 10 o’clock in the morning in my alley.
It’s not pretty. And it sure as hell isn’t funny.
That’s not to say From Scratch wasn’t funny. Quite the opposite, really, especially on the rare occasions he floated away from his relapse and financial despairs. A crack at environmental activist Greta Thornberg led to a regrettably embarrassing yet entirely uncontrollable snort, for instance.
But at several points, I almost cried, too. And not because Mulaney had said anything particularly sentimental.
Burnham’s Inside encouraged a broader conversation about what it means to be a comic in an era of crisis. Is it okay to crack a joke when there is so much death and suffering? Is it amoral to incite laughter when the entire world is in anguish? Is it amoral not to?
We find collective relief in comedy within the context of a collective hell. But how does one reclaim humor through the lens of a personal hell?
I mean, imagine Britney Spears performing a standup routine about her conservatorship.
Would you laugh, or cry? Or both?
John Mulaney isn’t who you thought he was, and that’s more than alright. John, feel free to ditch the tie and not be the emotionally stable good-guy the world has made you out to be. It’s easy to stand tall in a three-piece suit. It’s much harder to replace the safety blanket with the truth when it’s embarrassing, ugly and grim.
By joining the tragedy – not replacing it – with comedy, Mulaney has once again proven his unwavering talent, and that an honest suffering is far more redeeming than any gilded comeback story.