Comedian John Mulaney has a new Netflix special out, “Kid Gorgeous: John Mulaney at Radio City.” He’s the best “Saturday Night Live” writer in this generation and a fine stand-up comic.
He’s as likable as it gets, and he portrays the idealized image of his audience. Unfortunately, that’s someone you’d pretty obviously avoid, given the choice. The 30-something man who can impress an audience these days is unenviable on a good day, and in an existential crisis on a bad one.
It’s not Mulaney’s fault that he’s such a persuasive actor in this role. He is intelligent, personable, and seems kind. He cultivates a funny voice and funny boyish good looks; he works hard to craft his act around an image of innocence.
At the same time, he attracts interest by acting the adult, going around on stage in a dark suit, in an age where comfort means looking childish or worse. His act is a deceptively simple examination of what went wrong with normality in the part of urban middle-class life he understands. Mulaney wants to explain how he ended up who he is and, should his audience respond to him, what’s wrong with them, too.
The biggest laugh line in the show, for example, is when he says he and his wife don’t have kids — not for now, at least, because life is strange and unpredictable — but they do have a French bulldog. It’s not just that it’s not funny, but he goes on to explain how and why they walk the dog in a baby stroller strangers look into. Here comedy hides existential despair. Pretending to be a family without being able to foster life is incredibly sad. The self-presentation of this 35-year-old, nice, honest, and successful as he is, suggests there’s no future ahead — certainly not in playing parents to a pet.
Of course, I’m only talking about Mulaney’s comedy, what he wants to share with his audience and what they laugh at. The show is all about him sharing his life’s story and at the climax, he makes it seem not worth living. I’m persuaded that that’s what most people who make up the audience of stand-up comedy feel like, too. His craft reveals that existential emptiness, that lack of purpose, and relieves it by a quiet confirmation: Really, that’s what it’s like, that’s all there is, and it’s not so bad, after all, is it? Maybe he’s there to teach a painful lesson, that being an adult means learning how disappointing and pointless it is to be human. But he shows you a good time on the way there.
I suspect this is why we don’t have much comedy aside from the supposedly transgressive, incredibly vulgar, or ideologically driven. The real problem is not the stale liberalism that dominates ideologically most entertainment. It’s that the audience of stand-up comedy is in a really bad situation and might need therapy more than anything else.
By way of evidence, consider Mulaney’s four-stage autobiography of disappointment. He begins with the beginning: Complaining about his parents. His father didn’t know how to talk to him about sex. His school was dominated by the child abduction and abuse panics of the 80s and 90s. He suggests parents put fears into their children in the name of safety, while at the same time raising them in a world without any experiences, also for reasons of safety. Remarkably, he turns the bewilderment of such a child into comedy, whereas the tendency, for two generations, has been to turn it into horror movies about suburban fears.
He next complains about college, and here his audience is with him — this is the one revolutionary moment, especially if you know that outstanding college debt is an almost trillion and a half dollar industry in America. He says, his college now sends him mail to ask for donations — how dare they, after providing him, in his clueless late teenage years with four years of heartbreak, alcohol, drugs, and an English degree attesting he’d read books he hadn’t read, all for a mere $120,000? He explains he was stoned on graduation day.
Perhaps eighteen-year-olds should begin to learn about themselves and to learn what’s important in life in college, at least those lucky enough to afford it. But does that idea of normality have much of a connection to reality? Now, the abduction panics and insane safety talks must have done some damage to a kids’ ability to trust the world around them, but they seem to reveal more about parents’ pathological fear of their country. But it seems college has done far more damage to kids’ belief that they could have a future of fairly satisfying, dignified work after graduation.
Next, Mulaney moves from things everyone could have experienced or observed to things only those in the entertainment industry know. On SNL, he constantly worked with celebrities, and he’s here to say — Mick Jagger is an entitled, lazy tyrant. So would we, but for our fears and poverty — the school of disappointment we call adulthood.
If our every whim were swiftly satisfied, if people worshiped us like gods, we’d stop being nice, too. After college disappointed his hopes of a school of maturity, celebrity revealed to Mulaney that success is unearned. Celebrity is not virtue or merit — it’s the embodiment of our belief in unjust happiness. It’s a gambler’s fantasy, not the virtues Mulaney suggests his parents and school tried to teach him, if unsuccessfully.
Finally, in his mid-thirties, more famous and wealthier than most Americans, apparently happily married for a few years, Mulaney seems quite discouraged. You cannot quite call him stoic, because there’s no sense of humor in stoicism. But his attitude is similar — getting used to disappointment, not making a big production out of it, trying to laugh at how much nonsense a child picks up as he grows.
The two strange things in his act are religion and politics. His Trump story is better than almost anything else you might hear in liberal comedy — but he has the misfortune of all hysterics who miss their moment. It won’t do to warn knowingly about how the crazy man is going to start a nuclear war in North Korea if your comedy show comes out after the left-wing South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, says Trump should get the Nobel for Peace for the historic achievement of ending the Korean War (consider the dig at Obama implied there).
The concluding jokes about religion are strange for a different reason. Mulaney jokes that his friends just don’t understand what it means to grow up in a Catholic family that went to church every Sunday. They treat it like a tyranny or a cult. He even jokes that his Jewish wife thinks the Last Supper was about Thanksgiving. He mocks the Catholic Mass, but he seems to think that’s the only way to talk about it in a comedy show, which may be right.
But placing the story at the end makes it seem endearing. The many foibles of the congregations and clergy he describes seem far more human, and restful to the soul, than his odyssey of fear, drugs, and other crazy things society has introduced him to on the way to his own small measure of celebrity. I’ve no idea whether he is Christian, but he seems to understand that Christianity is good for people. He also pointedly defends it in a personal way from nasty old atheists. He says, whenever he hears Bill Maher mocking Christians he wants to punch him, because that’s his mother he’s mocking.
Mulaney excels at showing how weird normal people a generation back were and how weird they are now in their opposite normality — how quickly and unthinkingly America has turned from family, church, and assorted institutions and beliefs to the urban individualism and celebrity-worship of our times. He is subtle. His niceness is a mask for an intelligent, but very troubled man. Normality might have come as a great victory for him, after misery and vices that have claimed and still claim lives. He always seems a stranger among people, better at observing than being with his family, school, college, jobs, and friends.
In the end, he suggests two alternative to his audience, his father angrily berating him to sing louder in church — “God can’t hear you” are his closing words — and himself playing father to a French bulldog. Here, comedy forces us to confront our humanity and ask: Which is good for human beings and which is insane?