I’m Worried About...John Mulaney?!
I’ve written a series of different essays on here under the banner of “I’m Worried About You.” A meme was developed and I even have bookmarks on my website if you’d like me to look at you in worry. I care about people. It’s an awful thing really. I’ve also been through some stuff myself and so it’s hard for me to not notice or be concerned about mental health issues within stand-up, a community I am part of and care about deeply. So now it’s strange to actually write that I’m worried about a man I’ve never met before, a man that is probably now one of the most prominent stand-up comedians in the country, a man whose comedy I do appreciate and yet I find myself at a weird juncture with him. I’m worried about John Mulaney.
This began in late 2020 when it was announced that Mulaney was entering rehab. It made sense given the previously strange announcement that he was joining the writing staff of Late Night with Seth Meyers, a move that seemed beyond the level of where Mulaney was at in his career. It became obvious later this was a last-ditch effort on Meyers’s part as a friend to keep Mulaney close and his drug addiction in check.
Mulaney started making public appearances in the middle of 2021 and did, as many of us do, trying to work through his issues through stand-up comedy, a medium he is immensely talented at and can be a source of therapy. Soon, though, Mulaney made his first high-profile return to the public eye by being a guest on Meyers’s show. He announced in this interview about the intervention involving Meyers, a new relationship (with Olivia Munn) so soon after a rather public divorce, and that he and Munn had a baby on the way. On a general level, this was shocking but it was even more so for a person to be doing so soon after rehab and entering a new world of sobriety. Mulaney was making radical changes to the support system that is crucial with sobriety and with his life in general. Meyers comes off surprised and happy in the interview (whether pre-planned or not) and, as a result, is supportive in this public format.
Mulaney is next starting to work out his comedy material. He is on a “From Scratch” tour that begins on March 11 and takes him across the country for six months. Presumably, what he performed during last weekend’s SNL monologue is just a taste of what will be on the tour. It’s difficult to not imagine that a majority of what he will be discussing will be his addiction and rehab.
In most realms, everything that Mulaney has done has been lauded and considered inspirational. A look at all of the top comments on any recent Mulaney videos would tell you that. However, perhaps for some like me who have seen addiction and seen it in the realm of stand-up comedy, this is concerning and worrisome.
Mulaney’s comedy does not thrive on some sort of rawness and honesty. He will not be banging down on the doors for his “freedom of speech” as other areas of stand-up are currently fighting over for no particular reason. His comedy is well-written, clever, but perhaps even mundane. So, even stylistically, this is already a switch. The switch has worked for the sense of comedy based off his SNL monologue where, for a few minutes, he was able to highlight the sheer absurdity of his experience. I have no doubt that, for the sake of comedy, he’s capable of doing that for a full hour on his tour.
However, the experience of what his comedy presents doesn’t match up with reality. Mulaney has now become more celebrity than comedian. Due to his relationship with Munn, he feels more tabloid fodder than beloved by comedy nerds. In his SNL monologue, when he says “my girlfriend,” it’s not hard for the entire American public including myself in the back of their heads to go “Yeah, we know, Olivia Munn.” Essentially, there is no secret to what is being discussed here in his comedy which is really what is packaged and being sold to me as a consumer of that comedy.
Mulaney is not Richard Pryor discussing setting himself on fire. Pryor was a different type of comedian to begin with. Additionally, the mix of celebrity, comedy, and transparency just operate differently today than they did in previous eras of comedy (see whatever the hell is going on with Pete Davidson and Kanye).
So, for someone like myself who has experienced first-hand or been an observer first-hand of mental health issues and addiction, there is something odd and uncomfortable to what Mulaney is doing. Look at how he has presented himself and done so in such a speedy manner. He is a beacon of sobriety. He is in love. He is now a father. These are all things that would draw the most “likes” on social media and they have come out in the most public way possible which is not the way I have ever perceived of Mulaney in the past. Given that this is the most “likeable” ideas in our culture, it is not easy to be constructively critical of someone on such topics. However, with sobriety and mental health, the real honesty needs to be there. Mulaney now feels like many I’ve met or were close friends with in comedy. All I can see is the perceived happiness they put out there and hope for the best while feeling uncomfortable about how bad it could actually get.
Stand-up comedy is of course rife with a history of addiction and mental health issues. Yet we continue to progress with it no better than the rest of society. A suicide happens in our community and we pump out the hotline number and post to hug your friends as if that resolves mental health issues in any way. If someone goes to rehab, we portray support. But this is not just a game. An addiction at the level of Mulaney’s is not just some easy thing. Harris Wittels is a fine example of the other way it can go. So, pardon me, if a celebrity relationship with a famous actress that once dated a famous quarterback, fatherhood, and comedy about his issues so soon after rehab is more worrisome than hilarious to me as an observer and I’m not even close to Mulaney.
What’s deeply concerning to me is the adulation and praise that Mulaney is receiving over any type of possible criticism. His tour will be a success because Mulaney is funny but also how can any reviewer or consumer possibly ridicule a man so soon after becoming sober? So, for Mulaney, it will only be more encouraging that everything he is doing is right. If you understand relapse, you understand that any possible shift could make things fall apart quickly. And, in the world of celebrity and comedy, things can fall apart with both very easily.
I can only hope that the very people that provided Mulaney with an intervention are there for him and keeping him accountable today. I have no clue. All I can see is what I perceived as an awkward exchange between two close friends in Mulaney and Meyers for public consumption, and a public that really eats it up without actually wanting to take grip on the issues of it.
I’m cheering for John Mulaney. But I’m also not going to be a comedian who sits around and praises what he’s doing either because, in reality, I’m worried about John Mulaney.