John Mulaney knows what we’re thinking: What happened? Luckily, in his new stand-up set, “From Scratch,” he (mostly) tells us. Mulaney’s superb act, which he recorded at Symphony Hall in Boston on Feb. 25–26 for an upcoming Netflix comedy special, is a candid and wild exploration of his experience with drug addiction and recovery.
Mulaney starts from the beginning, a few times. Each time, he takes us back to a formative moment, starting with his siblings’ ritual hazing, then on to elementary school, then on to his drug addiction — all within 15 minutes — only to later return to his childhood. Throughout the performance, Mulaney is in dialogue with himself, asking where it went wrong and how to start over.
Much of the set centered around Mulaney’s intervention and subsequent stay in rehab. As he tells it, on Dec. 18, 2020, he went to his friend’s apartment for dinner only to find there was no dinner. Instead, he found himself in the middle of a “star-studded” intervention (Nick Kroll, Seth Meyers and Fred Armisen were in attendance, among others).
From there, “From Scratch” takes flight, as Mulaney takes us through his two-month stay at a Pennsylvania rehab facility and the years leading up to it. Within minutes, Mulaney comes clean: Yes, he went to rehab and got a divorce, and now his reputation is “different” — his words, not mine.
Undeniably, Mulaney is correct. Almost everything about his life is different. He’s 40 now, and onstage, he looks like a real adult for the first time. He had a baby, despite having famously dismissed parenthood as a possibility during two other Netflix specials.
In terms of his act, Mulaney bounces around the stage less, and his stories are darker — and funnier. Without spoiling any jokes, be prepared to hear him talk about grandparents dying and getting drunk at age 13. Undeniably, this is still a John Mulaney stand-up special. You will hear jokes about his father and an Al Pacino impression, as he weaves effortlessly between character work and linear storytelling.
Throughout most of the special, which he has been honing at locations around the world for almost two years, Mulaney strikes a balance between darkness and idiosyncrasy, like when he recalls pawning a Rolex for drug money to avoid confrontation with his accountant or when he calls plastic bags full of drugs “baggies.” I’ll spare you the context; the jokes are worth hearing in full when the special comes to Netflix.
Sometimes, Mulaney’s jokes are too dark to appreciate. It was easier to laugh with him at other specials; this time, we’re expected to laugh at him as he recalls teetering on the brink of death. During these moments, the audience is not sure whether to pity him in silence or chuckle to spare future Netflix viewers from embarrassment.
Even as some of the awkward jokes drag “From Scratch” down, others are what makes the show unique and painfully funny. Mulaney tells serious stories this time around. For the first time in his career, we’re genuinely scared for him — and when he tells us how he makes it out alive, the punchlines are worth all the suspense.
Take his intervention. While he’s “grateful” that 12 of his friends saved his life, he is adamant that it was “too many people.” Now, there are 12 separate people he has to pay the check for whenever he takes them out for dinner. “They could have done it with four people,” Mulaney bemoans.
Even with Mulaney’s trademark complaining, there’s a new sense of humility to his act, an air of gratitude that shapes his performance. Perhaps it’s the near-death experience he had, or maybe it’s because — to his great disappointment — no one in rehab knew who he was. Therein lies the great mystery of John Mulaney: Who is he? Beyond the Emmy-winning comedian and former SNL writer, there is a personal side of Mulaney that remains elusive to his audience.
Mulaney only mentions his baby, Malcolm, once close to the show’s ending, as a full-circle moment — at this point, we also realize he has not directly mentioned his ex-wife, a mainstay of his former stand-up sets, nor has he brought up Olivia Munn, with whom he had the baby.
There’s no point in speculating why he chose not to do so. If “From Scratch” teaches us one thing, it’s that celebrities do not owe us anything. Why were we so shocked when Mulaney abandoned so many aspects of his former persona? Perhaps our mistake was thinking his stand-up act and personal life were the same or thinking we were entitled to know every aspect of his marriage.
In spite of all the trauma dumping he does live on stage, it seems like Mulaney is happy; if that is the price to pay for not really knowing anything about him, so be it. Judging from the applause he got, it seems the crowd at Symphony Hall agrees.