Public confessions are a funny thing.
No, seriously. They’re funny. At least, John Mulaney hopes they’re funny.
His latest Netflix special, Baby J, which just dropped two weeks ago is all about coming back from having his reputation hammered on social media.
John has had a tough time of late. He filled his “Covid Years” with getting divorced from his wife, Anna Marie Tendler, stumbling into an intervention, going to rehab, relapsing, going back to rehab, dating Olivia Munn – and – oh yeah – announcing he’s having a baby with Munn. All of that happening not necessarily in that order.
Mulaney opens his Neflix show with a little song and dance:
“You know what I mean!
We all quarantined!
We all went to rehab and we all got divorced,
and now our rep-u-ta-tion is different!”
“No one knows what to think!
All the kids like Bo Burnham more!
Because he’s currently less problematic.…
Likability is a jail.”
“Likability is a jail.” Mulaney sang that with a smile on his face, but there is some grit in that line. You can almost feel it grinding in the gears of his career.
To be fair, when you build a career on likability in the era of social media, you have to accept that it’s a pretty tenuous foundation for fame. It leaves you extremely vulnerable to being publicly called out for anything that might rub against the grain of your carefully constructed brand. And, if you are called out – or, in extreme cases – completely cancelled, you have to somehow make it all the way back from simply being accepted to being liked again.
When you think about it, it’s probably a lot easier to build your brand on being an asshole. It’s a lot lower bar to get over. I don’t think Donald Trump loses a lot of sleep over being cancelled. And – just last week – people gathered at the Met in New York for their Gala honoring fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld, who has never apologized for being one of the biggest and most outspoken assholes in history.
Mulaney is the latest of a long line of comedian come backs who have been hammered by the fickle fist of being “social media famous.” He is gingerly treading in the footsteps of Louis C.K., Aziz Ansari – even Chris Rock took a stab at it, and he wasn’t the one that got cancelled. That would be Will Smith, who is still trying to pick up the pieces of his career after an ill-considered incident of physical assault in front of a worldwide audience.
You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there’s a playbook for coming back after being eviscerated in the public arena of social media. According to Lori Levine, CEO of the PR firm Flying Television, it requires something called an “Apology Tour.”
The timing of this is critical. According to Levine, you first have to fly under the radar for a bit, “take a certain amount of time to stay quiet, stay off social media, not engage in any press interviews.” After a period of being suitably and silently contrite, you then move to Stage Two, “Slowly return explaining that they have ‘done the work’ [and] are feeling remorseful.”
This was pretty much the playbook that Mulaney followed. The advantage, if you’re a comedian, is that the stand-up stage is the perfect platform for the “apology tour.” It has the built in advantage of being an entertainment form that thrives on making fun of yourself. That’s probably why a good portion of Netflix’s programming calendar consists of comedians lining up for their respective “apology tours.”
Comedians on the social media comeback tour are also given a helping hand in this by the emergence of the “uneasy laughter” of dark comedy over the past decade or so. While dark – or black – humor has been around decades in the form of novels or movies, it has only been in the last decade or so that stand-up comedians combined dark humor with an unflinchingly intimate look into their own personal struggles. Since the unapologetically brilliant live performance of Tig Notaro in 2012 where she talked about her recent diagnosis of breast cancer, stand-up has dared to go to places never imagined just a few years ago.
This creates the perfect environment for the “apology tour.” The whole point is to have a no holds barred discussion of where the comedian erred in judgement. Mulaney navigated this potential minefield with surefooted grace. Probably the funniest and most authentic bit was when he started riffing with a 5th grader up in the balcony at the start of the show, warning him not to “do any of the things I’m about to talk about.” Somehow – to me – that felt more real than everything that was to follow.
If anything, Mulaney’s recent performance was a sign of our times. It was a necessary step back from public humiliation. I’m not sure it was that funny. But it was John Mulaney reclaiming some control over his public persona. He was telling us we can’t possibly do anything worst to him than he’s done to himself…
“What, are you gonna cancel John Mulaney? I’ll kill him. I almost did.”