“Frazier?” John Mulaney, peering out from the City Winery comedy club stage, was looking directly at me.
It’s commonly understood that you don’t want to be the person a comedian addresses in the audience. At best, you’re about to become a prop in a bit; at worst, you’re about to get fully roasted.
In this case, though, I had invited the attention. Mulaney was using me as a prop, in a way, ending the set at the time by reading out printed excerpts from an interview we’d done six months prior, in December 2020. I’d heard about the bit, and when my buddy David and I decided to go see the set, we concluded that we had to let him know that I was in the room. So we yelled it out. (If you’ve never been to City Winery, just know that it’s intimate enough to do this without coming off like a heckling jerk.) Mulaney didn’t flinch—he reacted calmly, as if he knew this day would come.
But let’s back up for a minute.
“Open up with an ice breaker about seeing ghosts to get him talking.”
That was the advice David, the biggest John Mulaney fan I know, gave to me when I told him I’d be talking to our boy a few weeks before Christmas 2020. I’ll often mention it to friends when I have interviews coming up, and sometimes they suggest questions that I wind up using. In this instance, I genuinely wanted to tap David, a true stan, for ideas. (To paint the picture: Pete Davidson once complimented David on a rare Mulaney merch tee he wore to an afterparty.)
As people in media know, interviews and profiles are usually “pegged” to a specific release or event that the writer is expected to ask the subject about. But when I spoke to John Mulaney, it was a rare case where there was no peg: His team had him doing press because he was reprising his role of Spider-Ham in an Into the Spiderverse videogame, but they were fine with me asking about whatever I wanted.
Normally, this is an ideal scenario. It can be much more liberating to talk to an entertainer with no guardrails or boxes to check. A few months ago, I spoke to A$AP Rocky on the occasion of him designing a Mercedes for the Need for Speed video game; we wound up having a poignant conversation about him approaching 10 years in the industry and his late friend A$AP Yams.
I wasn’t quite sure where to start with John. Two months before, he hosted Saturday Night Live, commenting on the current events I might have asked him about, and he’d also recently appeared on Late Night with Seth Meyers. So David and I settled on opening with a callback to a bit in Mulaney’s Kid Gorgeous special about blurting out “You ever seen a ghost?” as an icebreaker. It was a reference to his material designed to elicit an interesting answer. Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose.
From there I sketched out a loose arc of asking him about the backlash he’d gotten for appearing indifferent to the presidential election, his Netflix Sack Lunch Bunch special, and his NBC sitcom that had failed to launch and which he hadn’t said much about since. I also figured someone as quick-witted as Mulaney would give me fodder for follow-up questions in the moment.
And did he ever. Our conversation was as loose, wide-ranging and whimsical as I hoped it would be—but for the wrong reasons, as I’d soon learn. I spent most of the interview (done over the phone, not Zoom) thinking Mulaney was lightly trolling me—having a little fun with the idea that he was doing an interview about voicing an animated superhero pig. The ghost comment led him into a tangent about a horror-comedy idea he’d once thought of. Joking about his Constantine get-up on Seth Meyers (a bit that was nixed for Marvel-DC reasons), led to him talking about his ideal talk show format: interviewing a really old person and a really young person. Talking about why the sitcom failed and whether he’d try again one day, he offered a comment that seemed to encapsulate how he saw his career, and that provided our headline: “I’m sort of never relevant and therefore kind of never irrelevant,” he told me. “And I like comedy in that space. With everything going on in the world, I don’t know if people need sketches about LaGuardia where we sing, ‘We’re On a Plane To Nowhere’ with Dave Byrne, but I hope you’ll be happy that it’s there.”
Sack Lunch Bunch, which came out a year prior, had kind of redefined Mulaney as brilliantly random. The special satirized (and paid homage) to kids’ educational specials of the ‘80s and ‘70s, with real jokes, cameos (David Byrne and Jake Gyllenhaal!) and a tone only millennials could fully appreciate even as it played straight to an adolescent audience. Comments about a Bad News Bears-esque movie with a paranormal twist and bizarre concepts for a late-night show didn’t feel that out of place in an interview with the John Mulaney who just made this show. When he randomly mentioned to me that he was eating Froot Loops, it just felt like more zaniness from a comedian ready to turn everything into a bit—an extension of Mulaney’s boyish, wily charm.
The transcript of our interview had been sitting for a few days, waiting for me to get through some other work, when news broke that Mulaney had been admitted to a rehab facility, reportedly for “cocaine and alcohol addiction.” After discussing it internally and with John’s team, GQ decided to publish it.
Five months later, Mulaney returned to the comedy club circuit to workshop what would become the bulk of his new Netflix special out today, Baby J—only then, it was called From Scratch. The implication of the first title was clear: he was rebuilding his career and his life the only way he knew how: through stand-up. Word quickly got back to me that this included a new bit inspired by the Q&A I’d done with him. I told David that we had to pull up and see the set for ourselves.
And sure enough, there at City Winery, he ended a great set reflecting on his addiction, sobriety, and the star-studded intervention that saved his life by pulling out the printouts of our interview, which he claimed to have absolutely no memory of because, as he explained, he was so out of his mind at the time.
We interrupted, with honorable intentions, but Mulaney was ready for us. He proceeded to tweak the set in real time, asking to interview me about how he seemed during our 2020 conversation—and if I could tell anything was off. Not knowing John Mulaney personally, I could only yell back that I thought he seemed fine, as the audience roared with laughter. He finished reading the interview, saluted me one more time, and was gone.
Since then, as Mulaney continued to tour From Scratch, I’ve gotten the occasional text from a friend or tweet from a random person who saw the show, looked up the interview, and laughed after seeing my byline. The show expanded from comedy clubs to arenas. David and I got floor seats at Madison Square Garden, but it’s no City Winery—security likely would’ve thrown me out like Jazzy Jeff rather than give me a chance to recreate the 2021 reunion.
The special is a painfully honest yet hilarious reckoning of Mulaney’s personal failures, learned behaviors, and resilience, complete with a happy ending. He’s a proud father to a one-year-old son—though some dark shadows linger. At one point, he says that to look in the mirror is to see the person that tried to end his own life. Baby J is a fitting, and funny, reconciliation with a turbulent time in his life—and he doesn’t owe anyone any more words on the matter that he doesn’t care to say.
But if John Mulaney is interested in doing an interview he’ll actually remember, I’m here whenever he’s ready. I’ll bring the Froot Loops.