You can tell why two broadcast networks and no less an esteemed comedy maven as Lorne Michaels thought John Mulaney should be a TV star. The stand-up comedian is great on camera, as he repeatedly demonstrates in his new hour-long special, The Comeback Kid. His delivery has a disarming physicality, whether he’s emphasizing a point by talking with his hands or shimmying his shoulders to illustrate a real estate agent’s “fun mom” energy. It’s a gestural style that’s visible from the very last rows of the Chicago Theater—the site of The Comeback Kid’s taping—but one that translates naturally to Netflix. He’s onstage at a storied venue, whose walls have been marked by Kanye West, Prince, and Sammy Davis Jr. (as seen in The Comeback Kid’s backstage cold open), but there’s an intimacy to the way he relates an anecdote. It’s like he’s pulling a friend aside at a party, inviting them to poke holes in the logic of Back To The Future or hear about the power move his dad once pulled in a McDonald’s drive thru. He’s a communicator, and he works the greatest tool of mass communication (sorry, internet—it’s still TV) to great effect.
There’s an inference to be made from The Comeback Kid’s title, and it has to be an inference because the special never explicitly acknowledges it: For a short period in 2014 and 2015, John Mulaney had a TV show. Then he did not. And though it was never as ghastly as it was made out to be—and, in fact, some people kind of liked it—its collapse left a sizable crater, to be filled in or overcome by whatever Mulaney did next. What he did next was take the stage with the best hour of his career, taped during a comedy festival presented by The Onion and The A.V. Club. (Full disclosure: Onion, Inc. has no financial stake in the special, though you can almost see one of the festival’s promotional banners during the cold open.) Any references to coming back are left unspoken, or made toward the subject of the special’s closing bit: William Jefferson Clinton.
But before The Comeback Kid can get to the story of how a 10-year-old John Mulaney met the man who became the 42nd president of the United States, Mulaney touches on a few milestones that he passed since recording 2012’s New In Town. He got married, and discovered the confidence-boosting properties of the words “my wife.” The happy couple bought a French bulldog named Petunia, who encourages Mulaney in her native tongue at the top of the show, and is depicted in the comedian’s act-outs as a world-weary, chain-smoking Francophone. (How she can hold a cigarette is left unexplained, but it’s essential to the characterization.) The Mulaney of today is far removed from the hard-partying hell-raiser who’s hungover at work or exploding eggs by the dozen at varying points of The Comeback Kid, but he remains a sponge for experience. While he’s less likely to have an encounter with a stranger like the one that gave New In Town its title (though the Penn Station bit in The Comeback Kid gives that one a run for its money), “adult” life holds untold reserves of weirdness, like a friend’s toddler learning anatomical terms, or people who still parrot the “bananas insulting” idiom “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” in 2015. And there’s still Mulaney’s own childhood to draw upon, too: The Clinton story and other family flashbacks make it seem like the comic is sitting on an entire one-man show about hard-ass über-dad Charles “Chip” Mulaney. “My parents didn’t trust us and they shouldn’t have trusted us,” he says, explaining the relationship between the Mulaney generations. “We were little goblins.”
Mulaney’s sense of showmanship extends to his writing, and The Comeback Kid is full of descriptive-phrasing nuggets like “little goblins.” He works in observation and reflection, and there’s a streak of the macabre that gives his perspective a dark edge (his Meltdown spot about Robert Durst deserves to be the last word on The Jinx), but it’s the words that really set Mulaney apart. A cohort from his past as an altar boy is “Cheeto-fingered” and “rat-mustachioed.” An eccentric former boss is speculated to have acquired a web business in “a rich man’s game of dice and small binoculars.” He begins to describe the process of buying a house, then backpeddles: “Actually, we didn’t buy a house—a bank bought a house, and I’m allowed to keep my shirts and pants there while I pay it off for 30 years.” The precise imagery and mostly forgotten reference points that Mulaney previously laced into desk pieces for Saturday Night Live’s Stefon have only gotten more precise and more delightfully obscure over the years. On opposite ends of The Comeback Kid, Mulaney invokes America’s Most Wanted and the 1993 film version of The Fugitive.
In many ways, it’s good that Mulaney doesn’t talk about Mulaney in The Comeback Kid. (He’d save that subject for the promotional circuit.) To make light of the show’s short life would be giving too much power to something that’s already becoming a footnote in the comedian’s career. He’s over it, he’s passed it—like Bill Clinton, moving past defeat in the primaries on his way to the White House. The new special puts the sitcom even deeper in Mulaney’s rear-view, returning the comedian to a medium that fits him in a format that fits his talents.