John Mulaney
Photo: Netflix

Coming out onto the enormous, lavishly glitzy stage of Radio City Music Hall to start his new comedy special, John Mulaney stands alone facing the huge, appreciative crowd and squarely orients himself with his very first line: “I love to play venues where, if the guy that built the venue could see me on the stage, he would be a little bit bummed about it.” The comedian plants the flag with his persona expertly. On the one hand, he is just John Mulaney—former Saturday Night Live writer, stand-up comic, failed sitcom lead, and perennially self-deprecating figure, his ever-boyish face and gangly frame looking overmatched by his tailored suit. And this is Radio City, its cavernous auditorium and bulb-glimmering sunburst stage home more to spangled kick-lines and Santa Claus than one goofball’s one-liners.

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But Mulaney’s earned that stage, in more ways than one. Apart from being one of the most consistently entertaining comics working, there’s a whiff of old showbiz to his onstage persona that feels right at home at such an old-school venue. Not that Mulaney’s work is corny, but his delivery smacks of vaudeville projection, his lanky physicality born of the road show performer’s need to capture a crowd’s attention at all times. There’s a self-effacing streak in his jokes that never comes off as merely performative, but as part of a veteran comedian’s carefully stocked toolkit. At only 35, John Mulaney is a trouper, an inveterate comic by choice and hard worker who, nonetheless, owns the stage like he’s been playing Radio City since it opened in 1932.

Photo: Netflix

The opening skit of the special seems to know that, too, seeing a rattled-looking Mulaney following a spectrally dedicated theater hand (Carole Shelley) through the building’s ornate backstage; he looks as if he knows its his fate to haunt these halls like so many long-forgotten performers before him. Raised onstage finally via the venue’s antique stage elevator, Mulaney jokes about the place being filled with ghosts, calling out, “Who did you used to be?” to the wafting cold patches. Kid Gorgeous (the name, perhaps, of one such deceased comic from the venue’s early days) revels in Radio City’s faded splendor, director Alex Timbers delighting in long, sweeping shots past the row of naked bulbs at the lip of the stage.

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Mulaney’s material is as outstanding as it’s been in his past specials, with some of the bits here familiar from his similarly strong recent SNL hosting turn. Like a lot of stand-ups, Mulaney’s comedy traffics in unmasking absurdity. But he is unmatched at building his dissection of ludicrousness (school assemblies, college, aging, manners, church) on an escalating series of hilariously observed, unerringly specific details. Talking about being scolded by his grade school principal for laughing at a guest speaker’s anti-bullying presentation, Mulaney embodies the furious administrator as her rant inadvertently drops more and more reasons why the poor volunteer with a wrist cast, homemade puppets “that all have the same voice,” and a Dodge Neon with inadequate trunk space was essentially a trap laid for young John and his giggling cohorts. Mulaney has a booming delivery that nonetheless remains resolutely grounded in his humanity, an energetic stage persona that never feels showy so much as delighted to sweep us up in his happy, knowing bafflement.

Throughout Kid Gorgeous, Mulaney expertly drops callbacks, not so much out of cleverness but from the secure knowledge that they’ll kill. Within a bit about his debate-minded father’s dinner table cross-examination of a schoolyard injustice, Mulaney—playing the part of his 6-year-old self—repeats the phrase, “I was over on the bench,” with such obdurate precision that it elevates the father-son conflict to comic heights. Similarly, in a segment about his expensive alma mater asking him for donations, he hits the sum “$120,000” like an expertly targeted sledgehammer, leaving the audience breathless. And don’t get Mulaney started on the exquisitely named Chicago cop/“stranger danger” school speaker Det. J.J. Bittenbinder, whose heavily accented advice on escaping his inevitable kidnapping haunts Mulaney to this day with elaborate scenarios involving decoy money clips and “backroom Chicago violence.”

Photo: Netflix

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For a guy whose eagerness to both please and admit his own lack of personal authority is so central to his act, politics would appear to be a tricky tonal minefield to navigate. But Mulaney’s inevitable Trump material in Kid Gorgeous is a brilliantly crafted extended simile about a horse turned loose in a hospital whose every comic turn is embroidered with consistently surprising yet airtight-logical detail. For one thing, he never mentions Trump by name, referring to him as “this guy being president,” which (apart from a few suspiciously familiar impressionist interludes) widens the focus, keeping the everyday absurdity of our national situation from devolving into simple character assassination. (The same goes for a couple of jabs at Bill Maher’s provocative “look at me!” comic persona, though he does call Maher out by name at one point.)

Finding a potent satirical angle on this ludicrous political circus has defeated a lot of otherwise solid comic minds in the past few years. (Just ask Mulaney’s old SNL pals.) But Mulaney, as he does with any other subject, just picks a metaphor and opens it up more and more. Branching out to the press’ often floundering attempts to cover a president whose blinkered, equine view of himself and the world routinely tramples on every previously honored boundary in sight, Mulaney depicts cable news as desperately bringing on “a man that once saw a bird in the airport.” Extending his metaphor to its only logical conclusion, Mulaney’s furious “Get out of here with that shit!” sums things up as well as any comic yet has.