John Mulaney, whose latest special “The Comeback Kid” premiered this past Friday on Netflix, may very well be the best writer in standup comedy. Considering how large and diverse the field has become, this could be a controversial claim. Certainly, there are comedians such as Maria Bamford who are more emotionally resonant, and others like Anthony Jeselnik who are more concisely cutting. Louis C.K. might be more big-picture influential, and Aziz Ansari more acutely aware of a generational zeitgeist. Still, when it comes to line-by-line, word-by-word joke writing, there is no one who can top Mulaney.
Coming off the heels of an initially hyped, then critically reviled, self-titled sitcom, it was important for “The Comeback Kid” to demonstrate something of a return to form. Prior to the premiere of “Mulaney,” the comedian had gained widespread notoriety for his phenomenal hour-long “New in Town,” which a number of sites named one of the best specials of 2012. Much like “The Comeback Kid,” “New in Town” was a dazzling display of gonzo storytelling and self-effacement, a perfectly calibrated bit of writing by the only comedian as in touch with his public image as Amy Schumer. Tackling his decision to quit drinking, his fascination with “Law and Order: SVU,” and a hilariously misguided attempt to procure Xanax from a physician, Mulaney shot himself to the forefront of the stand-up conversation, and created a brand that felt wholly unique. Repeating jokes from the special, it was impossible not to find oneself imitating the comedian’s intonations and gestures, a further marker of how intimately each bit was tied to its writer, how carefully constructed and acutely delivered Mulaney’s jokes were.
Apparently quite aware of the attention his special had gotten, Mulaney turned his sitcom into a simple multi-cam reenactment of “New in Town,” telling one of the jokes at the top of the episode, and using the following twenty minutes to stage the premise to middling effect. Gone was the precision of “New in Town”’s writing, the painstaking escalation of each premise and the comedian’s dizzying ability to link seeming disparate bits with a simple turn of phrase. All that was left was a shell of Mulaney’s genius, a literal going through of the motions that stunted the comedian’s ability to differentiate himself from nearly every other working stand-up. “Mulaney” was, furthermore, never able to mimic the way in which its parent special evolved, joke by joke, with each bit feeding off of the last. At best, the show felt like a bootlegged greatest hits collection, each individual cut removed from its necessary context and simply sort of plopped in front of the audience with a “you guys like this, right?” complacency. For those who had trumpeted John Mulaney in the wake of the show, it was something of a heartbreak.
It is, then, a major relief that “The Comeback Kid”—the title of which refers to President Bill Clinton, not the comedian—is such a stellar return to form. Retaining all of the absurd energy that gave “New in Town” its unique kick, “The Comeback Kid” is also a much more mature special, tackling a number of the changes that have overtaken Mulaney’s life since he last took the stage. He talks about his recent marriage and the search for a house. He explains the decision to push back having children and opt instead for a French Bulldog named Petunia, whom he voices as a disgruntled denizen of occupied Paris. As opposed to other comedians, Mulaney isn’t interested in making generational statements about these milestones. In fact, the most he has to say about what it means to be married is the newfound power of the phrase “my wife.” Sure, he provides a wonderfully extended deconstruction of the “bananas offensive” saying—“why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”—but even this is more of a chance to riff on the absurd language in which the platitude is rooted (“Why buy the cow? Maybe because every time another cow gets bought, you have to go to the sale; and you have to sit next to your cow at the sale; and your cow looks over at you the entire time…and does not enjoy the sale at all, even though she’s the one that wanted to go to the sale”).
The best jokes in the special are those that allow Mulaney the opportunity to demonstrate his incredible command of words, both subtle and overt. A fellow altar boy who ruined a wedding video with a bratty jab at the bride is “rat-mustachioed” and “Cheeto-fingered.” Meanwhile, in the climactic bit, Bill Clinton is a “smooth and fantastic hillbilly.” Many of “The Comeback Kid’s” strongest stories hinge on moments like these, instances where Mulaney is able to give a situation that another comedian might also tackle a unique and bizarre texture via a single memorable phrase. Take, for instance, Mulaney’s dissection of Robert Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future,” a film whose incestuous strangeness is both well-known and oft tackled. Rather than simply referencing the picture’s various oddities, however, Mulaney stages the joke as a pitch meeting, where the “Back to the Future” writers must, plot-point by plot-point, explain their vision to executives who try to anticipate the upcoming story with far more conventional suggestions (the bit envisions an executive assuming the time machine will be used to prevent the Kennedy assassination, an idea which stops and mortifies the fictional writer in his tracks). In a similar set-up, Mulaney continually interrupts his description of the ballroom in which he met Bill Clinton with a scattered description of its role in the climax of the film “The Fugitive,” a seemingly random connection that only later reveals itself as a subtle callback to Mulaney’s use of the phrase “I didn’t kill my wife” in his earlier riff on the circumstances of marriage.
It’s this sort of linguistic and structural intricacy that so distinguishes “The Comeback Kid” from other specials and Mulaney from other comedians. Part of what’s so impressive about this hour of stand-up is how clearly orchestrated and organized each bit is and yet how off-the-cuff and natural the final delivery seems. With an intimidating command of the stage, Mulaney reminds his audience just how difficult comedy really is, how much attention must go into the building of the joke, and how much spontaneity is required to nail the delivery. To think that “The Comeback Kid” is able to pinpoint this invisible alchemy and contain not a single dud is practically absurd. That, on top of this, “The Comeback Kid” manages to filter its escalating goofiness through a carefully articulated core of warmth, creating a rare level of intimacy between comedian and audience, is something of a miracle. It just so happens to be the funniest miracle around.