Early in Baby J, John Mulaney’s first stand-up special in five years, released on Netflix this Tuesday, the comedian addresses his long absence from the industry in sing-song. Nearly three years after a very public stint in rehab and subsequent divorce, he croons, “now [my] reputation is…different!” He riffs that former fans have already switched allegiances to “less problematic” comedians like Bo Burnham, and he finishes with a flourish: “Likability is a jail!”
That line hangs over the rest of the show, because he’s right: Celebrities endure massive pressure to maintain their public image while navigating private problems, and it is an undoubtedly burdensome task. And yet the success of Mulaney’s comeback special depends deeply on his likability. More bluntly, it depends on his respectability, his status as someone who can be trusted to reenter society. If likability is a jail, it’s not one Mulaney is ready to leave behind quite yet; it’s one he must burrow further into in order to reclaim his cultural cachet.
Throughout Baby J, as he walks audiences through challenging subject matter—the night of his intervention in December 2020, his first week of getting sober, and his various convoluted plots to obtain drugs, among other things—Mulaney brings an attitude of, “Aw shucks, wasn’t I being crazy?” Recalling the night of his intervention, when he decided to get a haircut from the stylists at Saturday Night Live, he jokes about how they accommodated his unreasonable ask: “You know… when a junkie walks into your office and asks for a haircut, and you’re like, ‘Eh, it’d be faster to cut the hair?’”
It’s his most comfortable mode throughout the special: chuckling affably about the poor judgment he once exhibited. The show culminates in Mulaney’s dramatic reading of a GQ interview he gave three days before his intervention, which he has “absolutely no memory of giving.” He plays the GQ interviewer as a bewildered professional, and himself as a raging lunatic, braying out unrelated sentences while holding the mic stand askew. His past self is more like a character than a memory, portrayed in goofy voices and exaggerated body language, thoroughly distanced from Mulaney’s sober, present self.
It’s a smart move. Mulaney is reasserting control over his image by redefining the most tumultuous period of his public life as a distant past that is as shocking to him as it is to anyone else. He is putting an end to voyeuristic speculation about the state of his health by offering a definitive final word: Yes, he made mistakes, but he’s better now, and look how lucid he is! It’s all incredibly smooth and thoroughly crafted; watch his extended interview with Seth Meyers from 2021, and you’ll see how long many of these jokes have been in the works.
Because Mulaney is indeed so likable, it’s tempting to attribute the success of Baby J to his precisely honed craft and obvious intelligence as a comedian. Yet very few famous people are afforded such a gracious opportunity to bounce back from a public reckoning with substance abuse. Watching Mulaney, it’s hard not to think of the famous women whose public breakdowns no one has let them forget, especially those raised into adolescent stardom: Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and Amanda Bynes come to mind, among other women whose early collisions with fame resulted in combustive media spectacles and heavy scrutiny of their substance use and mental health.
Public perception of an individual’s substance use, like almost everything else, depends greatly on that individual’s demographic markers: race and class especially. Rich white people doing coke to sustain their hard-partying lifestyle has always been the most socially acceptable way to do drugs. Skim the Twitter reactions to The Cut’s recent history of New York “It” girls, and you’ll find plenty of people joking that the list is just skinny white girls who do coke. Mulaney, a Georgetown-educated, SNL-bred millionaire son of a professor and an attorney, is exactly the kind of person who could return from rehab and keep scaling his career up. Historically, designer drug use tends not to detract from a rich person’s respectability.
When he dubs himself a “junkie,” he’s relying on a potent dramatic irony. Dressed in an expensive suit, presiding over the storied stage of Boston’s Symphony Hall, he exists at a safe remove from the threatening, unlikable connotations of drug use: poverty, violence. The title of the special comes from a running gag, in which he says, “They call me Baby J out on these streets.” Again, the bit relies on the irony of his status: Of course this prim white guy grew up far removed from the worlds of gangs and cartels. Even his most “obnoxious” story, a saga about buying and pawning a $12,000 Rolex watch, is a reminder that Mulaney’s class status is aspirational, that he participated in the drug economy as a privileged consumer, never a dealer, never grimily entangled in the intergenerational cycles of poverty that pressure people into seeking the lucrative opportunity of selling drugs.
But even among rich white celebrities, age and gender change the way we perceive and respond to people’s histories of substance use and abuse. Famous women’s public struggles with addiction and mental health are both more likely to be treated as jokes and less likely to fade from their reputation.
The 2007 incident when Britney Spears shaved her head has been preserved in memes, shirts, and other souvenirs ever since; this precarious personal moment for the pop star made her into a public figure people felt free to make fun of. More than a decade after the incident, her off-kilter Instagram posts became fodder for parody and speculation about her mental health. Even after robust reporting on her entry into a conservatorship controlled by her father, and a monthslong push by #FreeBritney fans to reinstate the pop star’s autonomy, she hasn’t been able to reestablish herself in the public eye as an able adult whose life has been shaped and challenged by mega fame. Instead, she remains fair game for cheap laughs.
Part of the problem is that Spears—like other famous women in similar positions—had her public breakdown thoroughly photographed. It’s hard to combat the power of a photograph, and the privacy of famous women has always come second to the possibility of profiting off of their image. Spears’ half-shaved head, Lindsay Lohan’s mugshots, Amanda Bynes in a rumpled blonde wig at her courthouse appearance, Amy Winehouse stumbling on stage, Cara Delevigne barefoot at the airport: All of these images have fueled public fascination with the respective stars’ substance use, puncturing the celebrities’ reputations more gravely than a piece of tabloid gossip ever could.
Photographic evidence of Mulaney’s erratic behavior has never circulated—whether that is because none exists or because he has a diligent publicity team, it’s hard to say—and that has certainly made it easier for him to hold his substance use at a clear remove from his current life. But compromising photos of famous men have never been as sought-after as compromising photos of famous women.
From leaked nudes to pornographic deep fakes, people seek to possess and control images of famous women, to deprive them of privacy and dignity; whereas even famous men’s mugshots—Robert Downey Jr., Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars, Shia Labeouf all have mugshots from arrests on drug or alcohol charges—tend to be treated more like fun facts than reputation ruiners. The tabloid fixation with photographing women in their most exposed moments of grappling with substance use is a natural extension of more deeply rooted impulses to treat women’s images as commodities and their looks as metrics of their worth.
That Mulaney’s recovery has been unmarred by the distribution of cruel photographs is a lucky gift, but it’s not really a coincidence. He gets to stage a successful comeback because he is exactly the kind of celebrity to whom audiences are most likely to extend forgiveness: a mild-mannered rich white guy, well-groomed and seemingly trustworthy. He’s also a gifted comedian, and it makes Baby J a funny, compelling watch. But in some ways, that hardly seems to matter. Spears is a fantastic pop star, and Lohan and Bynes have always been deft actors. Their far less compassionate treatment in the public eye is not a function of their talent but their vulnerability as young women, all too readily judged for losing control.
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