Review: John Mulaney shocks the United Center, spinning stories of rehab and not-niceness

Review: John Mulaney shocks the United Center, spinning stories of rehab and not-niceness

John Mulaney, a bit heavier in the face since last we saw him, a bit more weathered since his personal life imploded publicly, now looking eager to shed his Catholic choirboy air at 39, stepped out of the wings at the United Center on Thursday night with visibly watery eyes. He appeared overwhelmed and humbled. Here was the first of three sold-out arena shows, in his hometown, and on a scale seldom reserved for a funny writer with a microphone and a glass of water on a stool. Then he plowed forward, characteristically undercutting the moment: Being here, in the great house of Michael Jordan, reminded him if you’re white and grow up in Lincoln Park with no major concerns, you can do great things.

He wore a tuxedo and boomed in his trademark carnival barker cadence, but considering the size of the audience and squirminess that followed, it felt slyly subversive, even thrillingly electric. Albeit, the way you feel when anyone is telling you a story so intimate you’re not sure you should be hearing this.

Mulaney, in his previous life, liked to remind audiences that he used to have addictions and people were surprised to hear this, since he didn’t look like “someone who used to do anything.”

He owned his comfort.

He was supremely confident, outwardly fun, frenetic and faux-positive. He noted this early on. It was the drugs, he said. He said that he knew his vibe seems different these days, and then leaned into the audience and asked a 12-year-old boy if he knew what happened to him. The child did not. He asked the child’s name. “Pat,” the kid said. “You know in other cities, kids aren’t named that,” Mulaney said, and then for the majority of a 90-minute show, he filled Pat in — on shady prescriptions, arrogance and pettiness.

Comedian John Mulaney launched his “From Scratch” tour with 2021 shows at City Winery in New York. (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for SiriusXM)

Or rather, Mulaney recounted the details of an addiction so harrowing that, for months, the news was loud and constant. Everyone knew too much about him — a lot of it counter to his pleasant facade. In fact, among the tour merchandise at the United Center, there’s a T-shirt with a clever dig at the audience’s voyeurism. On the front, it just reads: “I saw him right after he got outta rehab.” For those who don’t know: Mulaney was addicted to cocaine, Klonopin, Xanax; he was smoking heavily, drinking heavily. In 2020, after 30 days in rehab and a relapse, he was subjected to an intervention by his comedy friends. He returned to rehab for another 60 days. Also, his marriage fell apart as he began dating actress Olivia Munn and the couple had a baby. For a guy who looked so tastefully composed, it was all genuinely scandalous.

What Mulaney faces these days is the question of how much of his persona to replace.

Much of his act was centered on hilarious and relatively meaningless faux-outrages — abusive airline service, greedy college telemarketers — and he seems eager for a fresher, more intense register. The result are moments in this new show so unsettling and chilly — he barks at the nice women in charge of his intervention that she shouldn’t be fooled by his warmhearted persona — you cringe. He demands a free haircut at “Saturday Night Live” during a week when he isn’t hosting. In rehab, he’s disgusted the other patients haven’t heard of him. (He says, “ask your teenage daughter, or your son if he’s not athletic.”)

The times when he still throws in the usual stand-up material — Russia’s crazy; there are too many podcasts; as a child, he asked for a membership to the Chicago History Museum — it distracts. He even noted it seemed “phony” to sound so upbeat. He’s right. Before I give you the wrong idea, understand: John Mulaney is always fun to watch. But he’s evolving, and that old faux-vulnerability sounds real now.

As large as the United Center may be, it went silent at times, not from a lack of laughs but because Mulaney is fundamentally a memoirist and a web spinner now offering truths rarely heard outside therapy. The story of his intervention and rehab — the heart of the show — is so compelling and well crafted it’s reminiscent of Richard Pryor’s classic bit about running on fire down the street after a night of freebasing. It also shares DNA with storytelling comics like Hannah Gadsby and even Bill Burr who, with each new Netflix special, strips back his righteousness. Mulaney, like Burr, is asking what a coherent person should look like — while simultaneously recognizing that life doesn’t allow coherence.

That’s the laugh.

It’s thuddingly obvious to say stand-up comedy demands vulnerability — here is a profession in which you stand in front of people, tell stories and expose some bit of yourself and in return, if it works, they repay you by laughing at your problems. Mulaney — whose tour is aptly titled “From Scratch” — is reinventing himself right now, and raising the stakes of those problems. But generously so. As a hometown encore Thursday, he did one of his best loved routines. It was a victory lap, a story of a young Mulaney at home in Lincoln Park. Alongside his newer, unnerving material, it also sounded very long ago.

cborrelli@chicagotribune.com

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