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Black Coffee, Babydoll: A Candid Convo Between Mulaney and Colbert, and Why It Matters

With a series of stand-up comedy specials on Netflix that have taken the internet by storm, along with dozens of award nominations and wins for his stellar comedic writing and performances after a failed 2014 sitcom, it’s no question that John Mulaney has become the true “Comeback Kid” (a nickname and title he coined for his incredible 2015 special). He is, as Bruce Fretts of The New York Times describes him in an excellent 2018 profile, “a choirboy type who makes the sort of embittered observations you’d expect from a much older, more cynical man.” With a gift for words, a knack for impressions, and a unique, unapologetically earnest style all his own, John Mulaney has become the comedic sensation we didn’t know we needed. While he’s most obviously struck a chord with the college/university demographic (having many of us at, “What is college?”), he’s also found an appreciative and enthusiastic audience with viewers of all ages and backgrounds. 

While I don’t remember the specific day or setting in which I stumbled across my first Mulaney Netflix special (Kid Gorgeous) during my freshman year, though it was most definitely involved in a spiral of procrastination and self-doubt, I remember feeling both called out and hilariously seen by the line: “College was one big game show called, ‘Do my friends secretly hate me, or do I just need to go to sleep?’” From then on I was hooked, and have since re-watched almost everything Mulaney-related from his stand-up to his guest appearances to his interviews over and over for comfort and laughs. Much as I would love to break down some of his best stand-up lines and skits, I’m actually going to talk about a really funny and poignant interview of his from earlier this year, and how it not only touched me unexpectedly, but also how it reflects what makes his comedy and general presence so special. 

 

On the January 22nd show of Late Night with Stephen Colbert, Mulaney sat down with the eponymous host. The two began by talking about his reputation as a semi-dirty clean comic, growing up as a latchkey kid, and his most recent Netflix special John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch. Mulaney’s admission that he was drawn to trouble as a kid leads to recounting a conversation with his wife about how he acts “fake” around his parents and how people can never really know what they think of each other no matter how close they may be. This is where the conversation takes an unexpected turn, for most late night TV segments anyway. Colbert is particularly adept at meeting his guests wherever they are and matching their energy in ways that often yield really interesting and refreshing conversations. Additionally, while every late night talk show host has their own appeal, bringing different strengths and styles to the table, Colbert is particularly great at asking his guests insightful and thought-provoking questions. After Mulaney turns down his offer of coffee, instead claiming he’ll just be having “water and tremendous anxiety,” Colbert dives right in by asking if Mulaney’s anxiety is the reason he never wants anyone to truly know him. Mulaney asks for some time to think about his answer before responding with the following:

“From an early age, I tried to be funny for the adults. My mom said, ‘When you were a baby, you used to poke your head out of blankets.’ She said, ‘It was like you knew how to be cute.’ She didn’t say it, like, flattering: ‘It was weird. It was like you knew what you were doing.’ I think I thought, and feel still, that I have to provide that in order for people to like me. The idea of, would they like me just as me—without poking out of the blanket, metaphorically—is a real thought or concern.”


Boy holding frozen treats
Sharon McCutcheon

Without missing a beat, Colbert immediately follows up with another question, asking if Mulaney thinks he’ll ever get to a place in his work where he won’t care as much about whether people like him or not. In yet another interesting and unexpected turn, Mulaney flips that question right back onto Colbert, asking if he’s been able to do that in his own career as a comedian/talk show host/public figure. Amused but relatively unflustered, Colbert offers a stunningly profound response: 

“I have gotten to a place where I don’t want a lot from the audience other than to make them laugh and to make a connection that my internal anxieties as I express them externally through the joke, when it makes them laugh I have that sense of comradery and community that I’m not crazy to feel this way….There are a lot of people out there who I know don’t like me because of the sometimes divisive nature of the jokes I make…. What feels personal is the connection [I make with those] who do appreciate the jokes. Beyond that, I’m just doing my job, and I wish no one harm. If some people don’t like what I do, I don’t like that—but it’s not my problem.”

 

It’s pretty rare for such a deep, serious conversation to take place on late night television. It’s even more extraordinary for such a conversation to happen so naturally yet gracefully, all the while remaining funny and enjoyable. The first time I watched this interview and heard Mulaney express his deep-seated need to be entertaining all the time in order to be liked, it hit me like a big, emotional pile of bricks. This is not to say I consider myself a comedian in any sense of the word, even though I do love comedy. What resonated with me in his response was hearing someone else talk about that gnawing, anxious compulsion to feel like you have to “perform” for other people in order to feel accepted and worthy of being liked or loved. 

 

It’s pretty normal and very human to be performative in changing your language and/or mannerisms with different people in different spaces depending on what best suits the situation. Where that can become harmful is the point where it starts to reflect a deep internalization of needing to be liked or approved of in order to feel good, connected, motivated, and even worthy. The stakes of every little interaction become so elevated in your mind that every small disagreement can feel like it’ll have earth-shattering, relationship-ending consequences. Every small risk brings to mind the possibility of the debilitating judgment and shame that could come with failure, to the point where you might not even want to try at all. Instead, you smile, deflect, and try to make sure everyone else around you is feeling good so you don’t have to deal with why you’re feeling bad. Will this be what they want to hear? Should you say or do this in a certain way? Do they like you still? What do they think of/feel about you now?


A photo of scrabble words assembled to spell \"anxiety\"
uploaded to Pixabay by Wokandapix

If I sound like I’m speaking from personal experience, it’s because I am. I can personally attest to the fact that constantly trying to be someone you’re not for other people is not only ineffective and unsustainable, it’s exhausting. I’ve worked incredibly hard at getting to a place where I am my own center of accountability and self-worth, and I continue on working towards that place every day by trying to learn, grow, and make healthy decisions more consistently (you know, the easy stuff). I’m not always successful at it, but I know that I can hit re-focus and re-start whenever I need, as many times as I need, with endless amounts of love and support from the amazing people and resources in my life. 

Mulaney and Colbert’s conversation not only sheds light on some important truths about dealing with the pressure of other people’s opinions, but it also reveals an important element of comedy–the sense of connection and community created in making and laughing at jokes about shared perceptions, fears, and experiences. Hearing two comedians and public figures whose work I deeply admire talk about their mental health and internal processes for staying true to themselves and their work in a way that’s funny, honest, heartwarming, and productive meant so much to me, and I hope it means something to you as well. 

If you’re interested in seeing this interview for yourself, check it out here (runs at about 13 minutes)! If you’re interested in adding some more Mulaney content to your life you can find four of his specials on Netflix (New in Town (2012), The Comeback Kid (2015), Kid Gorgeous (2017), and John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch (2019)) as well as countless segments, skits, interviews, SNL appearances etc. on YouTube!

Meg is a senior biology major and anthropology minor at Kenyon College. She's a STEM Scholar, an active member of her sorority Alpha Sigma Tau, a writer/editor for the Lyceum Magazine (a science/arts publication at Kenyon) and the mentoring coordinator and co-president of NAMI on Campus. You can find her studying remotely and taking lots of beach walks for the time being, unless of course she's procrastinating by watching one of her favorite TV shows (The West Wing, Fleabag, Jane the Virgin, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Bones).
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