Stand-up comedian John Mulaney is back after his longest hiatus between shows yet. On April 22, Mulaney performed his new set “From Scratch” at CHI Health Center arena.
A former writer on “Saturday Night Live,” Mulaney entered the comedy industry with a promise of success. Despite a failed sitcom at the beginning of his career (the unnotable “Mulaney”) his seven comedy specials, released over ten years, were all eagerly received, becoming instantly beloved. Due to the pandemic, amongst other things, Mulaney dropped off in early 2019.
Mulaney did not try to hide what had kept him out of the limelight for so long. In fact, the majority of his show was about it. Over the past two years, Mr. Mulaney has struggled with a drug issue, attended rehab, and started over … from scratch. At first glance, this degree of life-issue does not seem comedic. Even on the second it elicits a cringe. Mulaney did not really joke about his drug use, but used it as narrative by which to base his show. This made things genuine, but also painful.
It was obvious that the man on stage was hurting. There were times during the comedy set that laughing just didn’t feel natural. Still, stories about monkey business going wrong (literally), embarrassing moments of pride, and elementary school antics had the crowd roaring.
It raises an important question about the value of comedy as an artform. Basically, if a singer has freedom without judgment to cry his heart out during a ballad, does Mulaney, admittedly a master of a different art form, have liberty to divulge life’s debilitating moments during a comedy set?
The matter comes down to what comedy really is, and what it should be. It’s safe to say comedy makes us laugh. But also, a cruel undertone of comedy can be its ability to mask reality. This tenet, that makes the art so comforting and light, can sabotage its fans by ignoring truth.
Conan O’Brien, Robin Williams, and Bill Hader have all been open in sharing their experiences with depression or anxiety. It is a seemingly counterintuitive reality that comedians struggle with depression and anxiety. “But you tell jokes and laugh all day!” people will say.
This is the crux of the issue. The people we hold up as icons of joy and good spirits are not allowed to share how they really feel. In regarding them singularly, we reject their pain.
So, a slightly serious comedy hour is something I can take gladly. I like laughing till my lungs hurt as much as the next person. But, I’d much prefer a world where people are open and accepted for who they are. I like my comedians funny and honest.