I went to see John Mulaney perform at Stockholm Waterfront last week. I must admit to being just a casual fan and not overly familiar with his work. I’ve seen one, maybe two of his Netflix specials and enjoyed them, I know he was a writer for SNL but couldn’t tell you what he’d actually contributed, I very much liked his appearances on the series Crashing.

I’d heard that he’d been in and out of rehab a few times, most recently just before the pandemic. I’d also heard that he split from his wife and immediately begun a relationship with Olivia Munn (if you’re curious what she looks like, I would not recommend an image search of “Olivia Munn Superbowl” with Safe Search turned off), resulting in a child, leading to speculation that he’d been cheating with her while still married. Heading to the venue, I wondered if he’d address these things. Upon arriving, I noticed the merch table selling T-shirts that said something like, “I saw John Mulaney fresh out of rehab,” so I guessed the answer was yes.

Mulaney had two opening acts that were each slightly above mediocre. Being slightly above mediocre myself, I couldn’t help but think that I could’ve been equally as successful as his opening act. In fact, I was only half-tuned into them as I was busy thinking about what material I would’ve used. I spotted a few other comics I know in the crowd and I’d bet they were doing the same.

Then it was Mulaney’s turn. For context, I’ve seen the specials that Louis CK released since his implosion a few years ago, a handful of podcasts he’s guested on, even saw him live in Stockholm last year, and I’ve been consistently disappointed by his reluctance to publicly delve deep into it all. Sure, he named a special “Sorry” with that spelled out in huge letters behind him onstage, but other than a few quick jokes and vague references, he doesn’t really get into the meat of it. It’s his choice and I get that he doesn’t want to talk about it, which is fine, but it’s still disappointing when comics avoid being brutally honest and open, especially when Louis CK is lauded for being that way. He obviously has the skills and ability to address it, but won’t.

I wondered if Mulaney would go the same route, make a few passing references to the elephant in the room and then spend the rest of the show with funny but otherwise meaningless material. Which isn’t to say that doing funny, meaningless material is a bad thing, of course. Not every standup set needs to be deep. People can still find funny things to say about airline food. Audiences buy tickets to laugh, after all.

At the start he mentioned that his first child had been born, to a round of applause, and that was the end of that. I thought he’d have more to say on the subject, but just shrugged. I guessed he would be going the Louis CK route after all. But I was pleasantly surprised, and impressed, that the rest of show was devoted entirely to his latest stint in rehab and what led up to it. Not only that, despite the seriousness of the subject and his admission of dark experiences, the crowd was laughing from start to finish.

The next day, one of the comics I know who was in the audience posted a review on FB, saying that was good but didn’t live up to his Netflix specials. Another comic commented that it definitely could’ve been better. I chuckled as it’s pretty standard for comics to give less than raving reviews of bigger comics.

To be fair, I agree that his Netflix specials were funnier, but I think this was far and away the best I’ve seen him. I’ve always said that, when it comes to comedy, and standup in particular, funniest is not always best. The funniest movie Monty Python released is Holy Grail, the best movie they did is Life of Brian, but the best Monty Python movie is Meaning of Life. The funniest Pryor special is Sunset Strip, but the best Pryor special is Here and Now. The best Andrew “Dice” Clay album is The Day the Laughter Died, where he bombs for nearly two hours straight.

I think it’s reductive to sum up his performance as not as funny as previous specials as it doesn’t say much about his actual performance. The crowd certainly enjoyed themselves throughout, although they were a bit slow to give him a standing ovation at the end; he’d mentioned that he was flying out the same evening but I can’t help but wonder if he’d have done an encore if we’d all sprang to our feet. While I give him credit for being brutally honest, I have no idea how honest he really was. After all, I know a lot of my own true stories on stage are embellished in some ways and simplified in others. Obviously he really did go to rehab and I doubt it was just a publicity stunt.

The bottom line is that, as comics, we want to make the crowd laugh and be likeable ourselves. Mulaney acknowledged that the last thing most of the stories he told that night would make him likeable, and that’s a route few comics are willing to take. Again, it’s not something I expect from all comics and, being a casual fan of his, if he’d made a few quick jokes about rehab and then spent the rest of the show talking nonsense, I wouldn’t have been disappointed. Instead, I walked away with respect that he would dare and Louis CK will not.