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This weekend I watched the new John Mulaney Netflix comedy special, Baby J. Mulaney’s had an eventful couple of years, and he recounts much of it in his hour-and-a-half long show, filmed over three nights at Boston’s Symphony Hall. Since December 2020 he’s been the focus of a star-studded intervention, had a long period in rehab for drug abuse, gone through a divorce followed by a very sudden new relationship, and had a baby with his new girlfriend. Mulaney, known for his work on Saturday Night Live, has always been poised, unflappable, energetic, and exudes a nice-guy persona. A straight-laced, suit-wearing, kid-next-door kind of comic.
Then all of a sudden…he wasn’t as straight-laced as we thought. The persona he’d been playing was caught out to be just that – a persona. He references this persona at the beginning of his new show, singing a little ditty in his classic charming vaudevillian way, while acknowledging that he knows he can’t be that person anymore. “We all went to rehab and we all got divorced, and now our reputation is diiiiiiiferent.” After spotting an eleven-year old in the audience, he tells him, “If you’ve seen any of my other work, I’ve got a different vibe now.”
And that’s partly true. Mulaney certainly goes into some of the nitty-gritty of his drug use and rehab experience. He talks about buying a $12,000 Rolex on credit so he can pawn it off minutes later for $6000 to buy drugs. He acknowledges he was a difficult patient in rehab. He opens the show with the admission that he’s always needed attention.
He tells us all these things…but does so in a way that doesn’t make us, the audience, uncomfortable. Because as he’s telling us these things, he’s being remarkably and expectedly funny. It’s a delivery that’s sharp, polished, finessed, and well-thought out. Mulaney tells us stories from the past, but from a place of distance from those stories, as though trying to convince us that he can laugh about them as much as he hopes we can.
Some critics and reviewers are disappointed by this polished performance. They wanted a more raw, honest, confessional experience – the “real John Mulaney.” There were glimpses of that reality, glimpses of his story, but we were only let in in a way Mulaney could control, and there were parts of his story (his divorce, for example) that he never touched on. It was hardly a tell-all event.
But of course, people don’t pay money to watch a comedian cry on stage. They pay money so the comedian will make them laugh. They pay money to see the persona, not the person. At the end of the day, most people don’t want the real John Mulaney to come out on that stage. They want the character John Mulaney who will help them make sense of the last few years so they can come away feeling as though things are still okay.
Reading these reviews, I’m struck by some of the similarities between the dance of person and persona that a comic navigates, and that which a pastor navigates. I don’t mean a pastor has to develop a character for her or himself, but there’s always the question of how much of ourselves we let into this role we inhabit. I was just talking about this question with some fellow pastors with whom I meet monthly. Can pastors have real friends in the church? Can we be honest about our own doubts, struggles, and failures? Or do we have to present ourselves in a way that is somewhat guarded, thoughtfully considering how much, or what, we let the congregation see?
For better or worse, congregants have expectations of their pastor. A pastor represents something to them – the presence of God, a steadiness…of course, people want their pastors to be themselves, but at the end of the day, when crisis or loss rears its head, people don’t look to their pastor for friendship, but for pastoring. They need whatever the pastor…as pastor…brings to the situation. They need to know their pastor has the capacity to walk alongside them in this moment, bearing the presence of a faithful God.
And it can be tricky for pastors to seek friends among congregants. There’s so much we can’t talk about…it wouldn’t be appropriate, for example, to vent about a particularly challenging council meeting over a beer with someone who is being led by that council. But does that stop us from finding friends amongst our parishioners? In the book, This Odd and Wondrous Calling, pastor Lillian Daniel muses that in a world that defines people too much in terms of work, “perhaps there is something helpfully countercultural about having friendships in which work, and workplace gossip, cannot be the central focus” (p. 41).
I think there’s something to that. Not all friendships have to involve the same level of honest soul-baring. A friendship with a peer or someone outside the church might look different than a friendship with a church member, but that doesn’t mean the latter isn’t a real friendship.
We live in a world that values authenticity. We want to see the “real deal”…the unfiltered Instagram posts, the tears behind the smile…usually “authentic” actually means “imperfect.”
But maybe the authentic relationship between pastor and parishioner is one of acknowledged differences in roles. Maybe the authentic relationship between comic and audience is one in which the only tears being shed are those of laughter.
Did we see the real “Baby J” on stage at the Boston Symphony Hall? Maybe not all of him. But we saw him as we wanted to see him, as was right to see him, given the context. We saw him make us laugh. Which, for a comic, is about as authentic in the moment as one can be.