John Mulaney’s “From Scratch” At City Winery, Monday, May 10th, 2021, Reviewed
John Mulaney, the SNL comedian, and writer, famous for his Broadway comedy “Oh, Hello,” and outstanding stand-up Netflix specials, “New Kid In Town,” “The Comeback Kid,” and “Kid Gorgeous,” is out of rehab and ready to spill the beans at the socially distant new City Winery. The result was an hour of super fresh, still in notes form, stand-up about drug addiction, interventions, and the Outback chain. Mulaney is overwhelmed with backstory right now, yesterday morning the tabs were filled with his impending divorce, with his wife, the artist Anna Marie Tendler, sadly saying “I am heartbroken that John has decided to end our marriage. I wish him support and success as he continues his recovery.” Nothing very funny there. Nothing all that funny in what Mulaney would call the shambles of his life. And therein lies a problem.
But before we get there, Mulaney’s performance of “From Scratch” last night at City Winery was my personal return to the beat since catching The Brothers at MSG on March 11th, 2020, and just about everything to do with the new City Winery is first-rate. Socially distance shows are a blast, in the Varick Street shop Michael Dorf stripped us of our last ounce of dignity as we were herded like cattle and cramped together for maximum City Winery buck. 2021 is still under restrictions and the net effect was 150 people in a room that could easily fit twice that amount, I was on the balcony ($31.50 including fees) and I could see perfectly, and I didn’t feel like livestock.
The new City Winery is on 15th Street and 11th Avenue, and the room works like the old place on steroids, a vast expanse of space. If you’ve had your vaccines (Michael Dorf, introducing the show, announced that everyone in attendance had had both shots) you should go, the “team” at City Winery is always personable without being overbearing, and the entire lead up to the main event was perfect. We felt like the chosen few. They took our cell phones, so no pictures by the way. But the show itself…Roy Woods is the Canadian rapper and when Dorf introduced Roy Wood I briefly fooled myself into believing that’s what we were getting, what we got was Roy Wood of The Daily Show doing fifteen minutes of observation humor on Covid-19 protocols and racism… you’ve got to wonder when American racism is going to stop paying off for black comics. Maybe here. I don’t know the shop well enough to tell whether the audience’s quietness was an effect of acoustics or social distancing, or because it wasn’t very funny, but few of the jokes hit hard.
Wood handed off to Mulaney looking hideous in white kicks and skinny jeans, and looking, or acting at least, a little off-center. I stopped drinking 11 years ago, and he reminded me of me three months after I quit; nothing I did felt right. Mulaney noted how this was the first performance he’d done without drugs in a long, long time, “I’d kill everyone here for a line of cocaine” the 141 days sober comedian cracked. And he acted it as well; talking about prescription drugs with a member of the audience it was all inside baseball, till he ended the conversation with “We’ll talk later…” It was intrinsically not amusing.
Mulaney has come a long way from hysterical routines like being mistaken for a teen Asian girl when he was in High School, but “From Scratch” can’t be saved from its sorrow, every revelation is sad, every intervention pathetic, every joke a thudding bummer even when funny as he takes us through the life of a junkie in the middle of a pandemic. From buying drugs in an apartment in Queens to taking us from showing up to his intervention hours late to showing up to GMA hours late, to trying to sneak drugs into rehab, he is almost a rapper in discussing his life and borderline bragging. The best piece didn’t work but will soon, about a paranoid at rehab who flipped out when the only employee he trusted wore someone else’s shirt and nametag. Mulaney was confused by why the joke sank without a trace, it is a little convoluted, but I bet he fixes it by this evening’s performance.
John was at his best improvising with the audience, which made you feel like a close friend, so much so that he claimed we were his best friends and he loved us. Which was also kinda sad. Stand up is a sad and lonely job but is it this sad and lonely? Between the jokes, John was a tragic figure, a man with everything and he’d give it all for a line of toot. He has that fogged in recovery half-life and it inflicted the performance, checking his notes, checking the audience reaction to the jokes, he spun stories of rehab for an hour and then just stopped, he hadn’t worked out his close.
If City Winery had announced the four nights as Mulaney working on new material, we still would have gone (all four nights sold out), but that is still only 600 seats for a man who sold out Radio City Music Hall); with our expectations narrowed we might have been forbearing. Mulaney will either relapse or will keep straight, and both would be better for his stand-up than this. Setting himself an impossible task, he failed to get it funny enough. You just know that by the end of the four-night run he will have, perhaps, one of his great sets in place but he didn’t last night. The only person I’ve seen nail drugs as a comedy routine was Richard Pryor, the pain is too deep, it is like joking about your wife’s suicide. We were sent packing at 930pm.