So, what was the point of John Mulaney’s live Netflix talk show?

Peterson, Silverman, and Mulaney on a talk show set.
Cassandra Peterson, Sarah Silverman, and John Mulaney at John Mulaney Presents: Everybody’s in LA for the Netflix is a Joke Festival at the Sunset Gower Studios on May 8, 2024, in Los Angeles, CA. | Ryan West/Netflix

Everybody’s in LA’s week-long stint is over. It still might point toward the streamer’s future — and the comedian’s.

John Mulaney’s new, just-concluded Netflix comedy limited series, Everybody’s in LA, felt experimental in a number of ways. It’s not only Netflix trying out an interesting format — the show debuted live on May 3 and played out over the past week in a series of six nightly live episodes — but it also feels like Mulaney soft-launching a side gig.

As the host to a motley crew of Los Angeles natives and town-invading comedians, Mulaney seems to be testing the waters for what kind of comedy his audience wants from him now. His 2023 confessional special Baby J won an Emmy for outstanding writing and delved into his recent struggles with sobriety, but it brought mixed reviews from critics — some of whom seemed skeptical at best that Mulaney had done enough to bare his soul for the rest of us.

After a rough few years for Mulaney, such cynicism about the comedian seemed to be the prevailing sentiment. In particular, 2021 saw him enter rehab for drug addiction. Shortly after his release, it became clear that Mulaney had chosen to end his marriage to his then-wife of six years, Anna Marie Tendler, and begun a relationship with actor Olivia Munn — the timeline of which has been described as “tight.” No sooner had Mulaney filed for divorce than rumors of an affair leaked, followed by news that Munn was pregnant.

The scandal hit the public unusually hard in a pandemic-era culture that clung to its heroes, and Mulaney’s transgressions spawned both intense backlash and intense discourse about whether our parasocial relationships have gotten too warped. The period severely damaged Mulaney’s relationship with his core audience, once full of people who responded to his idealistic charm. Those folks didn’t seem to move on easily — not even by April 2023, when Mulaney, through Baby J, proffered a way forward via the more traditional route: a redemptive confessional.

Jump ahead to May 2024, and perhaps, if attempt one didn’t totally set a clear path forward for the comic, attempt two will: enter, an intentionally random daily comedy talk show built around the threadbarest of excuses. The show’s raison d’être: LA is weird. The solution: gather an unexpected bunch of funny people and locals together to talk about how weird LA is. The host: a comedian famed for his own likable random weirdness.

Mulaney seems to be covering his bases. “We are only doing six episodes,” he explains in the introduction to Everybody’s in LA, “so the show will never hit its groove.” If this flops, it’s fine. Mulaney jokes that he doesn’t know why he’s doing the show, which functions as a side event for Netflix’s elaborate LA comedy festival, Netflix Is a Joke. “I need structure,” he says, a non-justification that also doubles as a subtle reminder for some viewers that we’re looking at a person who has a history of addiction and is presumably in recovery.

That’s about as deep as this show gets, however; though we do get some gestures to sociocultural topics like environmentalism and the incessant problem of LA traffic, they’re handed to us in the guise of, for example, a coyote wrangler or a gonzo helicopter journalist. Mulaney features famous comedians, yes, but also everyone from hypnotherapists to former OJ Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark. (And really, what could be more LA than that?) In between conversations, Mulaney features pretaped sketches from more guest comedians and Daily Show-style comedy correspondents. As if that’s not chaotic enough, he also has call-in guests. At one point during episode five, a seismologist sits quietly by while a caller recounts being awakened by an earthquake while sleeping in the nude. These probably aren’t the talk show beats you’re used to.

Mulaney’s one-week fling with the city also works out well for Netflix. Despite trying on and off for years to make Netflix talk shows a thing, and despite intermittently bringing David Letterman back to do one-off long-form interviews, the platform has never nailed the format before this. The nightly show seems to be making a small impact; it’s currently hanging around at No. 10 on the Netflix US Top 10 shows for the day, and it’s moved up and down the chart for most of the week.

Not a bad beginning; the beginning of what, exactly, remains somewhat unclear. Netflix could also be using this show as a pilot entry for similar themed efforts from other temporary hosts — in other words, more appointment TV. It certainly seems that the entire week, beginning with Katt Williams’s live standup special Woke Foke and the jarringly uncomfortable Roast of Tom Brady, was an experimental make-or-break week for Netflix and live programming.

Or perhaps Netflix will do this again next year during its next comedy fest; perhaps in a few months, Mulaney will move to another quirky American city with another quirky band of guests. It’s an interesting concept: What would this type of series be like if it took both it and the city it’s in a little more seriously? What would viewers make of it if we didn’t know as much about the city itself as we’ve absorbed about Los Angeles from decades of cultural osmosis? I’m not saying Everybody’s in Boise is the way to go, but I am saying I’d probably watch it for the local color.

Whether this is enough to restore Mulaney to the top of the comedy world seems equally uncertain. The main charm of the show, all told, has less to do with the assemblage of guests than watching Mulaney’s effortless wrangling of them. Night after night, Mulaney embraces all the awkwardness of live comedy, and it doesn’t always embrace back: Often the guests are hostile; the sketches don’t always land; the callers are too eager to grandstand. Mulaney sidesteps it all like it’s Dance Dance Revolution and he knows this particular song by heart. As a host, he’s fab.

Yet the idea of Mulaney as a talk show host on an ongoing basis feels like a net loss rather than a gain. Sure, he can bring together comedy titans and make sure they don’t run over an hour, but he’s probably fit for better things. If the dominant criticism of Baby J was that it coasted too lightly over Mulaney’s self-recrimination, then Everybody’s in LA directs his talents entirely outward; it’s intentionally lighthearted, deliberately shallow. There’s meaning in the edges, but that usually has little to do with why we love Mulaney himself. The arguable best moment in the series, in fact, doesn’t involve Mulaney at all, but rather a pretaped segment in episode two that reunites core members of the LA punk scene. They sit around reminiscing, then write a silly punk song together on the fly.

It’s fun, it’s poignant. But it’s not as fun or poignant as Mulaney himself can be when he’s alone onstage with only his flaws and a thousand people willing to laugh at and then forgive them. If Everybody’s in LA brings his audience closer to a suspension of hostilities, then it will have been well worth it.

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