John Mulaney opens up about addiction and rehab, and Alex Timbers has his back

Director Alex Timbers with stand-up comic John Mulaney, working on the "Baby J" special.

It’s late July, and the very busy Alex Timbers has managed to carve out a little time to talk about “Baby J,” John Mulaney’s superb Netflix stand-up special that Timbers directed and executive-produced. He’s deeply proud of the show, which is nominated for two Emmys, including variety special (prerecorded), but the veteran theater director is also in the early stages of rehearsals for “Gutenberg! The Musical!,” which premieres on Broadway in less than two months. If Timbers is feeling anxiety, he’s not showing it as he speaks over Zoom, a big smile on his face.

“It’s going really well,” he beams about his forthcoming show. “I think there’s a space where comedy meets a musical that people aren’t really operating in a lot — and it tends to work, I think. So I’m hopeful.”

Timbers’ onstage work has primarily been in the world of musicals. He won a Tony for directing “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” wrote the book for “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” and served as a production consultant on “American Utopia.” But his roots were in improv and sketch comedy. “When I got out of college,” he says, “I founded an experimental theater company, but it was really doing comedic takes on experimental theater. I always [had] one [foot] in the alternative-comedy world and one in an embrace of theater.”


Outside of a small snippet of score from David Byrne, “Baby J” hardly resembles a musical, but in its graceful flow and glorious precision, the special does have a lyrical quality. Timbers previously directed Mulaney’s Emmy-winning 2018 set “Kid Gorgeous,” not just capturing the majesty of Radio City Music Hall but also the preternatural charisma and confidence of a brilliant stand-up at the height of his powers. Mulaney had asked Timbers if he’d be interested in directing “Kid Gorgeous” — they first collaborated on “Oh, Hello,” Mulaney’s Broadway show with old pal Nick Kroll — even though Timbers wasn’t familiar with shooting stand-up. “I had never done multicam before,” he notes, but Mulaney wasn’t worried. “He had this belief: ‘Maybe you’re not as skilled as someone else, but maybe you’ll look at it in a way that will either be a disaster or fresh.’”

Olivia Munn and John Mulaney have shared the first photos and name of their newborn baby. The actors made their relationship public earlier this year.

Dec. 26, 2021

“Baby J” is still polished but a tad rawer than the panoramic “Kid Gorgeous,” as Mulaney opens up about the addiction issues he’d long kept hidden that landed him in rehab and severely damaged his reputation as a lovable, unflappable entertainer. Timbers had seen Mulaney perform the “Baby J” material at Madison Square Garden last year and was taken aback by the comic’s willingness to reveal his sordid side.

“The show was filled with discoveries for me,” Timbers confesses about that performance. “I am not only a fan, but a friend. It was wonderful to see the level of vulnerability that he had with the audience. But at the same time, he’s not interested in wallowing or self-pity. He always [explored], ‘How do you balance that vulnerability with being comedy-forward?’”

Although “Baby J,” filmed at the relatively cozier Boston Symphony Hall across three performances over two nights, is less celebratory, Timbers and Mulaney wanted to give the show a dynamic color palette that shifts over the course of the set, which chronicles the stand-up’s star-studded intervention, his trip to rehab, and his time since. “One of the things that’s [in vogue] in most stand-up specials right now is desaturation,” Timbers says. “Everything has a cool palette. Everything feels gray and blue — I think that has to do with feeling a little edgy, and we did the opposite.”

Mulaney chose Boston Symphony Hall to emphasize the material’s intimacy, but the space created issues Timbers couldn’t anticipate. “The whole room was wooden — the wood floor’s all creaky,” he says. “When we were scouting it, [we thought] maybe it would make noises. But what we didn’t account for is, on the first performance, all the cameras were bouncing. We’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ What we realized in the middle of the second performance is the cameras are shaking, because every time the audience laughs, the room is going like this” — Timbers shakes his hand up and down vigorously. “When we were doing our first [edits], all the cameras looked like they were in a pinball machine, and it was terrifying. We spent a lot of time in image-stabilization.”

Our BuzzMeter panel of veteran TV journalists predicts the winners in 14 categories of the 2023(?) Emmys. You can, too, in our weekly polls.

Aug. 24, 2023

Timbers laughs. “Now, in a way, that’s a great problem to have, because it shows just how much John was killing. But it’s also a complete nightmare.”


Mulaney’s fans have a well-documented passionate connection to him, famously taking to social media in droves to express their concern when he went through his struggles. Timbers has witnessed this anguish firsthand, and he understands. “I care deeply about him,” he says. “So, of course, I’m always looking out for him and how to support him. But I also feel like he’s so confidently on the other side of this experience.

“His fans are incredibly protective of him — and they see themselves in this special in such a big way,” Timbers continues, adding, “I have a family member who struggled with addiction, and they were talking about how they watched this thing over and over again. I had someone else reach out, and they lead corporate sessions in addiction rehabilitation — they’re like, ‘Who do we talk to at Netflix about being able to show portions of this?’”

Timbers knew “Baby J” would be funny. But he seems to be still coming to grips with how emotional and cathartic it’s been as well — for Mulaney and also for him.

“I think it’s a real gift he’s given the world,” he says. “Obviously, he’s gone through hell, but to be able to talk about this stuff meaningfully and destigmatize it … I think it’s a beautiful thing he’s done.”

Juggernauts such as ‘Succession,’ ‘Ted Lasso’ and ‘Abbott Elementary’ ruled the Emmy nominations once again. Here’s the full list.

July 12, 2023