John Mulaney as Mary Douglas’ joker (Tony Heron)

In John Mulaney’s stand up special “The Comeback Kid” he discusses at length his experience as someone who was raised Catholic but has since distanced themselves from the faith. In this specific portion of this routine, Mulaney voices his surprise and confusing betrayal of the Catholic Church changing the liturgy of a service to, as he puts it, “trick” him and him only.

I believe Mulaney presents himself as Mary Douglas’ archetypal “Joker” in her article “Jokes”. To Douglas, the Joker is to be someone who has “a firm hold on his own position in the structure and the disruptive comments which he makes upon it are in a sense the comments of the social group upon itself” (pg 107). To this end we are to find the joker to be someone who is to be acutely self-aware in order to effectively create a ‘joke’. Douglas is convinced that the Freudian idea of comedy through disruption of order to allow for the relaxation of the conscious control for the subconscious (pg 96) is a sufficient formulation on how we are to understand what a ‘joke’ is. Mulaney situates himself within these guidelines by establishing his experience and place within the structure of the Church, therefore gaining access to become disruptive from within the structure itself.

The comedy of this bit is from his introspection of his own experience within this specific structure and in process he invites the audience to empathise with that experience rather than resist it. In doing this Mulaney fulfils Douglas’ idea that the joker is “merely [expressing] consensus” as we are to feel his hyperbolic betrayal alongside him as the audience, we are brought into the joke to the point where we “get” it regardless if we have ever set foot in a church or not. This is even true despite Mulaney mentioning how this joke is designed to exclude those without experience within the Catholic Church. However, in falling for the comedy of this self-aware confession, we can’t help but fall for the comedy of the referential and niche humour that follows by virtue of our new-found empathy with the structures the joker has presented us with.


  1. Mary Douglas mentions the similarity between the in-between status of the joker and that of people undergoing rituals of transition. In John Mulaney’s case is the fact that he used to be Catholic the key to his immunity which permits his implication that there’s a lot of serious issues with the Catholic Church? It would be interesting to see how Mulaney would approach more taboo topics in his role as a joker and what affords him that privilege that other people do not have.

  2. You mention that Mulaney makes an effort to include those who have no connection to the Church in sharing in the homour of this joke. It’s interesting that he uses both comedic techniques, and mirrors those of the church in doing so. For instance, relating ‘batting four hundred’ to being a model member of the church is instantly relatable to an American audience familar with baseball; and the call and response of ‘and also with you’ that he invites the audience to take part in is a comic way to demosntrate, via audience interaction, why teh change Mulaney experienced in Church was so unexpected. I feel these efforts to involve the audience in the understanding of a joke based upon a personal anecdote reflect Mary Douglas’ discussion on teh role of the joke in creating a social community which stands against the hierarchies of common social structures – such as, in this case, John Mulaney fans and the Catholic Church

  3. I thought the comparison of Mulaney as the “Joker” was a very interesting one. I loved this comedy special and thought the introspective thought about his deconstructing of the society around him to find humor was a well-thought out point.

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