Everybody loves a comeback story. Indeed, these days everybody expects a comeback story.
After all, it’s become a nearly inevitable chapter in the broader saga of high-profile careers in entertainment, sports, or business. First stars rise, then they fall, and then, often, they rise again. You can almost set your watch by it.
Yet there is still an inherent drama in watching someone pick themselves up off the mat, because adversity delivers plot twists to overly linear narratives and complicates even the most assiduously polished images.
Whether they’re coming back from a short-term setback or a long-term exile in professional limbo, we want to see whether and how their tribulations have changed them. Do they seem sadder, wiser, deeper, different?
Do they take a nothing-to-see-here-folks approach to their setbacks, or do they confront them head-on — as Richard Pryor did — incorporating their flaws and frailties into our broader understanding of who they are?
Curiosity about the answers to those questions is surely a factor in the remarkable stampede this month to snap up tickets to performances by comedian John Mulaney at the Wilbur Theatre. Mulaney is resuming his stand-up career after a two-month stay in rehab, reportedly for cocaine and alcohol abuse, a stint followed by news that his marriage to Anna Marie Tendler is dissolving.
When 10 August shows at the Wilbur went on sale June 2, they sold out in less than 20 minutes. The theater promptly announced 11 more dates, and those sold out in under an hour. Mulaney’s total of 21 sold-out shows (22,500 tickets sold) broke a Wilbur record previously held by Bill Burr.
Obviously, Mulaney’s proven brilliance as a stand-up and the popularity he’s built with his Netflix specials — including a 2015 show titled, ironically enough, “The Comeback Kid” — would guarantee brisk ticket sales no matter the circumstances.
But at this fraught moment of transition, with live performance returning as we edge our way out of a protracted pandemic, I wonder if there is also a hunger for public models of resilience, for performers who’ve figured out a way to wrest laughter from the jaws of despair.
Hasn’t that been one of the fundamental challenges for the rest of us over the past 15 months? Underscoring the theme of a fresh start, Mulaney has titled his new show “From Scratch.” That’s a resonant chord at the moment, when the whole country, the whole world, seems to be starting from scratch.
While Mulaney has often talked onstage about his life, including his relationship with Tendler, he’s usually worn the armor of humor while doing so. His modus operandi has been to use the absurdities and indignities he’s experienced as the stuff not of raw, confessional angst but of artfully constructed anecdotes, droll observations, witty riffs.
Now, however, it’s likely that the distance between man and material will be greatly telescoped. Reports from Mulaney’s performances last month at Manhattan’s City Winery indicate that he’s being candid about his struggles with addiction and the intervention by friends that prompted him to enter a Pennsylvania rehab facility. So no matter how many Mulaney shows they’ve attended, it could be that the Wilbur audience will be seeing someone they haven’t seen before.
That’s the unique quality of the comeback: It offers the audience reminders of the old as the artist embarks upon the new. The title “From Scratch” nods in both directions.
When a comeback story unfolds in public, the level of our rooting interest often depends on how large a reservoir of goodwill a public figure has to draw on. (Clearly, Mulaney’s reservoir runs fathoms-deep.) Since we in the audience ultimately determine whether a comeback bid is successful or not, it matters whether we think they “deserve” to renew their claim on our attention once again.
This can work in a couple of ways. Celebrities intent on a comeback can draw on public support when there’s widespread recognition, sometimes thanks to evolving sensibilities, that they were unjustly treated or received insufficient sympathy for the struggles that cast them down (Monica Lewinsky, Britney Spears, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, Lindsay Lohan).
Or the public’s reaction can hinge on whether their setbacks made them more “relatable.” For many years, Tiger Woods bestrode the golfing world like a colossus. But then came multiple back and knee surgeries and lurid personal scandals that had his name splashed across the tabloids more than the sports pages. As Woods battled just to make the cut in tournaments, he became a symbol of greatness laid low, his bid to displace Jack Nicklaus as the all-time winner of golf majors seemingly out of reach.
All of that helped make Woods’s come-from-behind 2019 victory in the Masters — snapping a decade-long championship drought — a comeback for the ages. (Woods now faces an even bigger challenge, having suffered severe leg injuries in a February car accident.)
Comebacks can cast an illuminating light on the relationship between athletes and their fans. On Tuesday, Red Sox fans paid close attention when pitcher Chris Sale threw a bullpen session at Fenway Park as part of his attempted return from elbow surgery. Exasperating though his long stint on the shelf has been, many in the fandom are rooting for Sale — primarily because he’s the club’s ace, of course, but also because the lefthander comes across as a gritty gamer betrayed by his body.
In the worlds of entertainment and politics, the comeback is a close cousin to the reinvention, and it can also bear a family resemblance to the marketing gimmick. It sometimes seems like Cher’s career has been nothing but comebacks. After he came in second in the 1992 New Hampshire Democratic primary, resurrecting his floundering campaign, the ever-wily Bill Clinton dubbed himself “the Comeback Kid.”
Clinton knew that kind of framing would resonate, because comebacks have been a central aspect of many major careers in public office. Take Richard M. Nixon. After being defeated by John F. Kennedy in 1960 and then losing again in the 1962 California governor’s race, Nixon told reporters that they “won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” But then he rebounded to win the presidency in 1968. (There was no coming back from Watergate.) After Winston Churchill endured his “wilderness years” in the 1930s, he regained power, becoming Britain’s prime minister, leading the fight against Nazi Germany, and cementing his place in history.
As with Churchill and Nixon, comebacks can be a testament to a public figure’s sheer unstoppability. After serving a five-month prison sentence for lying to federal investigators about a stock sale, Martha Stewart returned to her place atop her media empire. After losing a power struggle and leaving the company he cofounded, Steve Jobs regained control of Apple. After being stripped of his heavyweight championship and prohibited from boxing for 3½ years of his prime after refusing induction into the armed services during the Vietnam War, Muhammad Ali made his way back and eventually regained the title.
Part of what appeals to us about comebacks is their cliffhanger quality: Can so-and-so pull it off? Can Patriots quarterback Cam Newton come back from his disastrous 2020 season? Will “The Pentaverate,” a new Netflix comedy by Mike Myers (”Austin Powers,” “Wayne’s World”), indeed prove to be his “comeback series,” as an entertainment publication called it? Can Tim Tebow, a flop as an NFL quarterback, succeed now that he’s switched to tight end? In the realm of fiction, can Valerie Cherish, the onetime sitcom star played by Lisa Kudrow in HBO’s terrific “The Comeback,” relaunch her television career?
The more splashy the exit from center stage, the more closely watched the return. Consider comedian Dave Chappelle, one of the most successful comeback stories of the past two decades. After walking away from “Chappelle’s Show” on Comedy Central in 2005, Chappelle kept a low profile for years. Then he returned to the national spotlight with a bang, earning a 2017 Emmy Award for his guest appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” recording several Netflix specials, and winning the Grammy Award for best comedy album three years in a row.
For a sports franchise, comebacks can be a defining chapter. Isn’t the Patriots’ two-decade run of success more satisfying because it includes pulling off the greatest Super Bowl comeback in history, fighting back from a 28-3 deficit in the third quarter against the Falcons in 2017? And of course a hefty chunk of Tom Brady’s legend rests on his genius for engineering comebacks.
Every New Englander knows that the Red Sox’s curse-breaking World Series victory in 2004 was much sweeter because the Sox had gotten to the Series by defeating the New York Yankees in the ALCS, becoming the first team in the history of Major League Baseball to come back from an 0-3 series deficit.
By the time that World Series championship arrived, it had been an 86-year wait. As generations of fans tried to keep the faith, they were sustained — like anyone who has ever staged a comeback — by the belief that the story is never over.