The Personal, Private, and Parasocial of John Mulaney
Last year, when it was reported that comedian John Mulaney had entered rehab to deal with issues of addiction, my reaction seemed to be a common one. I was shocked, yet a quiet lack of surprise seeped through since I knew about Mulaney’s oft-shared experiences with substance abuse. My friends and I talked a lot about how we hoped he was doing OK and how we were ready to take up arms against any cruel loser hoping to make sport of his troubles for cheap social media clout. Curiously, I never saw that much mockery of him, although I did see a lot of Mulaney fans calling out people ready to pounce. Gifs of his stand-up sets and SNL appearances filled Twitter to the brim. It seemed to be a rare moment wherein the chaotic and contradictory nature of online disorder convened around a shared and relatively innocent cause: protect John Mulaney at all costs.
I must admit that I’ve stopped and started writing a piece on Mulaney about three times in the past week alone. I open the Word document with a fully formed argument but suddenly it falls apart, or my own emotional investment gets in the way. This is hardly new for me as a pop culture hot takes merchant who knows way too much about random celebrities. I know what a parasocial relationship is and I know how to extract myself from such circumstances for the purposes of critical analysis. And yet John Mulaney has tripped me up countless times over these past few months. I’m a fan, someone who re-watches his stand-up specials on Netflix a lot, but I never considered myself someone so wholly invested in his life. When I want to figure out my feelings on someone or something, I write. So, what is it about John Mulaney that has me tied up in knots? Not just me either, but seemingly the whole internet.
Over the past fortnight or so, Mulaney returned to stand-up with a raw set of unpolished self-examination that has critics falling over him to herald the new age of his work. It was also announced that he had split from his wife, Annamarie Tendler, a regular feature of his comedy, and the reliable sources at People claimed he had started dating actress Olivia Munn. The last detail was the one that stuck in fans’ throats this past week. Even in the context of the typical brand of performative hyperbole that makes up the dominant language of social media, the responses to Mulaney’s split and new love seemed unusually frantic. Some cried that love was dead. Others lamented how Mulaney didn’t seem like that kind of guy. He just loved his wife so much. How could he do this to her? How could he do this to us?
There was a point where it seemed to stop being a joke. Munn became the target of some seriously outdated misogyny. People began drawing up timelines. I DM-d a few friends and we flailed over the news, pondering about who snitched to People and what church Mulaney and Munn allegedly met at (please not Hillsong, right?) I sneered at others for taking it all way too personally before my self-awareness kicked in and I too realized that I was taking all of this far too personally.
That’s why I binned my second draft of this piece. My first one was on why John Mulaney is so easy to root for. Because it’s true: people like John Mulaney and they giddily express their support and adoration of him in ways that feel overwhelmingly wholesome. They do it in ways that seemed to line up with the Mulaney we knew. We love the tall, gangly comedian whose impeccably written stand-up has been mined for memes and remains eminently quotable. We share an affinity for the guy who seems to embody dorkiness, the observational funny guy who radiates a kind of wholesomeness even as he talked about his problems. Few white men in American comedy inspire as much love as he does, perhaps because, in a sea of faux provocations and wannabe contrarians, Mulaney felt refreshingly simple. Every comedian, even the most scathingly self-loathing ones, puts on a persona that makes it easy to convey the cold hard truth. Mulaney’s was comforting and palatable, devoid of guile or acid. That’s not to say he was milquetoast or incapable or darker moments. Rather, his aim seemed fair and accurate, something that feels dishearteningly rare in the era of men screaming about cancel culture because they can’t be openly transphobic anymore. For a lot of fans, John Mulaney was The One Good Guy.
Of course, being The One Good Guy is a sure-fire way to become a villain. Mulaney hasn’t been rejected en masse, but there’s a curious sense of betrayal from his fans over the split from Tendler and Munn rumors. The top Wife Guy of comedy’s going to be a Divorce Guy now, and all for a woman who inspires some, to put it mildly, sharp reactions. How could he be so predictable, and why were we shocked by him being so? Mulaney never hid his past. His addiction issues and bad behavior were key features of his stand-up. His candidness continued in interviews and talk-show appearances. He’s always been that guy, but there was something about the seeming earnestness of his persona that made it easy to forget those imperfect elements. To be frank, Mulaney is extremely easy to infantilize.
We grew attached to him through those relatable jokes and his earnest manner of delivering them; the guy who just really likes being a husband and makes that seem more charming than tedious. It was the kind of persona that was extremely alluring to fans, a marked contrast from the loudmouths and try-hard edgelords of stand-up. His jokes weren’t about trite gender stereotypes or the ‘b*tch wife’ trope. Hell, this was a guy who said he liked his wife because she was a b*tch! He talked so devotedly about his marriage, but so do many comedians. You’d be hard-pressed to find a stand-up who doesn’t take at least some inspiration from their own life. Are we really so troubled by the notion of a private man using a public persona in this manner? Him getting divorced isn’t the gotcha as some fans are treating it as. What’s different here?
If I were to hazard a guess — and I have spent far too much time trying to figure this out — I would say that a lot of us were eager for a taste of the ‘unproblematic.’ It’s become trite and practically meaningless for us to discuss how celebrities and pop culture staples inevitably ‘let us down,’ whatever that means. We’re too familiar with the cycle of investment and backlash. How could we not be when it’s one of capitalism’s greatest tools? You’re encouraged to latch onto a person or property, show your devotion through commodification, then we rush away when things fall apart. We keep lists of the ills of beloved figures — deserved or otherwise — because we’re trying so hard to not over-invest in someone or something troubling. It sucks to love some beloved idol or be a fan of a hot property, only for horrible news about them to emerge or for them to betray the values and ideas you’d been reassured were respected. Of course, we wanted to root for the tall, non-threateningly handsome straight white guy who loves his wife and doesn’t base his entire comedy shtick on bigotry or punching down! It seemed curiously risk-free. Everyone loves something. Even the most cynical veterans of the fandom wars can’t stop themselves from giving it all over to a new show or person or corporate entity that just seems different from all the other times they got burned. Why expect differently here? And yet. And yet. And yet…
At the heart of this story is a man with addiction issues and little control over his own narrative. The press leaked his rehab visit. His ex-wife let everyone know that he was the one who asked for a divorce. Fans who attended his latest stand-up gigs detailed every joke and moment for Twitter. Comedians are used to getting ahead of the punchline before anyone else makes it. You wield the knife before anyone else can stick it in your back. How infuriating it must be to lose that, right when everyone who projected their entire beings onto you suddenly want to complain about how you’ve changed.
How weird to be the person feeling so justified in their full-throated investment in a version of a stranger’s life. But knowing you’re in too deep doesn’t make it any easier to dig yourself out of the hole. If it were, I would have finished this piece a week ago.