When you think of John Mulaney, what do you picture?
Last year, many would probably describe him as a the "nice guy" comedian, known for wit as sharp as his well–tailored suits and fairly wholesome bits like running out of space when writing "Happy Birthday" on a poster. Now, most would probably detail the unexpected reasons he’s been in the news: completing a stay in rehab, divorcing his wife, Annamarie Tendler, quickly entering a relationship with actress Olivia Munn, and then impregnating Munn after a few months together.
Like many celebrity breakups and recouplings, Mulaney’s inspires considerable buzz from gossip magazines and Twitter users alike, but something feels different about this one. Mulaney, who said in his 2015 comedy special The Comeback Kid that he gives off the vibe of, “Hey, you could pour soup in my lap, and I’ll probably apologize to you,” has long since cultivated a sickly sweet image. He’s never shied away from including his marriage of six years with Tendler in his comedy shows—and his brand of 'doting husband with dominant wife' bits made fans connect with the couple, despite a lack of real–life familiarity with either of them.
The overwhelmingly negative reaction to Mulaney’s divorce and whirlwind relationship with Munn has been met with an opposite reaction from people who argue that it’s strange to be invested in the life of celebrity whose job is to be likable. This debate about parasocial relationships is one that isn’t really that surprising, given how much brain space we generally invest into celebrities’ lives.
Do we even have a right to really care about these people we’ve never met and never truly know?
Parasocial relationships, a term coined in the 1950s, explain the psychological connection between members of an audience and the performers on screen. Especially for regular viewers of reality TV shows or talk shows, the often conversational and intimate nature of watching public figures creates the illusion of closeness. It’s easy to create an idea of a favorite celebrity based on their press tours or appearances on shows like SNL, but the actual disconnect between someone’s curated personality and their actual one can be brutal for crestfallen fans. Best explained by the adage “never meet your heroes,” parasocial relationships lead to a lose–lose situation for both the fan and the idol, and spark gossip about whether a specific celebrity is mean or nice.
Maybe it’s wrong to care so much about a celebrity’s private life, but Mulaney has built so much of his comedy upon an image of himself and his relationship that he’s now shattered. The destruction of his lovingly subservient image stems from how rapidly his personal life changed. He went from being blissfully married with a wife his fans ran Instagram update accounts for, to dating an actress who's fallen out of public favor.
The Internet has plenty of opinions about Munn as a person, most notably citing questionable lines from her 2010 memoir, Suck It, Wonder Woman!: The Misadventures of a Hollywood Geek. Obviously, this isn't helping Mulaney out. Quotes from the book include, “I will fix America’s obesity problems by taking all motorized transport away from fat people. In turn, I will build an infrastructure of Fat Tunnels, where all the fat people can walk.” Her “funny” comment seems even stranger considering her response to a fashion blog’s humorous critique of her outfit in 2019, in which she accused the outlet of publicly shaming her weight and appearance.
Olivia Munn doesn’t do herself any favors. If all of the controversies weren't enough, the abruptness of Mulaney’s divorce, recoupling, and pregnancy announcement sparked questions of infidelity—but have also inspired more lighthearted quips about the situation. When Mulaney checked into a rehabilitation clinic in December 2020, Munn tweeted “Sending SO MUCH love and support to John Mulaney. You got this.” Now, Twitter memes about her apparent manifestation are cropping up in response.
Despite a collection of memes branding their connection as kismet, people can’t help but feel a bit put off by their romance, especially because Munn has talked public about her obsession with Mulaney while he was still with Tendler. After meeting at a wedding, Munn admits she emailed Mulaney and had been “so obsessed with hanging out with and talking with him.” While he never answered her email, Munn’s longtime interest in Mulaney has heavily contributed to public disdain of their relationship.
Still, for every person personally upset about Mulaney’s love life, there’s another who finds it strange that the Internet has clung onto an imagined interpretation of another person and is taking the news personally. The debate about parasocial relationships continues, especially in the context of a social media era where the illusion of familiarity with our favorite celebrities is stronger than ever.
John Mulaney is allowed to do whatever he wants—but being a celebrity (particularly one whose job description centers around oversharing) means everything is out in the open for anyone to judge. Right now he’s in the middle of a PR crisis, but who knows? Maybe he’ll be joking about it in his next comedy special.