You don’t know John Mulaney—probably. But chances are good that you don’t actually know him; not in the you guys text constantly and make plans at least one or both of you will flake on 45 minutes before the designated time and feel an immediate sense of relief despite genuinely enjoying each other’s company-way, at least. You know … real friend shit.
But as a stand-up, John Mulaney’s job, or at least part of it, is to make you feel like you do know him. You’re supposed to feel like you could borrow a cup of sugar from him, intimately chat him up at the dog park, or plan a long weekend getaway at an Airbnb in some wooded hamlet for you and your partner and Mulaney and his (now ex-)wife, Annamarie Tendler. Think of all the chickens you could roast! The thing is, if you actually tried to do any of those things, the first words that come to my mind when thinking of the immediate result are “restraining order.” Because, again, you don’t know John Mulaney. You know his comedy. His persona. The version of Mulaney he selectively offers you at the mic.
This applies to the parts of Mulaney you don’t like, too. In May, Mulaney and Tendler announced they were divorcing after six years of marriage. Fans were stunned, hurt that Wife-Guy-in-Chief Mulaney would do such a thing. This came just months after the news that Mulaney had checked into rehab for a 60-day program at the end of 2020 for cocaine and alcohol addiction. Tendler reportedly also spent some time in rehab dealing with emotional issues amid allegations of Mulaney’s infidelity. “I am heartbroken that John has decided to end our marriage,” Tendler said via spokesperson in May. “I wish him support and success as he continues his recovery.” She then scrubbed her Instagram clean of his visage. Mulaney’s fan base thought of him as the guy who told cute anecdotes about his wife not being there to see him win an Emmy, because she didn’t want to travel across the country to watch him lose. He was the one who looked like he might both cry and commit a murder when Jerry Seinfeld told him his wife only thought he was funny. He was an anthropomorphized “mah wiiiiiife.”
And for those Mulaney fans, the last nine months have felt like an emotional whirlwind: Mulaney’s rehab stint. His divorce announcement. The recently confirmed rumors that he and Olivia Munn, who once credited getting basically a new face to eating special potatoes, are dating and expecting a baby. Mulaney’s fans had, and continue to have, strong feelings about all of it—like these were actions and decisions that impacted them, as though John Mulaney was a fixture in their social lives and not just a celebrity stranger.
Look: This is not to judge. I get it, I really do. I’m an Irish, lapsed-Catholic. John Mulaney was possibly created in a lab to make me, specifically, laugh. I’ve spent years joking that the Catholic Church intentionally changed up the wording of its services just to out me as a heathen, who only goes to mass for funerals and weddings and hopes the ground doesn’t open up and swallow me whole while I’m praying. Mulaney does a bit about this exact thing in his 2015 Netflix special, The Comeback Kid. It made me actually snort and think, Oh yeah, we get each other. But that same feeling came back to haunt many of Mulaney’s biggest supporters after the divorce news. “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,” Kayleigh Donaldson wrote for Pajiba in May, following the divorce announcement. “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?”
The “us” in that last sentence is doing a lot of work. That’s a parasocial relationship, a psychological term that dates back to 1956 courtesy of Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl, who coined it to describe how people feel like they are in real relationships with media figures—television stars, movie actors, radio hosts—they don’t actually know beyond engaging with their work. It’s a midcentury term that nonetheless gets tossed around on Twitter in 2021 with abandon about podcast hosts, teenage TikTok stars, and, these days, John Mulaney.
None of us are immune, to be clear. Parasocial relationships are formed often without you even realizing it. This winter, I binged all of Samin Nosrat and Hrishikesh Hirway’s podcast Home Cooking, and it was like putting aloe from the freezer on a sunburn for me. Hirway’s terribly wonderful puns and Nosrat’s encyclopedic kitchen knowledge were both comforting and reliable in a time that was (and remains) anything but. On Instagram months later, during that moment in the spring where we still felt like maybe vaccines could save us, I’d see a picture of the two of them together and immediately feel a bizarre twinge of sadness, the kind you feel when you find out two of your mutual friends made plans and didn’t invite you. Except these people literally do not know me. I invented our friendship in my head.
The thing about parasocial relationships is calling them entirely one sided is to lightly gaslight the person on that one side. (Sorry to deploy yet another psychology term so overused by the internet it has effectively lost all its original meaning. Still works here, though.) Parasocial relationships are precisely how and why some people get famous. These people compel us. These people employ PR operations to help compel us. They want you to get to know “them.” It’s good for their art; it’s even better for their business. Taylor Swift could write a book on cultivating parasocial relationships with fans, what with her secret listening parties in her home for megafans sourced from the depths of the internet, custom care packages mailed to Tumblr stans, showing up at the occasional wedding with an acoustic guitar in hand. None of this makes her fake; it makes her brilliant. (In case it’s not very clear: You also don’t actually know Taylor Swift. Leave her alone, too.)
Yet it doesn’t make you wrong for feeling like you have a relationship with these people. You do—it’s just transactional. They give you their music, their comedy, their writing, and the nice, fuzzy feeling like those gifts are an entrée into their innermost worlds. In exchange, you give them your time and money and attention. It’s OK to feel hurt by their choices, because you’ve invested something in them. But it’s not OK to feel like they owe you anything more than exactly what they choose to give. That’s all you’ve ever gotten before, anyway.