John Mulaney’s Divorce, and What It Tells Us About Parasocial Relationships

Just a few weeks after leaving rehab from a relapse in drug use, the internet was struck with the news that the beloved comedian John Mulaney had split from his wife of seven years, entered a new relationship, and was expecting a child with his new girlfriend.

And the internet went wild.

For those unfamiliar with John Mulaney – the American comedian got his start performing on and writing for Saturday Night Live, one of the most popular late-night programs in America. However, his popularity in the recent years has grown through his Netflix specials, in which his candid humour has attracted many fans. Often talking about his life experiences, discussing married life without children, and substance problems he dealt with in his early 20s, amongst other things, Mulaney has become a relatable figure both to millennials and gen z-ers. His audience relates to his awkwardness, and his honesty about mental health problems; but what has garnered the biggest attraction to his comedy and personality is the way he talks about his relationship with his (now ex) wife Anna Marie Tendler.

Excerpt of John Mulaney’s Netflix Special “Kid Gorgeous” referencing his relationship with Anna Marie Tendler (timestamp 0:51)

In his comedy before his recent controversies, Mulaney often talked about how he adored his ex-wife Tendler, and how they were happy without having any children. So, it might not seem like that big of a surprise that many of his fans feel betrayed that in less than a year, he has not only divorced his wife, but also started a new relationship with a different woman, and only after a few months of dating, has announced that they are expecting a child. But is this just an instance of the newest celebrity gossip that the internet has gone crazy over, or is there something more to this situation?

As Griffin Wynne remarks in his article Parasocial Relationships With Celebrities Aren’t Necessarily A Bad Thing, many of Mulaney’s fans feel particularly betrayed by the situation because they had assumed Mulaney to be “one of the good guys” in Hollywood [1]. His comedy and personality did not adhere to the typical hyper-masculine ideal that so many of male celebrities often express. Rather, his humour was seen as refreshing – Mulaney’s adoration of his wife is what felt like a breath of fresh air, especially in the comedy scene, where many comedians use misogynistic humour to make fun of their relationship with their wives. However, the latest news about his relationships have left many of his fans questioning him as a person.

But why do so many of his fans feel so personally betrayed?

What lays at the core of this situation is the modern-day phenomena of parasocial relationships, which have only become more prominent as internet has slowly become a part of our daily routine. “Parasocial relationships are those that individuals establish with famous people, celebrities, or social media influencers” [2]. By this definition, it is not hard to guess what are some of the problems most often encountered in parasocial relationships, which can also be visible in the Mulaney situation. Most people who idolise or even feel some deeper connection with an influencer or a celebrity are not consciously aware of the fact that the relationship they have entered is one-sided; they feel a connection with a person they have never met because they believe to know them, whether it be through their down-to-earth Instagram posts or friendly interviews. However, many of us forget that the celebrity content we consume is carefully crafted by social media teams and managers in order to foster a parasocial relationship between a celebrity and their audience. Parasocial relationships make us believe that if we knew a celebrity in person, we would have an actual, personal connection with them, which makes it easier for the celebrity to sell us things – from hair vitamin gummies to tickets to their shows, relatability and connection are at the core of selling anything.

But what happens when this façade falls down, as it has with John Mulaney?

TikToker discussing Anna Marie Tendler’s art in regards to her divorce from Mulaney

Well, for one, we can see that TikTok has not responded well to this. Many users have started creating content under the hashtag #teamanna to show their disapproval for Mulaney’s actions, and to show support for his ex-wife, as rumours concerning possible cheating make the rounds on the internet. Creators have analysed in-depth Anna Marie Tendler’s artistic Instagram posts regarding the situation, trying to pin-point a precise timeline of the situation. They have tried to figure out if John Mulaney cheated on her, if he left her because she didn’t want children, and the list goes on. Of course, much of the criticism also goes to Olivia Munn, Mulaney’s new girlfriend, as she plays “the other woman” in this scandal. To sum it up – the internet has a lot of opinions about this situation; and it only makes sense that so many of Mulaney’s followers feel entitled to make these judgements. Their idolisation of him has largely revolved around his relationship with his wife; so, with the fall of their marriage, so has fallen the trust Mulaney’s fans had in him as a person. But is the price Mulaney must pay for being human, or can the internet forgive him?

Well – there is no clear answer for that. Parasocial relationships have only made it harder to differentiate between the online persona celebrities create for themselves, and their real selves. Many of us do not want to believe, or simply can’t even phantom the fact that those are two separate entities. So, as long as we, the “regular people”, haven’t learned that parasocial relationships are largely one-sided business deals that emotionally benefit the audience and monetarily benefit the celebrity, John Mulaney and his girlfriend will have to endure public scrutiny, and his fans will have to deal with the betrayal they feel. It just might be that this is the price of Mulaney’s stardom and our idolatry of celebrities.