By Shannon Pendleton
Spoilers ahead for John Mulaney’s ‘Baby J’
John Mulaney’s new Netflix special, Baby J, was released on the 25th April and comes after a turbulent year for the comedian. Having entered rehab in December 2020, Mulaney continued as an outpatient in February 2021.
Mulaney then split from his wife of six years, Anna Marie Tendler, and started dating actress, Olivia Munn, in May of the same year. In July, he filed for divorce, and in September, Mulaney announced on Late Night with Seth Meyers that he and Munn were expecting their first child.
Throughout this chockfull timeline of events, fans weren’t taking the news well. Celebrity writer, Kayleigh Donaldson, noted in May 2021 that the response was ‘unusually frantic’, with some fans renouncing love and others expressing their confusion and feelings of betrayal toward the comedian. Donaldson reported a general feeling from fans that 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?’
Here, Donaldson raises an important point regarding the frenzied fan reaction, in that, many of us felt personally betrayed by the divorce, igniting questions regarding para-social relationships between fans and celebrities.
Para-social relationships – a one-sided relationship between a ‘media user’ and a ‘media persona’ – create an unhealthy dynamic between fans and celebrities. Becoming emotionally attached to the celebrity, fans often believe they have a deep insight into the celebrity’s life and presume they understand their morals and opinions.
Due to this misguided investment, fans can often feel entitled to the private life of the celebrity. I believe that the fan reaction toward Mulaney can be contextualised by the dynamic of para-social relationships.
Mulaney was previously a renowned Wife Guy comedian, having spent much of his stand-up celebrating his wife and marriage. Therefore, as fans assumed he was a loving and devoted husband, when news came out that contradicted this core belief, many felt betrayed.
Furthermore, amongst a slew of rumours that Mulaney may have cheated on Tendler, compounded by Tendler’s public heartbreak, many fans sided with her during the aftermath of the divorce.
In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, Tendler explained that the divorce was ‘shocking’ and ‘surreal’ to her, and that she had ‘reached the depth of where [she] could go’. Additionally, as Tendler is an established photographer, she poured much of her heartbreak into her art, all for fans to see.
During her series ‘Rooms in the First House’, Tendler documented her grief, sense of loss, and isolation. One of her pieces, ‘Dinner in March’, features Tendler sat alone at a table set for two in a dimly lit room, staring longingly at the empty seat presumably prepared for Mulaney. Dressed in an elegant white gown, the piece conveys a feeling of melancholy as it captures the experience of handing yourself over to someone who is absent – giving everything you have to someone, who no longer wants the same.
Similarly, in her new project, ‘The Clothes We Wore Before’, her piece, ‘Red Shirt’, features a shirt of Mulaney’s hanging from a tree. In an Instagram caption, Tendler wrote, ‘This is your shirt before I gave it back to you. You look great in red. I bought the same shirt and now I wear that. I don’t look as good in red’.
This image conjures the gut-wrenching experience of dealing with the logistics of a breakup – ‘you left your jumper at mine; I stuffed it in my wardrobe, so I don’t have to look at it. I left my shirt at yours; I wonder where you keep it, I wonder if you look at it and think of me.’ And so, through these intimate and quietly devastating images, the para-social relationship between fans and Tendler becomes deeply enriched, as we become connected to her through our own experiences of grief, heartbreak, and loss.
Then came Olivia Munn and the misogynistic treatment she received from fans coming to Tendler’s defence. Once it was reported that the two had started dating – and then later that they were expecting a baby – social media came alive with criticism targeted at Munn.
Many content creators dove into her past, scouring her history for any glimpse of controversy that would expose her as the adulterous ‘other woman’ everyone already assumed she was. As fans continued to pin Tendler and Olivia against one another, casting Anna as the saint and Olivia the whore, Munn spoke out, explaining, ‘For whatever reason, it’s easier to blame me’ and that ‘the only way to win, for me, is to pull back and to not play the game at all’.
Overall, it’s clear that many factors resulted in the ‘cancellation’ of John Mulaney.’ His previous reputation as a Wife Guy, Tendler’s public experience with her heartbreak, and misogynistic narratives surrounding Munn, all compounded together that led to many fans turning their backs on Mulaney.
The first line of Baby J, is ‘I’ll be fine as long as I get constant attention’. This is a theme throughout the show, with Mulaney detailing childhood memories of praying that his grandparents died just so he would receive extra attention at school, or leaving a newspaper out at rehab that reported his admission, just so his fellow recovering addicts would realise he was famous.
Toward the end of the special, Mulaney explains that he no longer cares what people think of him because ‘what is someone going to do to me that’s worse than what I would do to myself? What are you gonna do? Cancel John Mulaney?’. He then takes a pause, allowing the laughter to die down, before quietly but poignantly noting, ‘I’ll kill him’. He also describes a ‘creepy’ feeling he experiences as, when he’s alone, he’s ‘with the person who tried to kill [him]’.
In short, the para-social relationships between John Mulaney and his fans cultivated a toxic environment for the comedian where he was raised onto a pedestal that held him to an impossible standard. And so, when he no longer met that standard, fans renounced him.
However, the special provides us with a powerful reminder that, although fans can criticise and cancel and feel entitled to every part of his private life, the biggest danger to John Mulaney is actually himself.
By the end of Baby J, we are reminded that, through all our anxieties over being judged by others and being loved by others, and being liked or not liked, it’s ourselves who we actually have to like and be okay with. People will love us, and leave us, and we’ll love and leave people as well, but throughout our whole lives, we’ll always be in our own company. And so, as Tendler uses her photography as a ‘reclamation of identity’, and Mulaney leans into recovery to face his own struggles, we have to learn to be okay with who we are, because it’s the only person who’ll never leave us.