Twitter's parasocial relationship with John Mulaney close to breaking point

Bruno Cooke September 6, 2021
Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for SiriusXM

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Captured by Page Six, pictures of actress Olivia Munn wearing a sweatshirt and red sandals have revived conversations about so-called parasocial relationships, especially those people have with comedian – and Munn’s boyfriend – John Mulaney. So, what’s everyone talking about?

What is a ‘parasocial relationship’?

The phrase “parasocial interaction” was coined by scholars Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in a 1956 paper. Its subtitle, Observations On Intimacy At A Distance, gives a hint at the meaning of a parasocial relationship.

The essential characteristic of a parasocial relationship, or parasocial interaction, is that it is one-sided. It is a type of psychological relationship experienced by the audience – in the present case, fans of John Mulaney.

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Per Oxford Reference’s description: “Regular viewers come to feel that they know familiar television personalities almost as friends.”

While parasocial relationships may resemble face-to-face interaction, they are mediated and one-sided. And, while skilled performers – such as comedians, radio presenters and talk show hosts – create the illusion of intimacy via a number of methods, ultimately they are still that: performers.

John Mulaney fans are particularly parasocial

Several names may jump to mind when talking about parasocial relationships – Graham Norton, Jimmy Fallon, Bo Burnham. These are people whom you might automatically smile at in the street, because you feel like you know them; celebrities in whose inner lives you feel invested.

John Mulaney’s fan base are particularly parasocial. It would appear that many feel emotionally invested in the comedian’s decisions regarding relationships.

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In May this year, when Mulaney went into rehab, Pajiba writer Kayleigh Donaldson wrote about her reaction. She and her friends “were ready to take up arms against any cruel loser hoping to make sport of his troubles for cheap social media clout”.

When he and his wife Annamarie Tendler separated after seven years of marriage, “the responses to Mulaney’s split and new love (Olivia Munn) seemed unusually frantic”.

What do the latest pics of Olivia Munn have to do with it?

The Sun reported yesterday that Olivia Munn’s fans think she’s “hiding a ‘baby bump’” in her latest Instagram photos. 

TikTok users Celebrity Memoir Book Club are quoted as saying: “The word on the street is Olivia Munn is pregnant. Could be true, could be not true, but maybe it is true.”

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Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for Global Citizen VAX LIVE

If Munn is indeed pregnant with John Mulaney’s baby, then the stinger for those engaged in a one-sided, parasocial relationship with Mulaney – who are emotionally invested in his romantic relationships – is the apparent swiftness with which he would appear to have moved on.

However, she may not be pregnant. And, in the wise words of one Twitter user: “All of these are adults we don’t actually know.” Therefore, basically, keep a healthy distance.

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Bruno is a postgraduate student studying global journalism, with research interests in the intersection of the media, storytelling, culture and politics. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, Packs Light and Forge Press, and most are readable on Medium or onurbicycle.com. He is a Student Ambassador for Tortoise Media, a big fan of Freddie Mercury and a novelist – his debut novel, Reveries, is available on Amazon.