Opinion | John Mulaney and the Insatiable Modern Audience

In John Mulaney’s new Netflix special, “Baby J,” the comedian tells a story about one of the “most desperate” things he did while addicted to cocaine: In early 2020, Mulaney really wanted to stop using. But instead of reaching out to a therapist or a friend, he called his accountant and told him, “The only way you can give me cash is if I email you and cc my doctor, that’s the new rule.” Mulaney then tells us how he spent the next several months trying to circumvent his own rule, including by buying a $12,000 Rolex on a credit card and then pawning it for $6,000 so he could buy drugs with the cash.

Throughout this extended and very funny bit, Mulaney plays with the audience’s reaction to his bad behavior. As he explains the Rolex caper, sort of laundering his own money, he says, “I’m pretty good at reading a room, you’re all very impressed by this plan,” and later, “I feel your judgment. You must think I’m pretty stupid.”

But the button at the end of the semi-sordid tale is: “As you process and digest how obnoxious, wasteful and unlikable that story is, just remember, that’s one I’m willing to tell you.”

It’s a punchline, yes, but Mulaney is also creating a boundary. He’s entertaining us with an unflattering confession while also making it clear, in a subtle way, that the audience won’t get — and isn’t entitled to — anything he doesn’t want to share.

It’s not surprising that he’d draw this line at this moment. After all, as my friend and colleague Jason Zinoman notes in his review of “Baby J”:

At some point in the last decade, John Mulaney stopped being merely a very successful comedian and transformed into something larger in the culture: the boyish sweetheart in a scene full of creeps, the wife guy who doesn’t need children to be happy, the aspirational theater kid. I didn’t grasp this shift until, in a short period of time, he checked into rehab, got a very public divorce, and had a child with the actress Olivia Munn. Judging by the reaction online, not to mention the texts on my phone, people had feelings about this — lots of them. Mulaney made the word “parasocial” go mainstream.

I’m certainly not above a good parasocial bond. Probably no one is immune, as Madison Malone Kircher wrote for Slate when news of Mulaney’s divorce broke two years ago and people got very weird about it. But I do think many people’s expectations of celebrities have become unreasonable in the social media age. It’s one thing to rudely speculate about a stranger’s personal life in private chats (inevitable, in Mulaney’s case, since his ex was a recurring character in his act). It’s quite another to flood the internet with that speculation, impugning someone for behaving in a way that runs counter to our image of him.

It used to be much easier for famous figures to maintain a firewall between their public personas and their private lives. And it used to require a lot more effort to blur the two: Time was, you’d have to crank up ye olde microfiche if you wanted to find a record of everything a celebrity had ever said about his marriage. Now, with a few clicks, you can find a trove of someone’s talk show and podcast chatter, plow through it and then deploy some stray tidbit in order to contrast it with his private behavior to label him a hypocrite, without really knowing the context or back story, or how the circumstances of that person's life changed over time.

Maggie Smith (the poet, not the dowager countess) is out with a new, best-selling memoir about her divorce, titled “You Could Make This Place Beautiful,” that draws very explicit boundaries akin to the one Mulaney draws. The book, which consists of short chapters examining the demise of Smith’s marriage from different angles, tells the reader from the outset that this is her story to share, and that she isn’t going to give all of herself away:

This isn’t a tell-all because “all” is something we can’t access. We don’t get “all.” “Some,” yes. “Most” if we’re lucky. “All,” no. There’s no such thing as a tell-all, only a tell-some — a tell-most, maybe. This is a tell-mine, and the mine keeps changing, because I keep changing. The mine is slippery like that.

Smith turns this idea over and over throughout the book — more than 100 pages later, she writes: “Maybe this isn’t a tell-mine. It’s a find-mine. I’m out with lanterns, looking.” According to Smith, her former husband couldn’t handle her success; she told The Times’s Sarah Lyall that her marriage was never the same after her poem “Good Bones” went viral. Her husband had an affair, about which Smith writes: “Betrayal is neat because no matter what else happened — if you argued about work or the kids, if you lacked intimacy, if you were disconnected and lonely — it’s as if that person doused everything with lighter fluid and threw a match.”

She has several chapters titled “Some People Will Ask,” wherein she answers an imaginary interlocutor who says things like: “Why didn’t you write more about [person x] or [event y]?” And she answers: “A memoir is about ‘the art of memory,’ and part of the art is in the curation.”

It’s in that curation that people, everyone from marquee names like Mulaney to everyday, anonymous folks, still have to engage with friends, peers, neighbors and even strangers when their relationships don’t work out. They have to consider what stories to tell and what to keep to themselves — how much info to dole out to a particular audience (and in what way) without betraying themselves, or others — and it can be a painful burden, particularly in the immediate aftermath of a split.

Judging by the largely positive reception for both “Baby J” and “You Could Make This Place Beautiful,” this kind of curation, this renegotiation of the contract between creator and audience, is welcome. The creator, we’re being reminded, owes us only the art, and we can interpret it however we please, but we’re not owed someone else’s soul to pick at. We’re reminded that the only ones who really know what goes on in a marriage are the people in that marriage (and that both sides have a right to publicly comment on it, as Mulaney’s former wife, the artist Anna Marie Tendler, has done). Indeed, as the dowager countess once explained, she never takes sides in a “broken marriage,” because “however much the couple may strive to be honest, no one is ever in possession of the facts.”

Black and white, good and evil, polarized thinking doesn’t leave space for messy human feelings and behaviors, and it doesn’t allow for growth. You can’t have great confessional work without either of those things.

Tiny Victories

Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.

My 12-year-old son has recently become interested in cooking. He spent several hours the other day making homemade mac and cheese. When he shared it at dinner his little brother said, “Eh. It’s OK, but I would have liked the stuff from the box better.” My son looked at me and said, “Ugh! Mom, now I understand how terrible it feels when you go to so much trouble to make something nice for people and they are like, ‘eh.’ And then you still have to clean it all up.” No words have made me feel more seen!

— Lauren Greene-Roesel, Ottawa

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