John Mulaney and sympathy for celebrities.

It is fine to gossip about John Mulaney.

I’m not proud of taking this courageous stand, especially after the Mulaney firestorm has mostly died down, but take it I must, because the angst is part of a larger phenomenon and the finger-wagging about how we talk about celebrities has grown strange.

John Mulaney, if you haven’t had the pleasure, is a “clean cut” comedian whose star-making Netflix specials touched on his distant past as an addict and his spiky but happy rapport with his wife. In the past year, he has complicated that brand. First, he started using again. Fans took news of the relapse extremely well, offering support and compassion. This was nice! (As a veteran of vicious gossip sites from the early aughts, I was used to seeing relapses framed as scandals.) After a second stint in rehab, Mulaney embarked on a new tour this spring, called “From Scratch.” Here too, reactions were largely positive. Despite a few muttered objections (“Was it wise to start touring so extremely soon after leaving rehab?” some fans wondered), the show continues to sell out and receive rave reviews. But when news broke in May that he was divorcing his wife, artist Anna Marie Tendler, whom he’d immortalized as a character in many a funny videotaped bit about their life together and their decision to remain child-free—and broke again three days later that he was dating Olivia Munn—and then broke again recently that Munn is pregnant with his child and has been for some time—reactions were more mixed.

And here’s where the finger-wagging comes in. This mixed fan response has been treated, on social media and gossip sites, as not just unusual but pathologically so: A tweet about Mulaney’s eventful several months could quickly get you accused of being embroiled in a one-sided “parasocial” relationship with the comedian—a word that has entered the discourse with lightning speed to diagnose an inflated attachment to a celebrity.

Now, there are valid parts to this theory, as my colleague Madison Malone Kircher has pointed out. The fan reaction to the waves of Mulaney news was intense, even weirdly so. The DeuxMoi subreddit, a forum dedicated to celebrity gossip, was so inundated with folks passionately analyzing the comedian’s love life that it banned any discussion of Mulaney and Munn that wasn’t in direct response to an actual DeuxMoi post. The expressions of fan disappointment were interesting: Some people expressed their dismay by calling the comic’s conduct a “betrayal,” for instance. This was correctly mocked for how extra it was and for the gothic force with which it reacted to a simple news item about a stranger, albeit one who presented himself as an affected but amiable everyman. So some of this is about Mulaney himself, how he’s gone from someone who gossiped with his fans—see his stand-up bit about failing to please Mick Jagger and how weird and mean “real” celebrities are—to someone who is gossiped about. Mulaney’s point in the Jagger bit was that the truly famous behave like absolute assholes sometimes thanks to a reality that bears no relationship to our own. That “our” was key, and his was a pro-gossip platform up to and including that bizarre “Royal Watch” segment he did on Seth Meyers’ show last November in which he self-consciously participated in that most global of gossipy pastimes.

Mulaney’s recent actions—divorcing a “real person” and dating and impregnating a celebrity—therefore catapult him into the category of fame he’d once both theorized and skewered. I suspect that to many of his fans that felt like more than an abandonment; it made it feel like the shared basis for his jokes had been yanked out from under them.

But something is off about the most fervent accusations of parasociality. When even wry jokes about a situation that is self-evidently messy prompt responses like LEAVE JOHN MULANEY ALONE and YOU ARE WAY TOO INVESTED IN THIS, you’ve got to wonder who exactly is too invested. There were straight-faced arguments that “it’s nobody’s business” whom Mulaney dates or that caring about a celebrity is odd. (I’d argue that this is the whole reason celebrities exist: because they inspire strong feelings!) Jezebel published a piece titled “Normalize Being Emotionally Stable When a Celebrity Enters a New Relationship” that sought to rise above the fans picking over the Mulaney/Munn/pregnancy timeline: “I admit that it’s a juicy sequence of events—no doubt the kind of thing I would gossip about over drinks with friends if I knew any of these people personally,” the author wrote. “But because I don’t, I simply receive (and report) this information as something notable in the realm of ‘celebrity gossip,’ nothing more.”

Nothing more? Nothing less, I say!

What’s clear is that we’re confused about what it’s appropriate to feel or say about a famous person in crisis. That, in and of itself, is pretty new. We haven’t had much trouble with that before, and it speaks to how our social theories of celebrity have changed. These more intense dissections of Mulaney’s choices—and dissections of the dissections—flow out of a model of fame that largely dispenses with celebrity worship (the more common relation, historically) in favor of something much more akin to peer esteem. This is what I think the parasocial theorists get right.

What I object to in this escalating discourse isn’t that it’s wrong but rather that much of it falls into the very trap it critiques: declaring, with some heat, how we ought to feel or not feel about famous people. There’s also the fact that it doesn’t seem to pathologize love of celebrities nearly as much as it targets criticism. If parasociality is a diagnosis, the implied and peculiarly one-sided prescription seems to be that one can express fervent positive feelings about a celebrity but not negative ones.

That’s silly, and I don’t accept it.

In theory at least, public ire against celebrities should be at an all-time high. The wealth gap in America continues to worsen, and the pandemic has visibly heightened the contrast between those struggling to survive and those going on luxurious vacations. There are valid reasons to scorn the famous more than we historically have: We know more about what they make and how they spend it. We better understand the mechanics through which they self-present, and we therefore know—at previously unimaginable levels of resolution—how petty or small or vain many of them are. Attempts to seem relatable can end up making celebrities seem even more out of touch. (Think about that “Imagine” video if your memory needs refreshing.)

And yet: Public sympathy for the famous—for their struggles, especially—is higher than ever. It is wild, if you lived through celebrity-shredding apparatuses like TMZ or Perez Hilton or Gawker, to witness how comparatively supportive the average American is of the rich and famous. Wild! Sympathetic documentaries about figures ranging from Britney Spears to Paris Hilton have prompted some serious cultural introspection about how much the gossip machine got wrong and how cruel it could be. We’re trying hard to learn those lessons—so much so that any return to the old ways earns some serious pushback. The newly resurrected Gawker, for instance, got some flak for reserving a Substack domain named after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s new baby. While Markle has endured plenty of vile and racist abuse, the newsletter cybersquatting was almost quaint in its mildness. I never enjoyed cruel mockery of celebrities very much, but I was startled by how offensive people found the prank. To be clear, I get why people feel protective toward this couple: People sympathize not just with Markle but also with Prince Harry, who basically lost his mother to the celebrity gossip machine. But the tacit position seems to be that nothing should be said about this extremely rich and famous royal pair—which is openly trying to capitalize on its fame—unless it’s kind or, at worst, neutral.

I don’t want to get overly Panglossian here: In no way am I saying we’re living in an era of kindness in entertainment. We’re not. A lot of the abuse stars get from fans is worse and more vicious than it used to be (just ask Kelly Marie Tran). But it’s clear that there’s a chastened consensus on how one ought to behave toward celebrities—or, indeed, think about them. That we’re trying to change and atone for our rumormongering.

This is mostly great! It’s universally acknowledged now that the way Britney Spears was (and is!) treated is scandalous, that the almost ritualized late-night mockery of Anna Nicole Smith was abhorrent, and that the peculiar spectacle Courtney Stodden and Stodden’s much-older husband made should have been understood not as a titillating oddity but as an unprotected minor being exploited for entertainment. We should not, as a culture, have been as cruel as we were.

But if those lessons add up to a rule that gossiping about John Mulaney is beyond the pale—I’m sorry. We’ve swung too far the other way. And I say that as a Mulaney fan.

The way we treat the famous is changing for other reasons too. A big one is that famous people now have their own megaphones that they can use to tell us how they feel. Monica Lewinsky didn’t have a (really quite expert) Twitter account at the time late-night hosts joked about her every day. Now she does. Celebrities can also take to social media to try to right past wrongs. “At a time when I needed help. I was being abused,” Stodden said last March in an Instagram video in which they accused Chrissy Teigen of bullying them. Teigen, who had garnered a lot of sympathy herself when she shared a photograph of herself grieving a miscarriage, was found to have tweeted “I hate you” at Stodden and to have urged Stodden to take a “dirt nap.” It was an interesting test case for how sympathy flows now, and the verdict was clear. After Stodden’s disclosure, sympathy for Teigen evaporated. Being cruel to someone is at present unacceptable, and no amount of personal suffering mitigates it.

This is a monumental change!

And Stodden is right: Teigen’s messages to them were awful. They were also, however, back when they were made, absolutely routine. The same year Teigen sent those tweets, Gawker wrote “You are disturbing, Courtney. Just stop… existing, if possible.” The point is that it wasn’t just Teigen making Stodden miserable. An entire culture was arrayed against them and celebrities in general. It was also especially arrayed against women. A decent measure of how much things have changed is that although Britney Spears discourse is back and Gawker has returned, neither feels even slightly the same. New Gawker editor Leah Finnegan made explicit the gap between what the site used to be and what it now aims for: “The current laws of civility mean that no, it can’t be exactly what it once was,” she wrote, “but we strive to honor the past and embrace the present.”

So what are those ”current laws of civility”?

It had occurred to me when Gawker relaunched that it would be tough to reproduce its anarchic take-no-prisoners tone in an era when the public attitude toward Britney was that she ought to be freed rather than mocked. But there’s been a bigger paradigm shift than I realized. In the original Gawker/Perez Hilton/TMZ heyday, there was a sharp division between the star and the public. Back then, people talked about celebrities in comment sections with perfect confidence that the celebrities in question would never find out—or if they did, they deserved what they got. Now, the public square includes them. People talk to celebrities. They address them on Twitter. They comment on their photos. They wish them well or ill. They occasionally get a response. The model for how Americans presently relate to the famous isn’t merely sympathetic, it’s perisocial—a word I just made up to be obnoxious. But it captures, I think, the side-by-side leveling effect that sharing Instagram with stars has had.

The most obvious reason why we sympathize with celebrities more is that we share their platforms with them. As Chris Hayes wrote in the New Yorker, many, if not most, Americans are now also content producers. We, too, tweet, or film TikToks, or use Facetune. We, too, can have our successes and failures observed and commented upon in public, albeit on a far smaller scale. Older publicity machines (newspapers, talk shows) were neither as accessible nor as threatening to the average person, and so the distance between star and spectator was greater. If people liked paparazzi shots, it was because they were refreshingly unpolished, unlike the snazzier photos PR teams placed in magazines like Us Weekly or People. The contrast established that stars weren’t just like us: They were liars, constantly presenting a polished veneer to the public.

This seemed unforgivable at the time for some reason. So did objecting to the attention they got. Why complain about the paparazzi? Didn’t they want to be famous?

Well, a lot of us get it now. Social media has taught us what it’s like to have someone post photographs of us we do not like and would not have approved. Or what it feels like when people say mean things about us and we can hear them.

There’s one other factor governing our reactions to celebrity news: We are more sophisticated now. We understand image production too well these days, having seen what it’s like to manage our own, to care much that celebrity images are filtered or photoshopped. Instead, the thing that interests us is how precisely they choose to deceive. It was hard to be charmed by Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas walking around L.A. during the pandemic because many media-saturated Americans know now, in ways they didn’t before, that the couple encouraged or even arranged for those pictures to be taken. Their mistake was trying to look unstudied when they were clearly staging their appearances. Ben Affleck’s reunion with Jennifer Lopez, by contrast, has gotten a positive reception precisely because it’s so clearly planned and choreographed down to reproducing the image of Ben’s hand on Jen’s butt from an old music video. Observers can appreciate the baroque insanity of the whole effort. It’s not trying to fool anyone; it’s treating the public as fellow players in the long, long game of fame.

Mulaney and Munn—to return to my gentle plea for gossip—aren’t doing that. A photo of them in People magazine sitting and laughing (both on the same side of the table, like ya do) is just shamefully uncool. It’s obviously posed but dares to pretend they “just happened” to get caught by a nearby camera. The photo “confirmed them as a couple,” but it was distressingly evident that this was almost exclusively what the photo was put in People magazine to do. Consumers know what candid photos look like in this day and age, and this patently isn’t one. Consumers also know that People works with celebrity publicity machines: Stuff published there generally has the subject’s approval. Never mind the baby, the relapse, the divorce. Who has Mulaney—the endlessly inventive bananapants co-writer of “Too Much Tuna”—become, if he approved this?

Let’s discuss, please.