John Mulaney / Steve Burns
Source: Getty Images/Nickelodeon

What Is a Parasocial Relationship and How Does It Relate to the John Mulaney Situation?


Sep. 9 2021, Published 6:16 p.m. ET

Shortly after famed comedian John Mulaney announced his divorce from ex-wife Anna Marie Tendler, the internet exploded with shock, fury, and awe. Fans took to Twitter to voice their opinions about the news, and the phrase "parasocial relationship" started to get tossed around. But what is a parasocial relationship? And aside from John Mulaney, what are other recent examples in pop culture?

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Read on for everything we know about the psychological phenomenon that is a parasocial relationship.

An example of a parasocial relationship via YouTube.
Source: Twitter
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So, what is a parasocial relationship? The term was coined in the 1950s.

The term "parasocial relationship" was coined in 1956 by social scientists Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl to describe a phenomenon they noticed at the dawn of the first "Golden Age" of television. Huffington Post says the phrase refers to the "illusion of a face-to-face relationship" audience members have with performers, which creates the idea of intimacy at a distance.

Teen Vogue defines a parasocial relationship as "a long-term attachment to a media figure (a blogger, an idol, or even a politician) based on what a person 'knows' or understands about that figure over time." The outlet also writes that "we develop parasocial relationships based on repeated interactions with these figures on social media or on television that make them seem relatable and accessible rather than far away from us 'regular' people."

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Source: Twitter

Some say that parasocial relationships can have good outcomes, such as helping teens figure out their identities or develop higher self-esteem. Both men and women benefit from parasocial relationships, but ultimately, in the case of high-profile celebrities, sometimes parasocial relationships become a paradox.

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Celebrities end up with attached and invested fanbases that cause issues when the stars need space the most, such as after a divorce or while in rehab. There are more than a few recent examples in pop culture of parasocial relationships, including comedian John Mulaney and Steve from the children's show Blue's Clues.

Source: Twitter
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John Mulaney is no stranger to parasocial relationships.

A recent example of a parasocial relationship involves comedian John Mulaney. Before his divorce, John's standup frequently included jokes about how much he loved his wife, how he had been to rehab after developing a drug addiction in his early 20s, and how much he loved his dog, Petunia. John's perceived relatability worked against him when he announced his divorce from ex-wife Anna Marie Tendler and entered a relationship with actress Olivia Munn, who is now pregnant.

Source: Twitter
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Disgruntled fans are having a difficult time realizing that John, like all human beings, is not infallible, and that the aspects of his personality highlighted in his standup aren't necessarily true to who he is as a person today.

The original Steve Burns from 'Blue's Clues' returned on the show's 25th anniversary to explain his exit in 2002.

Although most of today's target audience for Blue's Clues does not remember the original host, in a video posted to Nick Jr.'s Twitter account on Sept. 8, 2021, Steve Burns explained his disappearance from the show back in 2002. At the time of his departure, many young fans were startled and upset when Steve's absence was never explained.

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Source: Twitter

Steve said, "One day, I was like, 'Oh hey, guess what? Big news, I'm leaving. Here's my brother Joe, he's your new best friend,' and then I got on a bus and I left and we didn't see each other for like a really long time? Can we just talk about that? Great. Because I realize that was kind of abrupt." He also mentioned he left to attend college, but that he couldn't have grown up without the show or its fans.

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Steve concluded, "I guess I just wanted to say that after all these years, I never forgot you. Ever. And I'm super glad we're still friends."

Source: Twitter

More examples of parasocial relationships in recent history include drama over Justin Bieber's relationships, the reunion of "Bennifer," and Henry Cavill urging people not to attack his girlfriend.

Sometimes, fans have to remember that celebrities are human too, and that just because onlookers feel entitled to stars' personal lives doesn't mean that they actually are.

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