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John Mulaney Doesn’t Know His Own Fans

Bringing out Dave Chappelle at a show signals a disconnect between the comedian and the queer community that loves him

When comedian John Mulaney finished a stint in rehab, filed for divorce from wife Anna Marie Tendler and confirmed a relationship (and pregnancy) with actress Olivia Munn in the span of a few months, his fan base was genuinely shocked. The meek and relatable awkward character he brought to the stage seemed incompatible with this kind of whirlwind Hollywood drama. After enjoying their favorite jokes and specials so many times, could it be they didn’t know him at all?

Now, a year out from the divorce headlines, it seems as if Mulaney doesn’t know them, or never quite noticed how they made his star rise. At a Columbus, Ohio stop for his From Scratch tour, comedian Dave Chappelle turned up as a surprise opener, and indulged in his usual transphobic material — does he talk about anything else these days? — to the dismay of some attendees. Mulaney, who in his own sets rarely touches on the political controversies of the day, hugged him after the performance, which had occasioned some booing from the crowd.

As word of the show spread online, many more of Mulaney’s longtime supporters, especially LGBTQ people, described it as a kind of betrayal. For Chappelle’s defenders, the line is always “Don’t watch him if you don’t like it” — but here he was, foisted upon an unsuspecting audience that had paid to see Mulaney’s not-so-hostile musings on modern life. While part of the room went along with Chappelle’s casual bigotry, another part found themselves all but trapped, faced with the prospect of trying to exit a pitch-dark arena without the help of a phone flashlight (devices were surrendered at the door) and eating the cost of the ticket for the comedian they had looked forward to seeing. The alternative was to sit there and endure the humiliation.      

Whether or not you believe that the queer community’s love for Mulaney has significantly amplified his celebrity, they represent a key demographic for him. Over the years, they’ve disseminated his riffs in GIFs and memes, quoted him among friends and marveled that there was a straight, cis male standup who connected on a “gay” wavelength. His comedy, as Mulaney himself must have realized, was safe where others’ wasn’t, though it sacrificed none of the belly laughs. It was this wholesome act that contributed to the widespread astonishment when he sought treatment for addiction and ended his marriage. His endorsement of Chappelle’s tirades against the marginalized is one more reminder of the persona’s artifice.

Mulaney’s career won’t collapse if the neurodivergent Tumblr stans abandon him, as he still holds great appeal for those indifferent to alignment with anti-trans figures. But the mounting disappointment and criticism signal that he’s reached a dangerous point in the trajectory of any entertainer — a level of fame where it’s possible, and maybe even ordinary, to overlook and detach from admirers who have been with you from the start. Nothing funny about it.