When news broke this week that comedian John Mulaney had entered rehab to deal with alcohol and cocaine issues, there was an outpouring of support on Twitter, often coupled with forceful warnings against anyone daring to make nasty comments about Mulaney’s struggles.
“If I see anyone, and I mean ANYONE, making fun of John Mulaney for checking into rehab I will tackle you so fast,” wrote one Twitter user. Wrote another: “Treat John Mulaney with respect and love, he needs it.”
Well said. But why doesn’t that kind of compassion often extend to female celebrities or performers of color who battle substance abuse? “I genuinely wish him well but I have to wonder where all this empathy for John Mulaney was when Demi Lovato checked into rehab/overdosed etc.,” observed one Twitter user. (Lovato was hospitalized two years ago after an apparent drug overdose.)
It was open season on Lindsay Lohan and Amy Winehouse when they went through their own struggles with drugs and alcohol. Both of them were showered with cruel derision. I recall some wag dubbing Winehouse “Amy Crackhouse” not long before she died at 27 in 2011. Lohan’s battles with addiction were mocked in an episode of “Glee” — which a deeply upset Lohan was watching while in rehab at the Betty Ford Center. In that episode, guest star Gwyneth Paltrow, playing a Spanish teacher, said to the class in Spanish: “Lindsay Lohan is totally crazy, right?” and “How many times has Lindsay Lohan been to rehab?” Whitney Houston was often subjected to ridicule during the long struggle with drugs that ended with her death in 2012, and Houston was far from the only Black performer who has received that treatment.
The double standard for female celebrities who battle substance abuse can extend even to their posthumous reputations, unfairly defining even the brightest stars.
For her portrayal of a pill-popping Judy Garland, Renée Zellweger this year won an Academy Award (an honor Judy herself never received, apart from an honorary Oscar). It feels these days as if Garland’s brilliant career has been telescoped in the popular imagination to: Appeared in “Wizard of Oz,” then went into death spiral.
The warmth of the support Mulaney has received is not just heartening but notable, because, while not a hostile comic, he has not presented himself as a warm and fuzzy guy. More formally attired than your average standup comic, in a suit and tie, the 38-year-old Mulaney doesn’t project as someone eager to ingratiate himself with the audience or desperate for our approval of the stories he tells so well. When Mulaney made a guest appearance in season three of the Pete Holmes-Judd Apatow HBO comedy “Crashing,” it was to play an aloof, condescending version of himself. His comedy has always been a fairly cerebral blend of concept and narrative.
Having once worked as a writer on “Saturday Night Live,” Mulaney had recently returned to late-night TV, accepting a job as a writer-performer on NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” Mulaney told ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel that he needed structure and the new job would meet that need.
Still, Mulaney had appeared to be keeping a pretty busy pace in the last couple of years. For IFC’s “Documentary Now!” series, he collaborated with Meyers on last year’s “Original Cast Album: Co-op,” a sendup of D.A. Pennebaker’s famous documentary about the recording of Stephen Sondheim’s score for “Company.” Mulaney also created a highly praised, Emmy-nominated 2019 children’s musical comedy special for Netflix titled “John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch.”
It was on his Netflix standup comedy specials that we could track Mulaney’s evolution over the years. He was good from the start, but you could see him getting sharper, more focused, and more polished as he progressed from “New in Town” (2012) to “The Comeback Kid” (2015) to “Kid Gorgeous at Radio City” (2018), for which he won an Emmy Award. When David Letterman described Mulaney as “the future of comedy,” it didn’t seem like hyperbole.
Mulaney has been open about the fact that his battles with sobriety go back many years. In an interview with Esquire last year, Mulaney said he got sober at 23 because “I thought to myself: ‘I don’t like this guy anymore. I’m not rooting for him.’”
That guy appears to have a lot of people rooting for him now. Let’s see if the same is true the next time a female or Black celebrity stumbles.