YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The joke's on them

Regardless of how they got that way, celebrities will always have to put up with a certain amount of ridicule.

February 26, 2007

LATE-NIGHT TV comedians aren't supposed to have pangs of conscience. So it was unsettling when Craig Ferguson, host of CBS' "The Late Late Show," said last week that he wasn't going to make jokes about the suddenly shorn Britney Spears and apologized for having poked fun at diaper-wearing astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak and other "vulnerable" people in the news.

"I'm starting to feel uncomfortable about making fun of these people," the Scottish comedian told his audience. Comedy "should have a certain amount of joy in it," he said, and be about "attacking the powerful -- the politicians, the Trumps, the blowhards." Ferguson also linked his solicitude to Spears, who has been in and out of rehab, with his own history of alcoholism.

Ferguson's forswearing of fun at the expense of "vulnerable" celebrities seemed to confuse his audience, though it brought him praise from some viewers. "You're a class act," one viewer told Ferguson in a post on YouTube, where a clip of his monologue is posted. "As a person in recovery for the last 20 years, I know what it is like firsthand."

Essentially, Ferguson was suggesting that all pitiable people -- well known or not -- receive the same sympathy. The question is whether it's realistic to expect anyone else to follow Ferguson's example and give a break to people in pain who also happen to be people in People magazine.

As if to mock Ferguson's plea for privacy for nonpowerful newsmakers, the airwaves were saturated last week with coverage of the legal battle over the disposition of Anna Nicole Smith's remains. Smith can no longer feel the pain of being a punching bag for comedians, but her mother, her lawyer-companion and even Judge Larry "I want to build a child" Seidlin are fair game. These characters lack the sociopolitical heft of Dick Cheney or Donald Trump, but they're still famous, as Smith was, for being famous. So their foibles, from head-shavings to accidental shootings of hunting buddies, are newsworthy.

Like it or not, the commodification of celebrity has made "public figures" not only of people on the periphery of momentous events -- such as Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp, who was savagely caricatured on "Saturday Night Live" by John Goodman -- but also of people on the periphery of events that are themselves peripheral. Powerful or powerless, they are all fodder for news, commentary and especially comedy, in all media.

Ferguson may win points with a few viewers for pleading on their behalf. But in the long run, the joke is likely to be on him. It may be rough justice, but most if not all of the "vulnerable" people who are undone by the culture of celebrity also courted it. Having signed up for the fame, they have to put up with the jokes.

Los Angeles Times Articles