Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at email@example.com.
Genevieve Koski asks: Our recent discussion of appalling celebrity behavior or beliefs got me thinking about the way our culture gleefully consumes celebrity scandal, particularly when it comes to unlikable celebrities. But what about likeable celebrities? The recent wave of accusations levied at Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash seemed to spark far more genuine disappointment than schadenfreude, which can’t be said for most celebrity sex scandals. So in that vein, what celebrity would you be genuinely upset to see caught up in scandal?
There are probably a lot of people who would like to see relentlessly likeable all-around good guy Tom Hanks taken down a couple pegs, but I’m certainly not one of them. Judging by the way he’s evaded any sort of blowback for things like recently dropping the F-bomb on Good Morning America and the ongoing sideshow that is his son Chet Haze, Hanks seems all but immune from scandal, and I have no problem with that. He’s this generation’s Jimmy Stewart, a seemingly unassailable nice guy who manages to maintain an air of respectability no matter what he does, while somehow avoiding coming across as hopelessly bland. (Anyone who doubts this should check out Hanks’ absolutely delightful recent appearance on the Nerdist podcast.) If it were to come out that he were, say, cheating on his wife, or a secret Scientologist, I’d be legitimately bummed.
I’ve confessed my soft spot for Neil Patrick Harris before in AVQ&As, and I suspect much of that comes from the persona he projects, of a really happy guy who’s openly delighted to be singing and dancing at the Tonys, or doing magic tricks on Ellen, or, y’know, actually acting on TV and in film. And the information that’s come out about his personal life—seemingly happy relationship with an equally cute young dude, adorable babies they adopted together—just fits the picture. Maybe it’s all manufactured PR, who knows. And who cares, really? His enthusiastic sweet-guy persona is an antidote to all the venom and snotty ennui out there these days, and if he’s secretly running a series of child sweatshops or enjoys hunting endangered animals for laughs, I don’t want to know. Not so much because I enjoy being deluded as because whenever a celebrity scandal breaks, it brings out everyone who hated the scandal-ee all along and now feel justified in expressing it in the ugliest possible ways, and I just don’t want to deal with those people. When it comes to wool over the eyes, though—if anyone ever finds out anything terrible about Jim Henson posthumously, I just plain don’t want to know, for the sake of my own soul.
Charles Barkley had a point when he declared that athletes shouldn’t be role models (which, perversely, is one of the many reasons I very much like Sir Charles) but still, I can’t help but hold my breath a little bit for Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose, who is currently on the disabled list for the foreseeable future, unfortunately. For such a young and successful star (last year, he was the youngest player to be voted the NBA’s MVP award) he has a remarkable reputation for humility, shyness, and selflessness, especially known for his gratefulness to his mother. All of this is made even more endearing by the fact that he’s a hometown hero. He seems like a sensitive soul. When Rose plays, I cringe whenever he screws up, because it seems evident that he tortures himself for letting down his teammates. More recently, he refused to answer a reporter’s question about his personal life—then apologized for doing so. I just want to hug him. Wild amounts of success and sports can be a dangerous combination. We’ve seen so many stars sink low after personal problems and misguided egotism. While Michael Jordan’s athletic legacy in Chicago can never be denied, I don’t think too many people particularly like the guy anymore. I hope Derrick always maintains his humble personality, that he doesn’t do anything epically stupid to let me down—or the rest of Chicago. Rose isn’t perfect, of course. His SAT scores were invalidated due to possible (but unproven) cheating, and some people (like my mom) would take issue with the fact that he had a baby out of wedlock. But for a pro athlete, he seems like a good and genuine guy, and I hope I always feel that way.
Bryan Cranston becomes increasingly despicable over the course of Breaking Bad’s run, but having talked to him on two separate occasions for The A.V. Club and either chatted with him or just generally interacted with him on several other occasions, I would be left flabbergasted and bumfuzzled if I ever learned he’d done something scandalous. I know he’s on his second marriage, but if there was any controversy involved with the end of that relationship, it’s never surfaced (they were divorced in 1982, and by all reports remain friends), and it certainly seems like he’s happily remarried with children, given that the one time his personal life has come up in one of our past conversations, it was the context of how he sometimes feels guilty about not being home at night as often as he’d like, and that he wasn’t scheduling anything during his daughter’s spring break so the whole family could go with her on her tour of possible colleges. Plus, while it’s common knowledge how he worked for years with little recognition, he just seems so darned honored and humbled by the success and recognition he’s found through his work on Breaking Bad. Basically, what I’m saying is, don’t let me down, Bryan Cranston. We know you’re an outstanding actor—hell, you’ve got the Emmys to prove it—but please don’t turn out to be anything other than the swell fella you seem to be.
Bryan Cranston is a good one. In that same vein, I’ll say that I’d be kind of P.O.ed to see Jon Hamm get into hot water. While I don’t think he’s a squeaky-clean dude—I’ve seen the drunk photos online and I’ve heard him make hilarious off-color, borderline-offensive jokes on almost every podcast out there—that’s fine with me. What I wouldn’t be fine with is him crossing some sort of invisible line of decency and getting involved in some porn-star sex scandal or racist-slur rant. He just seems like too good a dude for that. It wouldn’t be sexy or funny or smart. Instead, it would just make him look sad, and that’s not what I want from one of my icons of coolness. While a little bit of grit makes Hamm look all the better to me, a lot would just be depressing.
I know I’m guilty of projecting Mrs. Coach’s attributes onto her in real life, but what I’ve read about Connie Britton makes her sound not too far removed from her role on Friday Night Lights. That is to say, down-to-earth, compassionate, and fiery—that mix of friendliness and frankness made more winning by her Southern accent. I will pretty much watch her in anything, and I definitely wouldn’t be watching Nashville if she weren’t the star. So if she came out as a Holocaust-denier or birther or truther, it’d bum me out, though I guess I could always retreat into old episodes of Friday Night Lights. Sean O’Neal, who met her while the show was shooting in Austin, tells me she has kind of a hippie-ish Lilith Fair thing going on in real life, which should raise my punk-rock hackles, but it doesn’t. Connie Britton rules.
It’s highly unlikely that singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman would ever become embroiled in a scandal, since that would mean the world at large had started paying attention to him, which has never and will never happen. But for diehards like me, any hint of sleaze would totally obliterate the image of Richman I hold and cherish, one that’s he’s cultivated for decades—that of an elfin, ageless, Peter Pan-like troubadour who revels in the finer points of ice cream and dinosaurs. “Dancing In The Lesbian Bar” is the most suggestive thing he’s ever written, but even then, it’s wholly silly and celebratory. I’m sure Richman is just a regular human like the rest of us, and anyone who slept on Lou Reed’s couch during his Velvet Underground days surely witnessed some kind of depravity in his life. I’m totally fine with depravity—but Richman’s music is where I go when I want to pretend such things don’t and couldn’t exist.
I’m really glad I did not see Being Elmo, because I’m not sure my fragile heart can handle the kind of disillusionment associated with the Kevin Clash stories, regardless of what the actual truth might be. I had to search my heart long and hard for this AVQ&A before settling on Bob Newhart, a man so kindly and benevolent, he’s everybody’s dream grandfather. It also helps that he’s a comic genius, albeit of the buttoned-down variety. I would hate for anything to sully Newhart’s good name, so while some of my pals who saw him live last year (I had tickets but could not go) and said he did some racially problematic material, I didn’t want to believe it. I chalked it up to Newhart’s age and the times he was raised in, but I don’t think I could bear to hear anything more negative about the man, beyond his material being dated and a little insensitive.
I try not to hold famous people to a standard higher than the one to which I hold myself, which is to say they’re allowed to do dumb crap on a regular basis. But it would be hard to deal if Jon Stewart fell from his mid-height pedestal. I’m past revering artists as gods, but there are days when Stewart seems like the most reasonable man in America, the only one who can kiss our political wounds and make them feel better; there’s no one I’d rather have hold my hand while I’m watching Fox News. Plus he mentions his wife and kids just often enough to seem happy at home without subjecting them to undue scrutiny, never an easy line for a celebrity to walk. I can handle him doing the occasional softball interview with subjects who merit a more thorough grilling, but worse than that, I don’t even like to imagine.
I can’t pick a favorite member of Monty Python, but I can tell you which one I think is the nicest: Michael Palin, in a walk. Which isn’t to say that Palin only played nice-guy roles on Flying Circus—he could do thugs, twerps, and homicidal barbers as well as anyone. He just projected a basic air of decency and chummy British kindness while doing so, often to great comedic effect. Since Python broke up, Palin has been in some great movies (his turn as the charming torturer in Brazil works so brilliantly in part because he seems so pleasant and non-threatening; it’s like finding out your local librarian collects human skin), and he’s done a fair bit of TV, including a series of travel shows which follow him on his journeys around the world. In my mind, Palin is the ideal Englishman, reasonable and curious and fundamentally good-hearted, and while that’s an awful lot for anyone to live up to, everything I’ve read and heard about him has only worked to confirm my assumptions. If he turns out to be a bigoted serial murderer who strangles puppies in his spare time, I’d rather not know.
I agree with Tasha that NPH looks like he’s so happy to have a dynamic career, and he’s been so relatively open about his personal life in the last few years that I hope it stays that way. But if there’s any young-ish actor who looks like he’s just loving life right now, it’s his How I Met Your Mother co-star Jason Segel. It strikes me that Segel’s work ethic is always blue-collar, or at least as blue as your collar can get in show business: show up, do the work, have a smile on your face, enjoy yourself. It’s the reason he’s stuck with HIMYM, though his movie career has advanced further than that of any of his co-stars. And that sense of joy is the reason he was able to pull off a more-than-decent revival screenplay for The Muppets while doing all his other work. It isn’t often that an actor who’s known for going full frontal in Forgetting Sarah Marshall can also be squeaky-clean enough to write and star in a Muppet movie; we need these kinds of all-purpose, happy-to-be-here guys in Hollywood, and I just hope he doesn’t get waylaid by a scandalous tabloid-drenched relationship and breakup, or something even worse.
I don’t even know why, but I would really like Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell to make this whole “celebrity couple” thing work out. I can’t say I was a huge Shepard fan before he joined the cast of Parenthood (one of my favorite shows), but he’s become someone I really like over time. Bell, for her part, has been one of my favorite actors since the Veronica Mars days. I try not to do that whole thing where you imagine that celebrities are your friends or whatever, since that’s creepy and weird and the provenance of middle-aged fan-fiction writers. (And a past AVQ&A.) But I can’t help but think that if Dax and Kristen just gave my wife and me a chance, we’d be the very best of couple friends. But even outside of my horrifyingly mundane fantasies (we play so much Outburst!), they seem to have a solid relationship, and they seem like nice people who just happen to be famous. I’ll probably be as unhappy when they inevitably split up as I was when Will Arnett and Amy Poehler did. I mean, have you seen that sloth video?!
Watching Louis CK perform in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, I was reminded again of how funny and vital he is as a stand-up—he offered a chaff-free 90-minute set of material that he’ll junk after the tour, and start rebuilding again—and also how I was sitting in a seat purchased directly from his website, sans exorbitant Ticketmaster service charges. And while it’s true that very few entertainers have the profile to create a DIY system for concert tickets and $5 performance videos like Live At The Beacon Theater, it’s nonetheless a great, no-fuss gesture from a guy who sympathizes with fans who hate dealing with corporate price-gouging and proprietary rights. He also happens to be the writer-director-star of TV’s most personal, formally inventive show. And yet, unlike with some of the names offered here, there’s always the threat that Louis CK could be engulfed in scandal, because those flames have licked at him before. Earlier this year, CK was slated to host the Radio & Television Congressional Correspondents dinner until Fox News’ resident Sarah Palin fluffer Greta Van Susteren raised a fuss about his use of the “C-word” to describe the would-be vice president in a drunken airplane Twitter rant. Rather than become fodder for the cultural outrage machine, the politics-averse comedian immediately dropped the gig. Onstage, CK regularly ventures into dangerous territory—the new tour has a brilliant bit weighing the things we know are right (“Of course”) with the terrible things we think anyway (“But maybe…”)—but he has the talent to finesse it and make it edgy rather than simply offensive. There’s always the future possibility that he won’t be able to pull out of that tailspin and he’ll be held up for mass shaming like Tracy Morgan, who he defended vigorously at the time. It was a reminder that comedians like CK toe the ledge of public opinion; here’s hoping he never falls off.
Like the rest of the world, my wife and I were shaken by the separation of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, who always seemed like a model of a cool, modern couple. Now, in the wake of the Poehler/Arnett split mentioned above, that pretty much just leaves Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo as models of how to stay married while remaining vital. For all I know, they’re actually running a Pink Flamingos-like slavery ring out of their basement and they fight all the time, but they seem like they have it together, enjoy what they’re doing, and remain committed to keeping a creative spark alive. It would be a shame to find out otherwise.
The closest Conan O’Brien has ever come to a scandal was as a victim, when NBC cheated on him by going to bed with their ex. He handled that fiasco remarkably well, taking the high road by leaving the Tonight Show instead of screwing over Jimmy Fallon or damaging the integrity of the longstanding show, and even gave his staff roughly a third of his severance pay. And in addition to being the funniest man on late night, his list of goodwill is endless: He met his non-celebrity wife of 10 years on set during a skit, he’s politically moderate, founded an anti-hunger non-profit with his Harvard roommate, donated his Super Bowl commercial money to charity, and was ordained as a minister to perform the same-sex marriage of a member of his staff. But as seen with another limber redhead, even the implication of a scandal can end a career. And if that happens, I fear the worst would be yet to come; the première clip of Conan and hints of obsession in Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop were dark enough, I couldn’t bear to see it happen in real life.
I’ve quickly become a big fan of Kristen Schaal, especially for her fantastic work bringing Mabel Pines to life on Gravity Falls. That’s just the tip of a wonderful Schaal iceberg, though—she’s pretty much awesome in everything I’ve seen her in, and I’m looking forward to seeing her in lots more over the years to come. That is, unless some kind of horrible scandal derails her. It would probably take something pretty big, though—she already wrote a sex book, albeit a humorous one, and we’re getting to the point where a sex tape is less a scandal than a ho-hum career hiccup, kind of like an arrest for drugs became years ago. So long as she steers clear of murder cults, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, and racist politics, she should be okay, and I should still be able to watch the unfolding of her glorious career as one of TV and film’s funniest and most charismatic character actors.