I had just arrived at a small dinner party several years ago when a surprise guest, Johnny Carson, sat across from me and quickly summoned the dreaded “L” word. “We’ve never met before, so I have to explain that I’m not a very ‘friendly’ dinner companion,” he advised. “I get paid to be entertaining on TV, but dinner is a ‘no laugh’ zone.”
I appreciated his warning that a new investigation into “likeability” ratings was stirring controversy at the time, and despite an erratic personal life, Carson was still a revered presence on TV.
The comedian would be amused to hear that it’s all pieced together today, once again sparked by the behavior of the late-night hosts (I’ll review Carson’s own dinner performance below).
According to the new Sympathy Index, James Corden is no longer the late-night “Mr. Nice Guy” because of the restaurant’s allegedly rude behavior – that is, if you believe the waiters (and the owners).
But there are wider symptoms: The Cate Blanchett film Tar generates debates of opinion due to his performance as an abrasive celebrity whose behavior contributes to ruining the lives of other stars.
Sympathy issues are even impacting Ellen DeGeneres as she nears the end of her long and successful television career. And John Mulaney, occasionally on saturday night liveis currently touring in his new show called “Likability Is a Jail”.
Are television personalities locked up in this prison? A critic for the Los Angeles TimesMary McNamara, points out that the likable characters don’t inhabit one of the mega-budget shows that dominate TV, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. They are “devilishly morose” and reflect an “epic lack of humour” (the elves in rings of power might protest).
On another level, the political candidates currently dominating the national dialogue barely register on sympathy indexes compared to the super-sympathetic ones of yore like Dwight Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan. As a journalist, I covered a Reagan campaign and thought he was really great – an attitude I never discovered in Donald Trump.
Even Hollywood movie executives, who once coveted a sympathetic image, have abandoned that goal in the interest of self-protection. When Brooks Barnes of The New York Times recently attempted to interview more than two dozen Hollywood executives about the impact of the #MeToo movement, he found them to be “jamming with dread”.
PR pros say social media nastiness has made sympathy-seeking a lost cause. Add to that the growth of “celebrity deepfakes” – celebrities ranging from Elon Musk to Tom Cruise who have appeared in videos over the past month but really haven’t. They are the product of “increasingly convincing” digital imitations, comments one expert.
Musk, who just took over Twitter, appeared to star in a marketing video for a real estate startup, while Leonardo DiCaprio appeared to be launching a company called Paperspace.
Ironically, one of the few celebrities to successfully challenge these practices is Woody Allen, who won a deal with American Apparel for his unapproved appearance in an ad campaign.
Allen, of course, unlike Corden, never coveted a Nice Guy trophy — he long presided over celebrity openings for his films in which he refused to greet most of his guests.
Corden, on the other hand, has managed to portray himself as a self-deprecating, loving guy. Carpool Karaoke ride with pop stars. Lately, however, Corden reportedly became furious at the expensive Balthazar restaurant when his wife’s egg yolk omelet arrived with egg white mixed with the yolk. “I should go into the kitchen myself and cook,” Corden said.
The argument raged on Instagram posts as restaurant owner Keith McNally denounced the celebrities’ rudeness while other restaurateurs testified to Corden’s exceptional behavior.
So, are late night hosts fun? Carson on dinner night was unsmiling and piquant, but made smart and informed comments on several issues of the moment. He didn’t complain about the food and meticulously thanked the servers.
And, true to his promise, he made it a point never to say anything entertaining, even remotely.