Watching the NBA All-Star festivities on Saturday, I started to wonder what ever happened to the show Battle of the Network Stars. If you don’t remember, that was the ’80s program on ABC where actors from hit tv shows from all three networks competed against each other in athletic events. It spawned a spin-off on CBS called Circus of the Stars, where actors would try to outdo each other at being circus people–being trapeze artists, taming lions, etc. (that sounds like it should be a joke, but it isn’t)
Dancing With the Stars is the natural progeny of those shows, but you can tell how much the culture of celebrity has changed by comparing them–Dancing is first and foremost a competition. The contestants on Dancing are dead-serious about winning it. (Jerry Rice, when he made the finals three years ago, had a ludicrous moment when he seemed to be cliaming that he wanted to win the dance contest more than he wanted to win the Superbowl). Battle of the Network Stars was primarily a way for viewers to watch their favorite TV actors engage in frat-house shenanigans.
Bill Simmons, many years back when he was just the Sports Guy and not the biggest name at ESPN, wrote a column on a YouTube clip from that show, which showcases Telly Savalas in dark sunglasses and a track suit, and Robert Conrad getting smoked by Mr. Kotter in a 100-yard dash. It’s kind of amazing what they got away with saying on TV:
Not to be outblowharded, Savalas throws around words like “vulgarly” and “flagrantly” to condemn NBC. That’s when Conrad crosses every line: “[Telly] is Greek, and the Greeks are famous athletes. That’s how this all started. [Kaplan] is Jewish, he wants to arbitrate. And I’m German, I vant to kill both of dem!” Everyone laughs. Why? It’s the ’70s, that’s why!
Just when it can’t get better, Pat Harrington Jr.—Schneider, the wisecracking janitor on One Day at a Time—quips, “And I’m Irish, and I’m looking for another mick to hit!” followed by Telly deciding, “And I’m from New York, and I want the bread, baby.”
There’s nothing even close to being that amusing at the NBA Celebrity basketball game. Political correctness, among other things, has robbed us of some serious sophomoric belly-laughs. But it is fun to watch celebrities relax and kinda-sorta be themselves (as much as it’s possible with a camera on you) while trying to entertain themselves, each other, and (probably last on the priority list) us.
Do you ever sense that you can know from how a celebrity interviews whether they’re just a regular person in their normal non-celebrity life, or that’s just an impossibility for them? Maybe it’s presumptuous, but I do. And I’m going to pronounce right now that Justin Bieber is not just a regular old Joe in his personal life (or whatever personal life is allowed to someone who becomes a worldwide pop sensation at fifteen.) Bieber’s been everywhere recently, and he’s pretty charming, if not necessarily a natural actor or comedian. But he recognizes that camera on him like it’s the Eye of Mordor. Like Ron Artest, Marlon Brando, Eddy Murphy, Tom Cruise and Sarah Palin before him, he gives the impression that the camera is always going to be on, at least in his head.
The celebrities who are the opposite of this, who make you think they are completely normal Joes (if really cool ones) who shut off the camera immediately when living their personal lives are: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Steve Carell (it actually hurts Carell in his live appearances–you can tell he’s trying really hard to be funny, which quite possibly doesn’t occur to him naturally in his real life), Jamie Foxx, Charles Barkley, George W. Bush and Tom Hanks (Hanks actually manages to convince us that he carries his charismatic on-air persona effortlessly over to the rest of his life–another way in which he is amazingly old-school) . I think I envy this second group more–it’s almost like they’ve been given two separate lives to live, as opposed to trying to live one life through two different lives. Does that make any sense?