What’s the Point of a Celebrity in a Pandemic?

Jimmy Fallon’s appeal, such as it is, resides in his air of benighted, puppyish cluelessness — but in times of crisis, this sort of thing can quickly lose its charm. Fallon himself seemed to learn this in 2016, after he chummily tousled Donald Trump’s hair during a “Tonight Show” appearance, sparking a public reaction so negative the host was pushed into a rare sulk. “What do you want me to do? You want me to kill myself?” he asked in The Hollywood Reporter. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to make anyone angry — I never do, and I never will. It’s all in the fun of the show.” Here he had a point. Jimmy Fallon is not like Stephen Colbert or Trevor Noah or John Oliver or Samantha Bee. His role is not to engage, however wryly, with real life. It is to show up every night and distract us from it, as though it’s not really there.

Last month, though, Fallon joined Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel as the hosts of “One World: Together at Home,” a concert organized to show support for the World Health Organization and very much a response to real life. His role was the same as usual: goofy, innocent, like a child trying to get a smile out of his worried mother. At one point in the program — which aired for two hours on broadcast networks and six on streaming services and online — he and the scattered members of his show’s house band, the Roots, performed a slightly modified cover of Men Without Hats’ 1983 hit “The Safety Dance” (“We can dance/We can dance/Everybody’s washing their hands”), cut together with images of health care workers around the country. The medical personnel looked calm and can-do in fresh protective gear, dancing and singing as they scrubbed their hands and sprayed surfaces with disinfectants the president would soon recommend as potential intravenous remedies. Afterward, the actor Henry Golding spoke about the importance of vaccines. Later, Beyoncé talked about how the virus was disproportionately affecting African-Americans. Michelle Obama and Laura Bush spoke as a duo. Appearing just days after the president halted U.S. funding of the W.H.O., its director general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, affirmed the need for global cooperation.

This being a concert with a mission, the celebrities performing from home continually redirected the spotlight onto health care workers, medical researchers, teachers, delivery people and other essential workers. They talked about poverty, homelessness and the failures of the American health care system. They nodded to every last one of the humanistic, evergreen, model-U.N. values the bulk of Americans usually claim to aspire to: science, democracy, cooperation, responsibility, hygiene, reason and kindness.

Given that most of us have been hearing this talk since preschool, there should have been nothing remarkable about the broadcast. But so far in this crisis, and even before it, there has been a strange vacuum of basic shared-values platitudes. The president spends his time snapping at journalists, shifting blame or promising miraculous cures; other politicians snipe at states they see as enemies or idly muse about what number of dead seniors might not be so terrible. We citizens, meanwhile, are free to consume our separate, personalized diets of information or disinformation. What the “One World” broadcast managed was to replicate something old-fashioned: a big, corny, mass-media entertainment, one that piously affirmed what feel like bedrock, mainstream values. And this time, instead of feeling like a stifling monoculture, it felt reassuring, like a dispatch from some consensus reality we’d all forgotten we’d ever inhabited.

The pandemic has lifted the veil on all sorts of obvious but seldom-acknowledged societal issues, but few have been as comical as the distance between ordinary people and the celebrities who pretend to relate to them. Some stars’ behavior has come across blinkered and clueless, as when Ellen DeGeneres compared staying in her palatial home to being in jail. Others have seemed pandering and fake, as Gal Gadot did when she rounded up famous friends and made them sing “Imagine,” as though we were all living in a 1970s Coke commercial. Arnold Schwarzenegger enjoying a cigar in his hot tub while telling people to stay home was not a great look; nor was doing it from his lavish kitchen, alongside a miniature horse and donkey. This is the kind of thing that makes people post memes of fake Ikea manuals for flat-pack guillotines in the comments.

Over the past weeks, many people’s contact with the outside world has shrunk to the size of a screen. But much of the artifice that helps those screens manipulate our feelings — lights, swooping cameras, the laughter of studio audiences — has been stripped away. In some cases, seeing stars exposed and unmediated has left them looking silly; in others it has made them seem relatable, trustworthy. We’ve seen hosts and anchors broadcasting from their kitchens, attics or sheds, telling jokes that are met with empty silence. We’ve watched Pete Davidson make a video for “Saturday Night Live” on a beige couch in his mom’s living room, and we’ve seen stars flood the internet with homemade video, from the well-meaning (John Krasinski starting a “Some Good News” YouTube channel) to the engagingly odd (January Jones sweeping her foyer in a creepy Venetian mask).

Early in his job as the host of “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart made a decision to “straighten out our point of view here” and write “about how we really feel” — and spent the years that followed, in the wake of 9/11, excoriating the growing tendency for politicians to create their own realities when facts became inconvenient. The show that resulted may have felt pointed or partisan, but it was animated, Stewart told The New Yorker, by a sense that the nation was forgetting core principles of “fairness, common sense and moderation.”

Something similar seems to have happened for “One World.” In creating a mass cultural event, the celebrities and the vast entertainment apparatus behind it have discovered a purpose they can, for the moment, usefully put themselves to: standing for values that used to feel more uncontroversial than they do now. Amid a vacuum of leadership, they have taken up the sorts of jobs once done by U.S.O. tours and propaganda posters: boosting morale, stumping for shared beliefs, rallying people to action. Plant a victory garden! Wash your hands! We’ll prevail together!

Thus: Jimmy Fallon, dancing innocuously amid clips of medical professionals. These were not the drained and overburdened doctors and nurses of the country’s hardest-hit areas. They were friendly and confident, chins up and ready to do their part, like masked modern Rosie the Riveters. The program they appeared in was a parade of competence and calm, a six-hour balm — a reminder of what we were, or thought we were, or were supposed to be.

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Written by WorninTV


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