Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Scott Raab and the Celebrity Profile

Three hundred years ago when Addison and Steele founded The Tatler and, with it, modern journalism, neither could have envisioned something as shamefully entertaining, intellectually empty and only infrequently artistic as the "celebrity profile." If they had, perhaps they'd have killed themselves.

These pieces exist solely because some vacuous turd from the entertainment industry has achieved just enough of a Q rating that his mug will move an extra dozen units of magazines. His selection for that purpose means that, by intent, almost anything about him or what he has to say doesn't have to be anything other than meaningless. It will still sell magazines. In fact, he can really only achieve the absence of meaninglessness by derailing the gravy train of vapidity with a massive, unintentional fuckup.

In pursuit of people like him run the celebrity profilers, who fall into one of three categories:

1. The genuine verbal artist who's covering friends or a celebrity of interest to him/her or is just slumming to see what it's like. These appear least often because either the artist demands too much money to be profitable more than once every couple years, accidentally reports the truth and proves himself an entertainment liability or simply shows up the quality of the writing in the rest of the magazine to such a degree that printing him once is embarrassment enough.

2. The starfucker. Nearly ubiquitous.

3. The put-upon hack just working his beat — only his beat is Hollywood — who honed his chops on things a fuckload more important than this bullshit, and he's gonna roll up his sleeves and be in the scene but not of the scene. He peppers his pieces with asides meant to say that he'll score you a look at the real deal, presenting it as some sort of throwing-elbows-through-the-crowd fight to get at the truth — as if, hey, he really is an artist and not just someone holding out a tape recorder while some airbrushed shithead bloviates publicist boilerplate at him for eight hours one day.

Scott Raab can be #1 sometimes, but just as often, he can be #3.

I first stumbled upon Raab by accident, reading Joe Posnanski's excellent blog. Joe mentioned a "Swear-Off" profanity contest he moderated between Raab and legendary sportswriter and crank Pat Jordan, and I had to read it just to see how the big boys trolled. To be honest, the whole thing came off rather weakly, with some stuff that honestly would get both their asses flamed off on at least four message boards I can think of offhand, but both men won through in the end with some decently sick shit that I think startled even the jaded internet wanks reading it. Based on that, I had to read more of both guys' stuff. (I already reviewed Pat Jordan here.)

From there, I found Raab's blog of the 2007 baseball postseason. As a Cleveland fan, he bitterly hated the Red Sox, but even my Sox fandom did nothing to take away from the delightful sarcasm he brought to the postseason. Raab trampled pieties but also expressed earnest emotional connection to the game. He came off like the best kind of cynical fan — the broken romantic fan whose heart always heals with the next spring and against his better judgment. It was touching and hilarious. After that, I had to buy his book, Real Hollywood Stories: Inside the Minds of 20 Celebrities, With One A-list Writer.

Compilations of anything other than rock music are usually unfair. Watch a weekly TV show's entire season in one sitting, and the crutches it needs to close out and open each act break jump out at you. The same thing happens to any writing collection of not only one genre but also one form. A "best sportswriting of 2007" compilation will at least show ups and downs, noisy bursts and tonal fadeouts as the pieces skip from column to interview to profile to daily news article to a magazine's investigative piece. Twenty celebrity pieces in a row, though, might as well be twenty episodes of LOST: even if the meat between the act breaks is top quality, you still can't avoid the process and the processing.

What comes through most strongly, then, is Raab himself. And Raab is funny. He sprinkles hilariously acid throwaway observations in every profile — "the darwinian question mark that is Chris Kattan"; "Kid Rock has precisely two things in common with Lenny Bruce: He likes showgirls and getting blown" — giving the prose spice even if the interviewee's quotations lack them. In doing this, he appeals to the reader's narcissism and shame in even reading these things. "Hey, you and I know that celebrity profiles are a vacuous topic. It's cool; we're both learned. We're making fun of these people."

The trouble with this sort of wit is that a celebrity profiler can't live on it alone. Too much, and he never gets asked to do this again. Sure, if he's an artist slumming, he can get away with murder. But everyone else who wants to be good at the job has to go at it like the hack and temper some ambition with the tone of the starfucker.

Which makes some of what Raab does a little disingenuous. Chris Kattan wasn't being profiled: Will Ferrell was, and anyway, Kattan is now functionally dead to Hollywood. Kid Rock is, was and always will be a semi-joke, and he wasn't being profiled either. The negative profiles themselves are just as obvious. Raab eviscerates Ryan Seacrest, and it is totally deserved, entertaining and re-readable. But by the same token, Seacrest is human chum. He's vapid and pointless, but he's also only a radio host and a TV presenter less important than a cast of amateurs, two has-beens and a British he-bitch. Tom Cruise is no more substantive a person, but he's also a far less acceptable target, because he makes lots, lots more money in more prestigious vehicles. If Raab took a swing at him in a profile, it would be as much shadow boxing as punching at Crow via Kid Rock.

Even Raab's acid tongue itself is sometimes compromised. Though he's hardly vicious to Sheryl Crow (she was dating Kid Rock at the time, hence the reference to him), and though her aimlessly weird life deserved the hit at the time, Raab defangs himself in writing his intro to the original profile. It almost suggests, "Hey, readers: I'll still bring the funny mockery," while also saying, "Hey, publicists: I'm not all bad. Call."

Raab's choices as an author and person also come out just as strongly in the favorable pieces. His profiles of Paul Newman and Sean Penn are almost hagiographies, despite both men having difficult or comical features to their lives. Newman is prickly and disagreeable in a way that seems unbecoming to someone who could very probably have gotten anyone to do anything for him. Instead of questioning why someone who would get carte blanche from nearly everybody stiffarms them nonetheless, Raab does the work of explaining it away so Newman doesn't have to.

The case is much the same when it comes to Sean Penn's self-seriousness. Then, when Jack Nicholson intrudes on the profile, Raab all but stops to suck his dick, despite Nicholson being, in addition to his coolness, one of the most absurd old men alive. In all these cases, it's obvious: Raab likes these guys. While he hangs a subject like Nicholas Cage out to dry, as if to say, "Endear yourself to the audience, while I write these expository passages undermining you," for Penn, Newman, Nicholson and others, it's as if he's told them not to bother. "Don't worry about the audience. I'll take care of it."

And there's a reader-reaction point to this too, beyond smoothing over celebrities' rough edges. An empty profile about an empty person leaves us feeling empty for spending time looking at it. A mocking profile rewards our sense of social and intellectual superiority. But the hagiography reinforces what we'd like to see in ourselves as well. "See," it says, "these are good human beings. Don't you feel good that you've taken the time to familiarize yourself with this goodness?"

Oddly, these problems of favor all crystallize in the very first profile in the book. Raab treats Bill Murray with kid gloves. Here he is, regular guy. Stand-up guy. Great guy. The enthusiasm for Bill Murray is almost totally unblemished. And yet, by many diverse accounts, Bill Murray can be a phenomenal dick and an absolute prima donna: pretty much 180┬║ away from great, regular guy. The New Yorker ran a profile of Harold Ramis years ago in which people who knew both Murray and him expressed dismay at how Murray had torpedoed mutually profitable projects with narcissistic waffling and had withheld gratitude for Ramis' flattering play-to-strength scripts and friend-casting of him in a perversely self-destructive way. An entire half of a supposedly difficult and diffident character never appears and is never even really asked about. Instead, the reader meets "Billy Murray": guy who buys doughnuts and offers burritos.

And it's easy to see why this happens. Raab presents himself as an amiably coarse mensch who works hard and has made good, and thus he highlights the same in people and gravitates toward those who possess that. The endlessly affected Ryan Seacrest and Sheryl Crow are destroyed for their inauthenticity. Sean Penn is real when talking about his actor brother and screening his movies and having his cocktails in an upscale bar with Jack Nicholson. Meanwhile, Nic Cage is some quasi-nepotistic fake asshole in an expensive car who can't even reconnect with "real" people when visiting the house he used to live in.

Raab's book is very fun to read. He covers interesting characters and has a sharp eye for the two or three details that establish a physical scene in the reader's mind. His wit not only cuts straight to an issue but also induces genuine out-loud laughs. His talents clearly sit well above the vast majority of celebrity profile writers. But it's hard not to notice that he's playing meanly disingenuous games.

He hasn't the gravitas of the celebrity author and thus can't say whatever he wants. At the same time, he can't be taken seriously if he files starfucker copy and lets the subject control the tone of the interview or the piece. But in establishing his bona fides as an observer and craftsman, he takes shots at the cheap targets to maintain his credibility while coming very close to fawning starfuckery for those people whose personalties obviously mirror traits he admires about his own. Raab is at his best when he abandons all objectivity. Any reader will delight in the pieces that obviously don't even pretend to approach it. However, the pieces suffer as both entertainment and personal insight when Raab does this in pursuit of praise and tries to pretend that it isn't happening.

Rating: 3
Strongly recommended for fans of all things Hollywood. Good recommendation for journalism wonks and students of the interview. Not recommended for anyone looking for the degree of unmediated ranting and brutality Raab exhibited in his playoff blogs. Also not recommended for anyone looking for a great deal of depth about the celebrities favorably profiled, as a lot of that material can now be found in sources like Wikipedia and fansites. In addition, some interviews are available on Esquire's website, including the fantastic pummeling of Ryan Seacrest. Still, an entertaining bathroom book, good way to kill an hour or two and a good gift for anyone who likes Hollywood junk or the profile format.