Celebrities’ societal value provides endless fodder for debate. Do the glitterati warrant the full expression of the public’s adoration, or are they just a bunch of egomaniacs whom our vocal, vacuous media, which thrives on voyeurism and unrealistic perceptions of beauty, fixates on? It’s safe to say there’s no right answer here. There are beneficent, kind celebrities—the do-gooders and activists and philanthropists who use their status, visibility, and wealth for the powers of good. Then there’s Mel Gibson.
But love them or hate them, it’s hard not to have a certain fascination with the workings of the celebrity mind and the way those workings manifest themselves in full view of the public. So when a celebrity goes off the rails during a scheduled interview, it’s especially exciting, because here’s a controlled, predictable environment in which something’s going awry, creating fantastically uncomfortable viewing opportunities. Listed below are some of the most awkward celebrity interviews ever to be recorded and suffered through.
Tom Cruise and Oprah Winfrey, 2005
Cruise’s all-American sheen began to tarnish a bit sometime between Top Gun and Interview with a Vampire. He was still likable enough, but the kooky was beginning to show around the edges a little. Then came the couch-jumping incident on The Oprah Winfrey Show, in which he demonstrably sealed the deal on “wingnut.” The interview began normally enough, with Cruise appropriately playing to Oprah’s audience of squealing women. Then he seemed truly physically overcome with the giddiness of his newfound love for Katie Holmes, unable to sit still, twitching, leaping up onto the couch cushions, falling to his knees, saying nothing, really. The incident originated the term “jumping the couch,” which means doing something so embarrassing and insane that it dogs your reputation forever.
Paris Hilton and David Letterman, 2007
One of the greatest things about Letterman is that he unabashedly, hilariously corners celebrities who have it coming. So when Paris made a Letterman appearance shortly after her stint in jail, he started in pretty quickly with “So, how was jail?” She was game about it for the first four minutes or so; then her frustration surfaced and she shifted in her chair and kicked her fashionably clad foot restlessly. She said flat-out that she didn’t want to talk about it anymore, to which Letterman responded, “Well, that’s where you and I are different, because that’s all I want to talk about.” He continued to needle her, seeming to relish her increasingly obvious discomfort. Sadly, she returned to the show a few months later to accept his apology for his tenacious attachment to the topic of her time in the big house.
Quentin Tarantino and Jan Wahl, 2007
If you don’t live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you might have missed this gem of an on-air smackdown. The movie was called Kill Bill, not Give Bill a Cookie, and Tarantino isn’t known for his light touch with gore and carnage, so the reason why local film critic Wahl took it upon herself to pick a bone about violence in films and its theoretical effects on American youth with this particular director, regarding this particular movie, is incomprehensible. Tarantino, predictably, was somewhat less than diplomatic concerning her schmaltzy “What about the children?!” angle, and a fantastically hostile exchange ensued.
Sarah Palin and Katie Couric, 2008
Every time Sarah Palin sits down with a reporter, you’re guaranteed at least a low level of awkwardness, what with the long, painful silences, the labyrinthine locution that seems to never find its way to a point, and the vague declarations. But in the fall of 2008, Katie Couric and CBS had the dubious honor of being the first media outlet to stump Palin on prime time. In a series of interviews that Saturday Night Live later famously, fabulously spoofed, Couric asked Palin how the McCain campaign felt about the impending $700 billion bailout, her disagreement with Supreme Court decisions, and the proximity of Russia, among other things, and then-governor Palin sort of stumbled along, her sentences running together into fabulous linguistic tangles, smorgasbords of talking points that the public feasted upon indiscriminately. It was truly delightful. But watch out, Sarah—Christine O’Donnell of Delaware is waiting in the wings, guaranteeing an awkward interview or two that may rival yours.
Mel Gibson and Sam Rubin, 2010
Sam Rubin, of Los Angeles television station KTLA, had the privilege of sitting down for a chat with the always-charming Mr. Gibson—after his 2006 kerfuffle with the drunk driving and the anti-Semitic remarks, but before his 2010 taped tirades against ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva that demonstrated the depth of his need for anger management (and perhaps a horse tranquilizer) lit up the Internet. Granted, no one was under the impression that Gibson was of the warm-and-fuzzy variety, but his intense defensiveness boiled up when Rubin alluded to the incidents that, in part, kept Gibson from retaining his usual salient place in American cinema. Gibson began to adopt an almost menacing posture as Rubin backpedaled awkwardly. It was cringe-worthy all around.
So, I ask you again, what is the place of celebrity in our society? If nothing else, it’s all about entertainment value. We’re happy if that entertainment value comes nicely packaged in a multimillion-dollar summer blockbuster. But sometimes we get the (often better) version of celebrity—unscripted, uncomfortable, and hilarious. And all on a cable TV budget.
Photo source: Wikimedia Commons