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When Stars Attack 

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I felt like sending Michael Richards a note. My heart went out to the guy." - Mel Gibson

What is it about wanting for nothing and being adored by millions that seems to be mutating celebrities into rabid, hate-spewing fruit loops with increasing frequency? I figured that American television's overall vitriol level would plummet once mid-term campaign ads had vanished from the airwaves, but, if anything, it seems to have skyrocketed. You can't turn on the plasmatron these days without hearing about some star's meltdown, tirade or just generally regrettable behavior. Welcome to the latest, most lurid stage in the evolution of reality TV.

Stars are behaving badly, and more and more news outlets are behaving like "Access Hollywood." That's the truly regrettable significance of the recent naughtiness tsunami. Iraq has been thrown into civil war, but Diane Sawyer thinks the story is Mel Gibson.

The flashpoint for the trend would indeed appear to be Gibson's drunken anti-Semitic freak-out on July 28. Since then, I've seen a lot of stories on the modern phenomenon of the media mea culpa - the predictable cycle of apology, counseling and prime-time interview. What I've yet to come across, though, is any acknowledgment of the increased airtime that broadcast outlets now eagerly allot to celebrity misbehavior. A day rarely passes without one of these stories hitting the headlines. Which seems more likely -that the rich and famous are misbehaving more, or that more time, money and resources are being devoted to this type of coverage?

Just when you thought the culture couldn't dumb down any further, here's Entertainment Weekly interviewing Gibson in advance of the release of Apocalypto:

EW: You've said it was pent-up anger over criticism that The Passion was anti-Semitic? Did those charges sting?

MG: I'm not waiting for an apology. That's not going to happen.

That's right. He's not anti-Semitic; he's just angry at all the Jews who thought his last movie was. And he's hurtled so far out into deep space that he now believes that the Jewish community owes him an apology! The interviewer didn't even blink. The comment should've made headlines, but it was treated as a passing remark.

Here's "Grey's Anatomy" star Isaiah Washington on October 9, flipping out over a shooting delay, calling tardy fellow cast-member T.R. Knight a "faggot," grabbing Patrick Dempsey by the throat and choking him until he was restrained. The incident was covered widely in the press. But you may have missed the spin that show creator Shonda Rhimes attempted: "We have a group of people who are more of a family than anything else. We have our fun days and we have our days when people are tired and the work is hard." Aren't you glad you didn't grow up in her family?

Here's Rush Limbaugh on October 23 imitating Michael J. Fox's uncontrollable movements, and accusing the Parkinson's victim of exaggerating them in political ads he made for candidates who support stem-cell research. "This is the only time I've ever seen Michael J. Fox portray any of the symptoms of the disease he has," Limbaugh said, "He's moving all around and shaking and it's purely an act. This is really shameless." The footage of Limbaugh flailing his arms and mocking the actor aired all over the dial for days. You had to wonder - is he really that insensitive and ignorant, or did he just want the attention?

Here's "American Idol" finalist Clay Aiken subbing for Reg on his morning talk show November 17 and covering the mouth of co-host Kelly Ripa with his hand when he felt she was cramping his interviewing style. "Oh, that's a no-no," Ripa reprimanded, "I don't know where that hand's been." A firestorm of controversy ensued - along with major media coverage - when Rosie O'Donnell characterized the remark as homophobic on the following Tuesday's edition of "The View." The flames were fueled further when Ripa unexpectedly called into the show moments later and read O'Donnell the riot act.

"To imply that it was anything homophobic is outrageous, Rosie, and you know better, you should be more responsible," Ripa slammed, after explaining that her concern had been with germs, rather than Aiken's sex life, since he'd just shaken hands with half the audience. "It's the cold and flu season."

While it was a rare treat to see O'Donnell at a loss for words, I couldn't shake the feeling that society had just lurched to a new low. In the first place, this was a media firestorm with Clay Aiken at its center. Aiken should wake up every day and thank God for putting him on Earth at a time when he could lose a television talent competition and still be treated like entertainment-industry royalty.

In the second place, who were Aiken and Ripa fighting for the chance to interview? Emmitt Smith and Cheryl Burke, the pair who emerged victorious on season three of "Dancing with the Stars!" The show is still on the air after three seasons!

And the final rub: American media are so screwed up that not only did major news outlets cover this ludicrous brouhaha, but CNN actually ran the following crawl on Thanksgiving - "Rosie O'Donnell and Kelly Ripa make up. All is right with the world." Sure, someone was joking, but come on! This is CNN, and between 150 and 200 people were killed in Baghdad that day.

Friday, November 17, was also the day Michael Richards' career died. The former "Seinfeld" star had his Mel Moment that evening at the Laugh Factory in L.A., and the press had a field day. His racist rant may be the saddest, sickest celebrity meltdown yet. Unlike Gibson, he didn't have booze to blame for his behavior.

And here's Kid Rock going ballistic at soon-to-be-ex-wife Pamela Anderson after a private screening of Borat, screaming, "You're nothing but a whore! You're a slut! How could you make that movie?" Here's Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick on TV giving the finger to fans when they heckled him after a loss. Here's Danny DeVito on "The View," drunk as a very small skunk and comparing the president to the Three Stooges. A comparison he wouldn't otherwise make if sober, because the Stooges were, in fact, geniuses. Here's Britney Spears. But where are her underpants?

And, as recently as last week, here was Gwyneth Paltrow in the headlines of every 24-hour television news outlet for sparking a firestorm (the media's new favorite word, in case you haven't noticed) by telling a Portuguese interviewer, "The British are much more intelligent and civilized than Americans." Reportedly the actress, who currently resides in London, declined to comment on rumors that she's in talks concerning a sequel to Duets, the 2000 karaoke comedy she made with Huey Lewis.

With all that's going on in the world, how can news programmers justify this degree of focus on such foolishness? Because the giant corporations that employ them keep firing reporters and closing down bureaus to increase profits. It costs a good deal less to airbrush a photo of Britney and run the same puff piece all day than to track down an actual story in some far-away yet more significant place. This situation isn't likely to change. Talk about grave and deteriorating.

The poor celebrity deportment on display these days is another story. Maybe the holiday season will work its magic. Shopping lists are being drawn up, after all. If these basket cases won't be good for goodness' sake, maybe the thought of being blacklisted by Santa will whip them into shape.

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Rick Kisonak

Rick Kisonak

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Rick Kisonak is a film reviewer for Seven Days.

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