On TV, Justin Timberlake is Mr. Congeniality

Andy Samberg (left) and Justin Timberlake on “Saturday Night Live” in 2006 singing a song about their special gifts.
Dana Edelson/NBC/file 2006
Andy Samberg (left) and Justin Timberlake on “Saturday Night Live” in 2006 singing a song about their special gifts.

He’s game.

That was my answer recently when trying to pinpoint the appeal of Justin Timberlake for someone who had escaped the former boy-bander’s magnetic pull.

Yes, the Tennessee native developed fans for his music, both with ’N Sync and then on his subsequent solo albums, showing off a fizzy, dirty, pop-soul charm. And he has garnered some good notices for the work he has done as an actor in the last few years in films like “The Social Network” and “Black Snake Moan,” digging in and trying to find characters and not simply coasting on his charisma.


But Timberlake may have broadened his fan base — and you don’t get as popular as he is without both men and women in your corner — most successfully by being himself.

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Or at least the version of himself that we have seen much more frequently than the actor or the musician in the last six years. The guy who, in his numerous stints on “Saturday Night Live” is unafraid of donning a goofy omelet costume, or putting his sensitive bits in a box and sending up his own image, only to turn on a dime and go toe-to-toe with Jay-Z as a swellegant crooner.

The guy who mixes it up with former “SNL” buddy Jimmy Fallon on his late-night talk show, giddily, breathlessly breaking down the history of rap with a fan’s enthusiasm, a pro attitude, and an appreciation of how sloppiness and precision can complement each other.

Or the guy, who in his tour de force stint hosting the ESPY Awards in 2008, managed to razz everyone from the Celtics to Brett Favre to his own unfortunate sports blooper in 2004.

(That he was able to joke at the ESPYs about the Super Bowl halftime controversy — “I wanted to be the only dude at a football game to get to second base” — may be the best barometer of how widespread the collective good will is toward Timberlake. You will rarely see an article about Janet Jackson that doesn’t mention the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” or one about Timberlake that does. And it was his song they were singing. Yes, there’s a whole other conversation there about gender and race politics; but still, that’s pretty impressive Teflon.)

Timberlake at the 2008 ESPY Awards joking about the Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction” with Janet Jackson.

In every instance, Timberlake exhibited a let’s-go-down-swinging willingness to toss vanity aside.

He’s got natural gifts and that ineffable star quality, sure, but you can tell he also believes in the power of sweat equity — of perfecting the “History of Rap” raps or his Michael McDonald impression — until they seem effortless.

Most important, he’s having fun and wants you to have fun. There’s an inherent invitation to what Timberlake does as opposed to a sense of pure ostentation. It’s not just “Look at what I get to do!” It’s “Look at what I get to do! Come along for the ride with me!”

And if you scroll back to the beginning, it was always there. You can see it in his eyes during a spoof ad for “Velmeata” (“the liquid meat that’s neat to eat”), or a radically reworked version of Prince’s “I Feel for You” (“It’s plainly a mystical thing”) with former paramour Britney Spears on the new Mickey Mouse Club, his pre-“SNL” training ground. Or in early interviews as, under a tuft of bleached curls, he managed both earnestness and goofiness in the space of a few minutes.

That Timberlake is unafraid of being the straight man as well as the butt of the joke makes him feel like a more accessible figure than stars who’ve ascended to his particular level in the skies.


Finally, perhaps part of the attraction is that Timberlake managed a difficult transition — boy-band teenage heartthrob to solo superstar to successful actor to name brand — not only with nimbleness and seeming humility, but without any side trips to rehab or anger management. Whether it’s true or not, we get the sense that Timberlake’s success is that of a nice guy finishing first. And that’s an easy idea to root for.

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@