John Krasinski may be the best-loved star in America right now. Why? Because, as evidenced by his ongoing YouTube show “Some Good News,” he’s just about the only one who understands what we want from famous people during a disaster: humility, creativity, positivity, and a lot of Scotch tape.
A plague is a leveler, and one of the weirder but not entirely unwelcome developments of the COVID-19 pandemic is the way it has rewired our engagement with celebrity. The virus respects no fame; to the A-lister’s eternal cry of “Do you know who I am?,” it replies, “Yes, and I don’t care.” And because enough time spent in the spotlight can blind some people to the preferential treatment they regularly receive, the dousing of that light can addle a celebrity brain. The rules no longer apply. We’re all the same when we’re on Zoom in our pajamas, and to act otherwise is to open the door to mockery.
No, wait, that’s not quite right. To pretend we’re all the same when some of us clearly have front-row seats and others are in the nosebleed section is to lay bare the absurdity and entitlement of the well-off. Ellen DeGeneres jokingly complaining that being restricted to her multimillion-dollar home is “like being in jail” earned her a swift kick in the career from all quarters. Jennifer Lopez tweeting a video of her son on a hoverboard in a backyard that eerily resembled the one in “Parasite” wasn’t well received either. (“Hi, are you looking for an art therapist,” deadpanned one wag.)
Madonna using her Instagram page to post a video of herself in the bathtub saying the virus is both “terrible” and “wonderful” for “making us all equal” got outraged traction while no one gave as much attention to her efforts to get protective masks into prisons or donating $1.1 million toward the development of a vaccine. (The video has since been removed.) Sometimes it’s too easy to hate on a celebrity. Just ask Nancy “Two Refrigerators” Pelosi.
What do we want from famous people right now? It’s an interesting question only because there’s never been a “right now” like this one — not in a media-saturated age that exalts a selected few, some for good reasons and others for no reason at all. (Hello, reality stars and Internet influencers.) We certainly don’t need to hear the Philosophy of “High School Musical” star Vanessa Hudgens, who posted a video of herself musing that “people are gonna die, which is terrible but . . . inevitable?” And we could do without Gal Gadot and her famous friends singing an off-key rendition of “Imagine” as if we plebes were meant to be comforted by such celebrity crumbs from the table.
What do we want? We want stars who are comfortable in their own home and their own skin rather than stooping to reassure “the little people.” Patti LuPone hungover after a birthday celebration or swanning around her basement a la Norma Desmond, for instance. Dame Judi Dench in bunny ears in a tweet posted by her daughter. Those viral snippets are charming because they play against the performers’ established personas of Tony/Oscar royalty, whereas Danny DeVito comically rasping at infected millennials to stay the hell away from him or Mel Brooks gesticulating to his son from behind his living room window dovetails neatly with who we already think they are. (As for the video of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his kitchen with his miniature donkey and pony — that’s just too bizarre for words.)
We want celebrities to pitch in without making too big a fuss about it: Sarah Silverman photographed on her fire escape banging pots for health care workers like any good New Yorker, or Tyler Perry paying for groceries for the elderly at 73 supermarkets in Georgia and Louisiana. Jude Law reading “The Three Hedgehogs” as part of Save the Children UK’s drive to raise money for kids and families affected by COVID-19. All the performers who took part in the “Together at Home” marathon concert organized by Lady Gaga on April 19 that raised $128 million for health care workers. Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones reading inspirational passages for fellow 12-steppers who may be falling off the path.
Mostly, we want entertainers to do what they do best: Entertain us. This has nothing to do with whether they’re “just like us” or not — we’re all living in the democracy of the Zoom frame now. But people of talent putting those talents to use is a heartening thing when done in the spirit of sharing and resilience. I’m thinking of that 90th birthday celebration for Stephen Sondheim that was broadcast live on YouTube on April 26, with a full roster of Broadway legends (plus Meryl Streep) and technical glitches that were somehow charming. It was as if Mickey and Judy were putting on a show in the Internet age.
It’s Krasinski, though, who has embraced the living-room production values of our new era with the most disarming gusto. The former star of “The Office," director-star of “A Quiet Place,” and pride of Newton, Mass., has been uploading a new episode of his makeshift YouTube show “Some Good News” every Sunday since late March, and it’s a conscious tonic for the corona-exhausted troops. Each show, 15 to 25 minutes in length, highlights stories of good deeds and good vibes: a husband visiting his sick wife in a cherry picker; parents who re-stage the canceled Olympics in their backyard for their kids. Ryan Reynolds shows up to give the weather report (“Looks pretty good”). Samuel L. Jackson stands on a street corner and shouts compliments to strangers. “I’m John Krasinski. I have no idea what I’m doing,” is how the actor opens his show, but don’t you believe him for a second.
In the most recent episode, uploaded on May 3, Krasinski makes up for all those scuttled high school and college graduations by staging a Zoom ceremony for various invited students from across the country. The valedictorians get to give their speeches (edited into one mega-speech) and four lucky grads get to have a “commencement conversation” with four chosen guests: Steven Spielberg, Malala Yousafzai, Jon Stewart, and Oprah Winfrey. What could have played as a celebrity stunt is instead an unexpectedly wrenching moment of connection, each side taking heart from the other and the host our jaw-dropped representative at the feast.
At the end of the show, one of the students, National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, delivers a valedictory poem that bursts with the promise of life renewed — and you suddenly understand who the real stars of this cultural moment are. They’re not the ones in the mansions.