The Celebrity Viral Video Awards
Wikipedia (the widely-accepted Gospel of internet lore) defines a “viral video” as “one that becomes popular through the process of internet sharing, typically through video sharing websites and e-mail.” Of course, we laypeople automatically associate the viral video with that “speaker’s corner” called YouTube, which, for better or worse, started democratizing celebrity in a way most of us never envisioned a couple of decades ago. Now everyone can have their 15 minutes (or however long they are willing to film themselves) of fame, provided they are savvy enough to get the general public to delight in their self-indulgence.
There is another side to this YouTube phenomenon, however, that doesn’t just make celebrities out of unknowns, but instead helps existing celebs boost their image or target the way they market themselves to the internet-surfing public—an enormous demographic. Whether they intend to spread all over the internet or not, these celebs owe at least some of their notoriety or noteworthiness to the viral video. Many have wisely taken advantage of the tools at their disposal and treated sites like YouTube as the vast arenas of free publicity they are, turning their household names into inbox fillers as well. For one reason or another, the following celebrity videos took the internet by storm:
Prop 8: The Musical
This Funny or Die vid that went viral in 2008 demonstrates that there is popularity in numbers. Big names such as Neil Patrick Harris, John C. Reilly, Jack Black, Margaret Cho, Andy Richter, Craig Robinson, and Maya Rudolph banded together and performed a song-and-dance number to defend gay marriage rights in California. In doing so, they created something that diverged from the ordinary celebrity-generated video in a couple of ways. First, it’s safe to assume that the scripted, choreographed skit was designed and intended to spread like wildfire, which is why all these celebs showed up to (musically) voice their opposition. Second, this video served a political purpose—not a purely comical or career-boosting one. Though it may not be quite as clever or culturally iconic as some of our other runners-up, it certainly deserves honorable mention for its refreshing lack of solipsism.
I’m F***ing Matt Damon / Ben Affleck
These two videos must be awarded as a pair, primarily because it’s altogether impossible to determine which is more deserving of the nod. The first one, in which Sarah Silverman and Matt Damon (who, endearingly, can’t keep a straight face as he belts out his lines) reveal their illicit affair to Jimmy Kimmel on his show, is brilliant in its simplicity, but the latter takes the concept of one-upmanship so seriously that it cannot be ignored. No one in the entire history of the viral video has ever exacted such perfect revenge, as Kimmel reveals his seduction of Ben Affleck to get back at Damon for stealing his girl. Furthermore, Kimmel replaces what was a basic duet between Damon and Silverman with a star-studded ensemble choir of famous faces, including Brad Pitt, Joan Jett, Robin Williams, Harrison Ford, Don Cheadle, Macy Gray, Cameron Diaz, Huey Lewis, and Meat Loaf, to name a few. If it weren’t for the insane popularity of this video, I doubt that the general public would have paid the least bit of attention when Silverman and Kimmel actually called it quits in early 2009.
D*** in A Box
No celebrity list of internet sensations would be complete without something by the King of SNL Shorts (most of which hit the internet with meteoric impact), Andy Samberg. What makes this particular video stand apart from the rest is Samberg’s unexpected onscreen chemistry with partner Justin Timberlake, who no one really knew was funny until this video went coursing through various websites like wildfire. Imagine for a moment that we lived in the benighted days before YouTube, and we could only catch this little gem of SNL brilliance on reruns of the show itself. Sure, Samberg and Timberlake might enjoy a modicum of brief respect, and the skit might even appear on a few “best of” compilations, but would it ever have become the cultural icon it is today? This viral video not only made Samberg a household name and completely revolutionized the public’s limited perception of Timberlake’s range, but it perfectly exemplifies how the internet provides viewers with a culture. We all know “D*** in a Box,” and most of us, on some level, have appreciated its ingenuity. It is proof positive that we all share something in common with millions of people we’ve never met and never will meet. Of course, people can achieve this awareness of the internet as a culture in itself without ever having seen “D*** in a Box,” but I don’t know any of them.
Joaquin Phoenix’s Appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman on 02/11/09
This truly bizarre interview David Letterman attempted to conduct with Joaquin Phoenix did exactly what celebrity vids are designed to do: create buzz. Because it offers a unique blend of strangeness, cleverness, and internet presence, it deserves to take home the gold for the Best Celebrity Viral Video. Phoenix’s interview had everyone (not to mention a bemused but good-humored Letterman) wondering if the actor was strung out on drugs, engaging in a public breakdown, or perhaps—just perhaps—pulling some kind of Kaufman-esque prank on the viewing public. There has never been so much speculation surrounding the actor, not even when he previously announced that he was going to retire from acting to focus on his music. Is it possible that when the announcement (which was issued just two weeks before his Letterman appearance) didn’t get enough attention, he decided to up the ante? Not that there is anything wrong with taking the media for a bit of ride. If that was Phoenix’s aim, at least he went about it in a relatively inventive and ultimately successful way. What is the likelihood that we would know anything about his acting status or hopeful music career without the ubiquitous video? The proof is in the pudding. If Phoenix staged the whole thing, he has demonstrated an impressive ability to gauge a crowd on a momentous scale.
Ultimately, no one can blame celebs for trying to take control of their own public images every now and then, considering all the unsolicited and unwarranted attention that so often comes their way. Sites like YouTube can potentially provide them with a forum to say what they want when they want—whether it’s promoting a political cause, performing a simple comedy routine, challenging the public’s view of their marketable talents, or completely reinventing the way they are perceived. They have every bit as much right to dominate the internet’s public space as anyone else does, and, frankly, I’d rather watch them try their hand at it than some fat kid with a fake lightsaber.
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