Volume 2, Issue 40: The One About Meeting Celebrities

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George Washington Carver died on January 5, 1943, at the age of 81.

January 5, 2019

There’s a great bit in the 2012 anthology “Jewish Jocks” — a terrific book of essays edited by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy about great Jewish athletes, featuring writers like Jane Leavy, David Remnick, Jonathan Mahler and others; I reviewed it for The Wall Street Journal back in the day — in which Sam Lipsyte discusses what he learned from his sportswriter father. I don’t have the book handy, so I’m paraphrasing, but basically, his dad, the great Robert Lipsyte, tells him that the one thing he’s learned from his years of sportswriting is that almost all the athletes and sports figures he’s covered are jerks and are the last people his son should be emulating. Amusingly, Robert thinks he’s giving great wisdom, but little Sam, aged 8, just looks up at his dad and blinks: I just wanted to watch the game, Dad. (The lesson nevertheless took.) That story has always helped guide my career a little bit. I like sports too much, I think, to want to get too close to them; the distance allows me the illusion that these people are all worth rooting for, even if they’re not. I’ll interview athletes, and I’ll sit in the press box if I have to, but I make sure to bolt at the first opportunity and head back to the stands. I have a lot more in common with the people sitting there than I do with anyone in the locker room. I want to occasionally dip into sports but always have the ability to leave it when I need to.

The aspect I enjoy the most about the story is the father’s key point: Don’t make gods out of anyone. The question I get asked about my career more than any other, other than “can you get us free tickets?” — I can’t, I couldn’t, I would never even consider asking — is “who’s the coolest person you’ve ever interviewed?” This question is a perfectly logical one, I know; that I sometimes talk to people considered famous is a hell of a lot more interesting to most people than me sitting in a dark room typing all the time, though the job is a lot more of the latter than it is the former. But I never know how to respond to it. I’m immediately suspicious of any journalist who starts boasting of the famous people they’ve interviewed. It reeks of obsequiousness and self-congratulation. It makes them look like lapdogs. Someone once boasted to me they’d interviewed Joe Torre three times. So what? What’d you ask him?

Celebrity does funny things to people. I remember one time I was walking through the East Village with a friend of mine when, suddenly, she stopped in the middle of a crosswalk and started sprinting against traffic across the street. When I finally caught up with her, I asked her what the hell she was doing.

“That was Chloe Grace Moretz! Did you see her? That totally had to be her.” My friend, a grown-ass adult, had just put her life at risk because there was a possibility she had just passed a teenage girl she had seen on television a few times. Celebrity can make people’s brains fall out of their heads.

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The only people who make me star-struck, I’ve found, are writers, which makes sense: I’m less star-struck than I am envious of how much better they are than I am. We did 29 episodes of the first season of “The Will Leitch Show,” and I’ll confess, the only guest I was legitimately nervous to meet was Mark Leibovich, The New York Times Magazine writer who penned that fantastic book about the NFL and who wrote that story about Harry Reid in this week’s issue. (He also has an essay in Jewish Jocks, for that matter, in which he interviews Theo Epstein. They both speculate about whether or not Steve Bartman was Jewish, and Epstein is aghast that he doesn’t know.) Leibovich was the only person I was in danger of turning my show into “The Chris Farley Show.”

Part of this is learning, as I’ve gotten older, the perils of idolatry, which is to say: Over the last decade, being the Midwest’s biggest Woody Allen fan sure has lost a lot of its luster. (Just 14 more of these newsletters left, by the way, until we get to the final movie title and I write the big Woody Allen Essay I promised you all.) The problem with putting people on a pedestal is that they are, alas, people, flawed and confused and insecure and scared as the rest of us. And not just that: Putting them on that pedestal gives them license, even a seeming right, to try to get away with atrocities because we make them think they can get away with it. This is true in every field, from sports to entertainment to politics to literature. When we treat them differently, they will inevitably act that way. They get proof they are worth it every time they go anywhere.

I was at a restaurant here in Athens a few months ago having dinner with friends when Kirby Smart, Georgia’s football coach, walked into the room. He was with a few boosters and glad-handers, the sort of people who you know will be telling all their clients just who they had dinner with last week. The entire restaurant just stopped; one lady literally slipped off of her chair. Ignoring the fact that a football coach shouldn’t make the needle scratch off the record when he enters a room, like he’s Rhianna or something, it’s downright undignified for one adult to react to another adult like that. Neverminding the fact that the way we react to certain celebrities tends to shift as the years go along. A few more weeks like this last one, and someday it might not be so cool to see Kirby Smart walk into a restaurant. Someday you might even actively resist it. Celebrity’s funny that way.

The trick, I’ve found, and what I try to tell my kids the way Robert Lipsyte told his, is to make your fandom and adulation yours, not theirs. We can cheer for the Cardinals, or the Dawgs, but we do it for us — for our happiness, not theirs. If it turns out the shortstop is an asshole, well, we’re not really cheering for him: We’re cheering for us. Celebrities are avatars, representing what we wish to be rather than what they really are, and thus we should treat them way: As aspirational concepts, rather than actual objects of deification. They represent things we want to be. So we should try to be that, rather than to be them.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m pretty sure that was Chloe Grace Moretz back there.

Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality. (This is an attempt to have an objective look at the value of my work in a way that I suspect will be difficult to sustain.)

1. The Ramifications of Bryce Harper Potentially Staying in Washington, MLB.com. It was a light week, which is what the week between Christmas and New Years is supposed to be, I think. (I mostly just pounded away on the book. Getting close!)

2. Debate Club: Best Genre Remakes, SYFY Wire. Any excuse to write about Brundle Fly, I’m gonna take it.

3. The Thirty: Resolutions For Every Team, MLB.com. An easy piece of hackery, but still fun.

4. Will Ferrell Movies, Ranked, Vulture. Updated with the terrible Holmes and Watson.

5. Ten Players You Forgot Were Yankees, MLB.com. I had no idea Kevin Youkilis finished his career in The Bronx.

THE WILL LEITCH SHOW

We’re on hiatus until February! Get caught up with the ones you missed on Amazon or on SI TV.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, still on break, but go listen to Dorkfest: Best Movies of 2018 if you haven’t yet.

Waitin’ Since Last Saturday, wrapping up that Sugar Bowl mess.

Seeing Red, no show this week.

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

I am still waiting, specifically, for your letter. Yes, you. You. You know exactly who you are. Send it! Send it to:

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

“Diane Young,” Vampire Weekend. Now that we’re no longer punching ourselves in each other’s faces about these guys — they’re rich snots! they’re smug jerks! they’re glib! is he wearing a sweater around his neck?— I’ve found myself discovering, after it all, hey, these are some pretty good songs.

I am flying to San Jose for the national championship game on Sunday. I’m not sure about the game, but it is always, always pleasant to be in California. Have a great weekend, all.


Best,
Will

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