In Defense of Celebrities Making Fun of Themselves à la ‘Episodes’

Last week, the second season of Episodes began to air on Showtime. The show, starring Matt LeBlanc, Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig, has been somewhat of a success almost entirely because of how off-type LeBlanc plays the role of … Matt LeBlanc. The performance won him a Golden Globe and while some critics have expressed admiration for the series as a whole, there remains a faction of detractors who insist the show isn’t worth anyone’s time, almost in spite of how good “Joey” continuously proves to be. 

“It surprised me too, but I actually missed Matt LeBlanc”, Katey Rich of Cinemablend wrote in January of 2011 after the show initially premiered. “… The new Showtime series Episodes could have been a lazy comeback vehicle for him, a chance to riff on his reputation and earn some accolades without breaking a sweat, but LeBlanc is actually the most surprising, endearing thing about the show, which is generally stiff and slow without his presence. … Episodes could make for unchallenging, mildly funny entertainment, and at least a welcome reason to respect LeBlanc’s skills again. But we’ve learned to expect so much more from TV comedy since Friends went off the air, a fact Episodes seems to recognize with all its dirty language and cynical humor, but not quite understand. I never would have expected to say this, but Matt LeBlanc deserves better”. (“‘Episodes’ Premiere Review: Matt LeBlanc Deserves Better”, by Katey Rich, Cinemablend, 7 January 2011)

Oh, but, you see, Ms. Rich, you are missing the point. 

The appeal of Episodes goes far beyond an actor simply playing an oversized — yet somewhat predictably vile — version of himself. The show’s goal doesn’t appear to be one, big reintroduction of Matt LeBlanc anymore than it is a biting take on the ins and outs of Hollywood itself. Its premise doesn’t mock a character actor — it mocks an entire industry. 

Sure, the dialogue can be a bit grating and unnecessary. And yes, the stories sometimes tend to come across as a little too shallow and convenient. But what makes Episodes a success is its constant takedown of behind-the-scenes Hollywood. John Pankow’s Merc Lapidus is brilliant in his over-the-top antics and while the character can be utterly unbelievable, that doesn’t mean he can’t make you laugh. Kathleen Rose Perkins’s Carol Rance is equally as airheaded, yet because she’s so fueled by the always-dangerous combination of love and success, one could argue she’s become the heart of the show. Forget Matt LeBlanc. Episodes runs on culture. 

Naturally, there are still writers who believe the show isn’t any good, even after considering as much. Take storied television writer Alan Sepinwall, for instance. Despite the ability to decipher the series’ truest backdrop, he still panned the show last January. 

“When you’re attacking a big, fat target like the superficial, duplicitous nature of Hollywood”, Sepinwall wrote, “and being so relentless and bitter about it, you need to be much, much, much funnier than Episodes is. You need to be The Larry Sanders Show funny, or Extras season two funny. Episodes isn’t even as funny as Crane and Klarik’s last collaboration, the exceedingly mediocre short-lived CBS comedy The Class“. (“Review: Showtime’s ‘Episodes’ has Matt LeBlanc and a lot of angry, unfunny satire”, by Alan Sepinwall, Hitfix, 7 January 2011)

Oh, but, you see, Mr. Sepinwall, you, too, are missing the point (and to think you were so close!). 

The show is doing something that few other programs take the time to do anymore — it mocks the notion of celebrity. The only other thing on television as subversive as Episodes is 30 Rock, but that may be moot because A) that’s 13 half-hours away from being extinct and b) Tina Fey’s brilliant brainchild is aimed more at the zany, everyday happenings of a television show, not the entire idiom of celebrity. 

Yes. There is a difference. 

If there is one thing middle-to-low-class, perfectly normal people — who, by the way, are the exact type of people most likely to carve out hours of their evenings in order to view their favorite television programs — love, it’s the illusion and presentation of celebrities proving they are exactly like middle-to-low-class, perfectly normal people whenever the cameras are shut off. Even more so, when those celebrities do their best to prove as much while combining an element of self-deprication and humor with the aforementioned equation, it becomes nearly impossible for the middle-to-low-class, perfectly normal person to not fall in love with said visual. 

Or, in other words, people love watching other people make fun of themselves.

And while that’s a pretty unoriginal practice, it is one that is slowly — yet consistently — becoming extinct on television. Consider The AV Club’s list of people who excelled at playing themselves in productions all the way back in 2009. Of the more-than-21 actors listed, there are only five that came from television — Wayne Brady’s fantastic turn on the Chappelle Show as he threatens to “choke a bitch”; Carl Weathers, Judge Reinhold and Andy Richter on the funniest American television show ever, Arrested Development; Jon Favreau on The Sopranos; Bob Saget, Jeffrey Tambor, Matt Damon and Gary Busey on Entourage; and then, of course, the slew of stars that were featured on the aforementioned Ricky Gervais project, Extras. (“Is Wayne Brady gonna have to choke a bitch?: 21+ guest stars who stretched the meaning of “as himself””, by Steve Heisler, Josh Modell, Sean O’Neal, Leonard Pierce, Nathan Rabin, Tasha Robinson, Scott Tobias, And David Wolinsky, The AV Club, 19 October 2009)

Notice anything about those picks? None of them currently exist (unless if you count the forthcoming reboot of Arrested Development, of course, but that’s splitting hairs, considering how long it’s been away from the small screen). With the notable exceptions of Curb Your Enthusiasm and the aforementioned 30 Rock, one would be hard-pressed to find a celebrity who is playing him or herself as a recurring role on a modern-day television show, let alone one who is doing it as a main character of said television show. 

It’s a shame, really. The art of actors making fun of themselves is one of the great tools of show business. It humanizes people who make a living off visualizing the art of being inhuman. These types of things allow the casual fan to relate to people who are typically shown in an idealistic light. Television is a medium aimed at reminding ourselves of how important it is to be entertained. It’s not as grand as theater — it’s more immediate. The act of viewing such allows us to disconnect from our personal stresses and connect with something, anything, other than reality. 

That’s why Episodes works. It’s not just an indictment on who we thought Matt LeBlanc was as a person, but it’s also an indictment what we thought Hollywood was as an industry and what the term “celebrity” is as a practice. Yeah, the show might not be the best-written comedy on television today, but it should be Exhibit A when considering how effective the act of making fun of oneself can be. It earned Joey from Friends a much-deserved Golden Globe, and it also brought to light the (admittedly exaggerated) absurdities of modern-day back-stage television. 

Most importantly, though, Episodes continues to bring a fresh take on self-deprication to television, an outlet that can always use a couple more doses of good, old-fashioned let’s-make-fun-of-ourselves kind of humor, anyway. And hate the show or love the show, you can’t deny how enlightening, essential and … profitable it can be to laugh at ourselves every now and then. 

Just ask Matt LeBlanc. 


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