The '80s television sensation Mr. T is the latest yesteryear celebrity to land his own reality show, I Pity the Fool, on TV Land—further proof of the ironic embrace of has-been celebrities. The mohawked tough guy also has other irons (and ironies) in the fire: He's a wall-crashing pitchman for Comcast cable, and he frequently jibba-jabbas his way through Late Night With Conan O'Brien skits. These appearances—along with earlier ones on The Daily Show and in 1-800-Collect commercials—all feature Mr. T flogging his one-trick-pony persona but looking more cool than desperate. Truly, he has earned his spot in the pantheon of ironically popular celebrities, alongside giants William Shatner and Chuck Norris. Who else is ripe for ironic superstardom?
Pop culture has long had its Rip Taylors and Wayne Newtons, showbiz personalities who book their biggest gigs on the basis of kitsch rather than any genuine value as an entertainer (although Newton is a fine singer, just as Shatner is a tremendously watchable actor). But now stars of yore are coming out of the woodwork to spoof themselves and their most famous roles—Lee Majors or David Carradine in TV spots, anyone? The result is that a bevy of older actors have lodged themselves in the semiconsciousness of the average twentysomething. But of all the stars who could ride the ironic fast track out of Hasbeenville, Richard Dean Anderson, Lou Ferrigno, and Steven Seagal stand the best chance at breaking through to Mr. T-style superstardom.
Richard Dean Anderson laid the groundwork for his candidacy in the 1980s, when he began starring on television's MacGyver. The show was a far-fetched, hourlong drama about a crime-busting operative who uses everyday sundries instead of carrying complex gadgetry (talk about a premise that would lap itself within the first season). MacGyver ended as a series in 1992 but lived on for years as the butt of a joke in The Simpsons, where spinster characters Patty and Selma consider the show to be the highlight of their mutual existence. Earlier this year, Anderson voiced a Simpsons guest appearance as himself (proving he's a good sport—a key prerequisite for ironic superstardom) and appeared in a MasterCard commercial as MacGyver, defeating a compound full of villains with some tube socks and a turkey baster. Further, MacGyver made the pop-culture rounds in The Family Guy (sans Anderson) and in homemade spoofs.
As a thespian, Anderson has none of the hamminess or other qualities for self-parody that a Shatner or Mr. T embody, so his only shot at ironic superstardom is to stay in character as MacGyver. Perhaps the only reason the character isn't more exposed pertains to Anderson's continued relevance (if the Sci-Fi Channel can be called that) through TV's Stargate SG-1. Still, it's easy to imagine the actor hosting a reality show in which contestants jury-rig devices with found objects. Better yet, Anderson could reinvent MacGyver as a big-screen hero in a campy fourth Saw film, escaping the franchise's trademark torture traps with his trademark ingenuity.
Lou Ferrigno could also become an ironic superstar, but he would need to do it gracelessly. The bodybuilder and former Incredible Hulk actor gave a 2003 interview with Entertainment Weekly and was asked silly questions about his feats in movies like Frogtown II, to which the actor replied at one point, "What are these questions? Do people read this kind of stuff?" The interview demonstrated the appeal of a muscle-bound man being an awkward, slightly confused celebrity. His appearance in a 2006 Longhorn Steakhouse commercial furthers this idea: Ferrigno looks mighty uncomfortable lip-synching a song during the commercial's dream sequence. Armed with this sort of hilarious earnestness, Ferrigno is surely on his way. After all, he has played himself—as a semiregular on sitcom The King of Queens—and playing oneself is the greatest litmus for a willingness to be ironically appreciated. Perhaps Ferrigno could up the awkwardness in a reality show that sees him clumsily handling a different sticky situation each week. He could fumble attempts to counsel a couple through a bitter divorce, try to train a kid against bed-wetting—that sort of thing.
Like Anderson, chopsocky star Steven Seagal still has a steady first career (albeit as a C-lister making action programmers), and he's popping up in places that his direct-to-video peers are not. That's because Seagal has a second career lampooning himself, such as in commercials for Mountain Dew and the Orange mobile-phone network. What's more, he seems to be taking a momentary break from his string of action cheapies to play the role of "Cock Puncher" (one's imagination runs wild at a mere mention of the character name) in the upcoming movie from The Onion satirists.
As an action star, Seagal now has a reputation as a walking joke—not because he spoofed himself (that came afterward), but because he continued cranking out action films long after his mainstream popularity ran its course. Fuel to the fire was MadTV's crowd-pleasing parody of Seagal by comedian Will Sasso in no less than six skits (including the genius Crouching Cops, Hidden Badges). But the martial artist seems reluctant to embrace his ironic image fully, lest it further damage his bread-and-butter career of movies like Today You Die and Mercenary for Justice—films that ask us to take him deadly seriously. His reluctance parallels that of Norris, who has become an ironic superstar despite only two acknowledgements of his new fame: a cameo in Dodgeball and a skit on Conan O'Brien.
Seagal could get in on the joke by fine-tuning his big-screen persona. He could continue to play his fight scenes completely straight, and they would still showcase his talent for aikido and kendo. But with tongue planted in cheek, the actor could take his dramatic material way over the top, bringing him closer to the exaggerated, one-note toughness seen in Seagal parodies. One warning, however: All of these career suggestions for Anderson, Ferrigno, and Seagal assume that postmodern irony won't cave in tomorrow under the weight of its own pointlessness. God forbid we ever have to earnestly appreciate something for its intrinsic worth again.