A Short History of the Celebrity Dramatic Reading

Slate's Culture Blog
June 9 2011 6:19 PM

A Short History of the Celebrity Dramatic Reading

Yesterday, techsite CNET asked Richard Dreyfus todo adramatic reading of the iTunes end user license agreement , as a teaser for itsupcoming podcast on EULAs and terms-of-service agreements. Master thespianDreyfus ( The Goodbye Girl , Mr. Holland's Opus , Piranha 3D ) manages to elevate the dry corporate speak by alternately makinglike an Oxford don, chattering like a Woody Allen character, and barking likean angry German.

Thecelebrity dramatic reading has had a flowering or, depending on your taste, arottening of late. Thus far, 2011 has given us JamesEarl Jones reading Justin Bieber's "Baby," WilliamShatner declaiming Rihanna's "Umbrella,"    Michael Sheen interpreting Twilight fan fiction , and JohnLithgow delivering Newt Gingrich's insane press release from last month:



The king ofthe dramatic reading, of course, is Shatner. The classically trained starship captain's beatnik, bongo-backedperformance of Sarah Palin's resignation speech on Conan O'Brien's Tonight Show , in July 2009, likelykicked off the recent Web craze for famous people somberly readingsilly material. (A separate but related meme,featuring non-celebs, datesback to 2006 .) Shatner's Tonight Show speech gag was such a hit that he returned to read Palin's tweets , her autobiography , and her almost son-in-law Levi Johnston's tweets .

The breadand butter of the celebrity dramatic reading, however, is thestraight-faced pop song cover which Shatner also pioneered, earnestly, in his equally beloved and derided 1968 spoken-word album, TheTransformed Man . In the past two years we've had dueling, poker-faced "PokerFace" renditions by JudeLaw and ChristopherWalken , and poet PaulMuldoon on Ke$ha's "Tik-Tok." (Princeton student interviewer:  "Oneof the most prevalent motifs seems to be this idea of  oh ." Muldoon:"I think it's a reference to  King Lear ... 'No no no no,' whichshe has kind of transmogrified into 'oh oh oh oh.'") Not to mention, ofcourse, Shatner swinging to " FuckYou " and " TotalEclipse of the Heart ."

You can seewhy the gag is so popular: It flatters the viewer, who is rewarded forperceiving the juxtapositions being drawn, and it humanizes the celebrity ("Lookhow game I am!") without asking him to do anything too taxing or embarrassing.  It's also fantastically simple to execute.Find the right text (something lowbrow, frivolous, self-seriously purple, or,when all else fails, containing a lot of nonsense syllables) and a performerwith high-falutin' cred and/or a distinctively mellifluous voice, and the bitwrites itself.

It's a goodgag for the short-attention-span mash-up era, since once youhear the set-up hey, it's WillArnett reading Are You There God, It's MeMargaret ! you can just click over to the next open tab and be done withit. But while the celebrity dramatic reading may be experiencing a new surge of popularity, the sturdy gag has a much longer history. Here are a few from thearchives:

1996: From the British variety show TFI Friday


1965: From the TV special The Music of Lennon & McCartney


1957: From the Steve Allen Show

[thanks to Idolator and Popeater for some of the above links]

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