;At the height of the Cold War, the great Lenny Bruce predicted that the bitter U.S./Soviet rivalry wouldn't last forever. One day, he prophesized, the Russians would be our friends; then, in need of a new enemy, we would end up turning on our own public figures and celebrities.

;;He was right. Near the end of the 20th century and in the first few years of the 21st, America's attitude toward the famous was to build 'em up and tear 'em down — a stateside cousin of the lip-smacking schadenfreude that had already proved the undoing of several formerly mighty, now forgotten societies. (You know, like the British.) But not even dear, departed Lenny could anticipate the essential corollary to such a gleeful exercise in mass sadism: What happens when your celebrities tire of the public-denigration game and start turning on you?

;;Two thousand and six will likely be remembered as the year when the stars ceased hiding their contempt for the rest of us and let it fly in a series of ugly rants that were too numerous to be coincidental. In retrospect, Mel Gibson's infamous tirade was no mere isolated insanity, but the harbinger of a new zeitgeist in which the rich and famous — perhaps emotionally fatigued from being hunted mercilessly by the likes of The Insider — feel psychologically compelled to offend Joe and Jane Average in unmistakable terms. (By extension, I guess that makes the alcohol that fueled Mad Mel's diatribe the Shots Heard 'Round the World.)

;;Technically, it's nothing new for show-business luminaries to bite the hand that feeds them. For decades, successful actors and other entertainers have compensated for their underlying feelings of inadequacy by visiting palpable ill will upon unsuspecting customers. When she was making live appearances, the only way Marlene Dietrich could overcome her intense stage fright was to stare into her makeup mirror and summon up vast reserves of hatred for everyone in her audience. Decades later, Lou Reed was able to convey the same disdain for his listenership simply by recording Metal Machine Music. But what we're currently experiencing is a sea change in the methodology of career suicide. Having found it inefficient to turn off their support system one or even 10 ticket buyers at a time, today's kamikaze cases are opting instead to offend entire demographic groups in one fell swoop.


;Enough has already been written about the Gibson debacle, in which the outback's favorite neo-Nazi elevated "It was just the booze talking" to the uppermost pantheon of incredible statements, alongside "I won't come in the mail" and "The check is in your mouth." But for all the reportorial hand-wringing it engendered, the Gibson arrest may one day be remembered as laying the trash-talking groundwork for the final (and only second notable) chapter in the Michael Richards story. When the news broke that TV's Kramer had strafed an unruly crowd at L.A.'s Laugh Factory with a flurry of F-bombs, the reaction was one of outrage and disappointment — but not utter disbelief. After Gibson's bizarre and hateful outburst, who knew what evil really lurked in the hearts of celebs?


;The clip of the incident that was posted to TMZ.com was fascinating, both for Richards' verbal explosion — he pined for an era in which a black heckler would have been "upside down with a fucking fork up [his] ass" — and the audience's equally illuminating response. "It's not funny," someone in the audience called out. "That's why you're a reject, never had no shows, never had no movies. Seinfeld, that's it." Whoever he was, this unpaid consultant understood innately that, in Hollywood, the term "has-been" is even more inflammatory than "pickaninny." Meanwhile, Richards surfed the wave of the crowd's horrified "oohs" and "aahs" by murmuring about words that can still hurt — as if he himself were Lenny Bruce, and the whole thing had been some kind of high-minded experiment.

;;The entire exchange seemed straight out of the writings of Stuart Hall, a communications theorist who has done much to revamp the hard-line Marxist view of mass culture as a one-way process. In Hall's model, audiences provide essential feedback that content producers then use in determining the character of future information flow. Watching Richards instantly reinterpret the hecklers' brickbats in terms that were deeply rooted in socioeconomic history and race relations, I could tell right away that he's spent a good portion of his post-Seinfeld free time becoming a diligent student of Hall's published theories. Either that, or he was whacked out of his mind on drugs.

;;Still, for sheer volume of verbal offensives, nobody in 2006 held a candle to Rosie O'Donnell, who eventually grew tired of slandering America one citizen at a time and went all global on us. How else to explain her ridiculously bigoted comments on the Dec. 5 edition of The View, in which she lampooned the verbal delivery of Chinese newscasters? As with Richards' Klansmanship, O'Donnell's brief stint as an occidental tourist was equally contemptible for its thematic ugliness and the lameness of its execution. Really, "Ching chong"? You don't get past Round One of Star Search with that type of material.


;Wait a minute … I guess you do.


;It was almost reassuring, then, when O'Donnell's next unprovoked attack got her bitch-slapped by Donald Trump, momentarily reinstituting the old-school modus operandi of celebs clawing out each other's eyes while we amused groundlings stay safe and warm. Did O'Donnell really think she was speaking for "the people" when she pilloried Trump for having inherited rather than earned his money, and for repeatedly going bankrupt? The former claim was absolutely correct, the latter technically untrue; still, you had to wonder on what weird version of high moral ground the argument rested — perhaps a parallel universe wherein only the self-made have the right to squander their fortunes on Broadway musicals built around heroin-addicted transvestites.


;Trump, God love him, responded like a true American, making fun of O'Donnell's girth and mental capacity and then threatening to sue the Lane Bryants off her. In an endearing indicator of his own playground-level mentality, he mused that the young Rosie had probably done very poorly on aptitude tests — as if his own formative years had been spent fitting cylindrical hunks of wood snugly into their corresponding holes. (Hmmm … maybe he and Ivana did have something in common, after all.)


;One would like to think that this delightfully silly dust-up portended the return of civil disquiet to a one-on-one, Celebrity Deathmatch state of normalcy. But once the genie is out of the bottle, it's impossible to get him back in, even upside down and with a fork up his ass. Thanks to Gibson, Richards and O'Donnell, the image of the big-name star as the possessor of a coal-black soul may be too pervasive to shake.

;;It lurked in every corner of one of the most unsettling stories of the holiday season. New York chauffeur Koral Karsan allegedly tried to extort $2 million from his employer, Yoko Ono, 73, threatening to go to the press with certain sensitive materials he had in his possession — like photos of his aging boss clad in diaphanous nightclothes. (Shudder.) In a subsequent meeting with Ono's lawyers, Karsan reportedly promised to kill the famous widow, her son Sean and then himself if his demands were not met — negotiating tactics even Trump might find somewhat brazen.


;At first, it merely seemed business as usual for Ono, who long ago forced us all to widen our definition of "a little trouble with the hired help." But when Karsan was subsequently arrested, he pulled a stunt that marked the story as part of the new paradigm of public distrust: While being led away by cops, he accused Ono of having harassed him sexually. Many times.


;Ono's spokespeople jumped to pronounce Karsan's charges ridiculous, stopping just short of pointing out that the last person known to have directly suffered from their client's sex drives was Paul McCartney. Still, it hardly mattered. The seed (so to speak) had been planted, Karsan having shown indisputable PR savvy in exploiting America's burgeoning image of all celebrities as coiled serpents waiting to strike. Within that newly minted climate, the chauffeur's story seemed just kinda possible, maybe. This is the world Gibson, Richards and company have given us: one in which accusations of antisocial thoughts and/or behavior can be thrown around indiscriminately, since our stars are now guilty until proven innocent. It's as if George Orwell and Kitty Kelley had teamed up to rewrite the criminal code.

;;In a weird way, then, it would almost be better for society if Karsan were telling the truth. It would certainly make him entitled to every dollar he was asking for. Because, try as I might, I cannot conceive of a worse experience — not debating geopolitics with a drunken Mad Max, nor suffering racial profiling at the hands of Kramer — than being sexually harassed by a 73-year-old Yoko Ono. Imagine having to hear this first thing every morning:


;"And if all of de people in de world today would just hold hands, dey would see dat dey are all stars of peace and love fallen from de sky ... YOU DROP PANTS NOW!!!"


;Rosie O'Donnell, sadly, declined comment.

; [email protected]
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