Celebrities are showing us their unvarnished selves and homes as they try stay in front of audiences in a time of social isolation
When the coronavirus quarantines began to hit several weeks ago, Deborah Kampmeier was in pretty much the worst professional position you could find yourself: on the cusp of releasing a film.
The independent director had a #MeToo drama called “Tape,” inspired by a friend’s harrowing experience in the entertainment industry, and needed a theatrical rollout to garner attention and reviews. “We hadn’t actually gotten to the release, but we were too far in to undo all the work,” Kampmeier said by phone this week, explaining her predicament for a movie that was supposed to be released Friday.
So she did what many with cultural products at this hunker-down moment have done: She pivoted to digital. Kampmeier’s movie has come out on schedule, only as a “virtual theatrical release.” For $15, consumers can not only watch the film digitally two weeks before it hits rental platforms but can interact virtually with panel discussions. Each day beginning Friday for the duration of the run, a different group of actors and activists will appear in conversations to which consumers can beam, a kind of in-person experience from their bedroom.
“It’s everything you could ever want coming to the theater, but in slippers,” Kampmeier said.
The director is part of an emerging creative economy. With most film and television production halted, purveyors of entertainment have had to find fresh ways to create and distribute their work. They’ve come up with what might be called pajama entertainment — creations that take the same casual at-home vibe many Americans are feeling and channel it into the product.
“This is becoming a time of creativity — of things that are not slick and not pretty but are entertaining,” said Preston Beckman, a longtime TV executive at Fox and NBC who helped create the latter’s “Must-See TV” bloc.
Far from the 21st century ethos of highly produced mass entertainment, the new form reverses a modern trend. It is being compared by experts to the early days of the Web: handmade, communal and surprising. While they note this is a dynamic moment that’s capable of turning on a dime, they are heartened by what has sprouted up. The form remains — for now — not about money (some charity ventures aside). But practitioners say that doesn’t matter; what the form lacks in monetization, it makes up for in promotional muscle, and perhaps the even more valuable currency of reducing isolation.
“I haven’t felt this way online since I was on The Well in the early 90s,” said the digital expert and author Douglas Rushkoff, referring to a the early-era virtual community that featured a host of initial adopters discussing a wide range of topics with an abundance of camaraderie and text. “The Internet suddenly feels like the Web of yesterday — a hot medium, like radio — instead of what it has become, which is basically a big television streaming platform.”
The form was on display a week ago as the Los Angeles deejay D-Nice staged a massive “Club Quarantine,” a dance party for furry-slipper nation. (Michelle Obama and Democratic presidential contenders stopped by, along with, Jamie Foxx, Alicia Keys and others.)
Last Sunday brought “The Rosie O’Donnell Show,” in which the former talk-show host revived her program from her garage, engaging with sheltered-in-place stars from Broadway and elsewhere. Hosted by Broadway.com, the program generated more than a half-million views on YouTube and raised money for the Actors Fund, which is supporting performers put out of work by the shutdown. Consumers saw Patti LuPone give a tour of her basement. The actress who plays Tina Turner on Broadway sang from her bathtub.
Though the examples of pajama entertainment vary widely, practitioners say they all share one trait — heightening intimacy by peeling away modern television’s slick layers. (Well, that and the lack of profit-generation.)
“Audiences don’t care now that guests aren’t in makeup, hair and wardrobe,” said Paul Wontorek, the editor of Broadway.com, who directed “The Rosie Show” remotely from his house in Upstate New York. “The guests don’t care. It’s ‘You’re in your kitchen and I’m in my living room and Patti LuPone is in her basement.’ And that makes you feel like you know performers in a way you’ve never known them before.”
Wontorek said that while he created one of its leading examples, he didn’t know what to call the new form of entertainment; after all, it borrowed from sources as varied as talk shows, podcasts and the throwback MTV show “Cribs.”
That spontaneous feeling also has been conjured by Mark Armstrong, who runs a long-standing live event called “The 24 Hour Plays.” The program, which has usually attracted many big names, involves an actor bringing a prop and costume, a playwright writing a five-minute monologue the items inspired, then the actor performing that monologue — all within 24 hours.
Normally a ticket-selling event on a Broadway stage, the show was adapted last week into a virtual video version dubbed “The Viral Monologues.” It yielded very different results.
“The intimacy has brought a huge change,” said Armstrong of the new effort, which featured actors, at home, in close-up; the comic David Cross performed from his bathtub. “We did shows after 9/11, after the financial crisis, after Hurricane Katrina. But I think people connected to this more than even those because of where and how they’re taking place.”
The first show was so successful in attracting both viewers and talent that a second — with Oscar nominee Michael Shannon and “Hamilton” star Daveed Diggs — was quickly put together.
As with many of these efforts, monetization is neither an option nor a goal, limited at most to small advertising revenues. That is not a challenge at present, organizers say, because the talent is usually willing to work free.
Producers say the grass-roots trend is happening because purveyors of corporate entertainment have largely abandoned media for the moment. Sports is nonexistent, movie theaters are closed, daytime shows are scrapped and even prime-time shows have to carefully parcel out new episodes because they’ll soon run out, as the people who run these events impose social-distancing practices. Even many late-night TV hosts, among the most active, have until now done mostly modest monologues.
“There is a void here that a lot of us are trying to fill,” Armstrong said.
Even consumers are getting in on the act. Ashley Fauset, chief operating officer of Stardust, a platform on which consumers give video reactions to shows and movies, said the app has seen a daily usage increase of 35 percent since social distancing. Many of the uploaded videos, she noted, feature users talking about their quarantines, using the app as a de facto movie theater and therapy session.
“People feel stuck and alienated and bewildered by a state of affairs,” Fauset said. “They are finding peace and solace when they connect with others over movies and TV shows.”
On Sunday Fox and iHeart Radio followed with a “living-room” concert hosted by Elton John – and featuring Mariah Carey at her home studio, Tim McGraw singing from a diving board and Lady Gaga chatting in her sweatpants–that played to the pajama aesthetic. The event has raised more than $8 million for hunger and first-responders’ charities.
Some other high-profile celebrities have also gotten in on the pajama game. Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, the husband-and-wife writers of the 2016 film hit “The Big Sick,” have been among those starting new podcasts that directly address the quarantine. “Staying home With Kumail and Emily” offers comically barbed tips about how to quarantine harmoniously, inspired by their own experience of sometimes doing that for Gordon, who has an immune disorder.
Certainly restlessness plays a role in these moves: Creative people are sitting at home with an installed fan base and a machine that lets them broadcast to the world.
But creators also say the streams contain a more serious idea — that the virus has awakened them to both a need and an opportunity to push back on modern television’s slickness. They point to a kind of flipping of the modern media equation: If influencer culture has taken ordinary people and made them stars, pajama entertainment takes stars and makes them ordinary people.
“I think you’re seeing the finishing of what social media started,” Wontorek said. “Now everyone, even famous people, is willing to put a camera on themselves in a raw and vulnerable way.”
But how long consumers will still be willing to tune in for something that is unabashedly low-budget remains a question; when the novelty of seeing stars in their pajamas wears off, the trend could leave as quickly as it came.
Finding these events can be tricky, too; without established marketing channels or means of promotion, consumers are often left to discover them while they are happening, if not later.
Then there is the matter of the form staying in its current organic, largely money-agnostic state. As the quarantine wears on, experts say larger companies could figure out the medium in a way that pushes out the smaller artist and moves it from community to commerce.
“I don’t know if this will exist in a month, or a week,” Rushkoff said. Many late-night TV shows have announced a return to the air with shows produced at home, suggesting broadcast television is interested in overtaking the pajama aesthetic. For instance, “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” will broadcast next week from his house, interviewing the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Samuel Jackson from their houses.
But some in the entertainment business say these changes could turn out to be a happy synthesis. Pajama entertainment, they say, won’t be steamrolled by Hollywood as much as carefully folded into it.
“I think they can coexist, I really do,” said Beckman, the TV veteran. “Someone at a broadcast network is going to figure out how to take this intimacy and make it a mass phenomenon.”