Lisa Schwarzbaum explains why we like stars who poke fun at themselves

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
March 24, 1999 at 12:00 PM EST

Nic, Demi, Mira, and Brad all need a sense of humor

Actress Jennifer Grey starred in ”Dirty Dancing” a dozen years ago, got a nose job, and became unrecognizable as Jennifer Grey from ”Dirty Dancing.” Now, on the new sitcom ”It’s like, you know…,” debuting tonight on ABC, she plays Jennifer Grey, an actress who used to be a star, got a nose job, became unrecognizable — and makes rueful jokes about her mistake to friends as she auditions for jobs. The fictionalized Grey lives in wealthy, entertainment-obsessed Los Angeles, next door to a house filled with funny, single guys who speak a Seinfeldian language they come by honestly: Show creator Peter Mehlman was a key ”Seinfeld” writer for many years.

Whether ”It’s like…” broadens and deepens (if those are the right words for a sitcom dedicated to the proposition that acerbic New Yorkers living in Los Angeles have lifetime rights to make fun of their adopted city while enjoying perpetual sunshine and convenient valet parking) remains to be seen. For that matter, even after the three episodes I’ve watched, I don’t know whether Grey-the-character will fill out to more than a one-joke refrain.

But I do know that there’s nothing more welcome in a performer than self-awareness, and no quicker corrective to a sagging or fading image than a well-executed joke at one’s own expense.

This is why beautiful actresses all say they want to be comediennes. Why we loved Candice Bergen in ”Murphy Brown” and adore Cameron Diaz in ”There’s Something About Mary.” Why the host position on ”Saturday night Live” is so valuable a promotional tool. Why Ben Affleck did himself a world of good in ”Shakespeare in Love.” And why Robert De Niro — an actor renowned for creating characters capable of terrifying violence — is the perfect choice to play a ruthless mobster crippled by anxiety attacks in the buoyant comedy ”Analyze This.” (De Niro follows in the wide path cut by Marlon Brando, who honored his role in ”The Godfather” while tweaking it in the highly original 1990 comedy ”The Freshman.”)

This is also why I’d prescribe an emergency diet of comedy to Mira Sorvino, Nicolas Cage, Demi Moore, and Brad Pitt (who am I leaving out?) to get them back on track. Because they’re like, you know, unrecognizable these days.

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