Humor scores career boosts for celebs

Although they generated plenty of goodwill back in their “Good Will Hunting” days, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have recently endeared themselves to millions by admitting — in exuberant, Cinemascope-style song-and-dance numbers — that they are, respectively, f**king Sarah Silverman and Jimmy Kimmel.

Those elaborate videos, featured on Kimmel’s ABC latenight show and widely regurgitated via the Web, highlight an increasingly popular device for celebrities, news anchors and even political candidates to bolster “Q” score popularity in a manner worth more than a cadre of publicists could conceive: exhibiting a sense of humor by willingly spoofing their own well-manicured image.

Granted, the idea of celebrities playing themselves is hardly new, but the rules and opportunities have changed dramatically since the days of “I Love Lucy,” in which William Holden and John Wayne were presented as pretty fabulous guys blessed with admirable patience enduring Lucy’s starstruck antics; or Richard Nixon’s peculiar reading of “Sock it to me” on “Laugh-In.”

Today, thanks partly to a plethora of “behind Hollywood’s velvet ropes” programs, both improvised and reality-based, the venues for such exposure have ballooned. Executed properly, it’s a slick bit of jujitsu — built around the notion that nobody willing to freely lampoon what a complete jerk he is could actually be one.

HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” has been a favorite showcase, allowing celebs like Ted Danson and David Schwimmer to portray themselves being every bit as petty, self-absorbed and shallow as the TV version of Larry David. That formula was spectacularly one-upped by “Extras,” starring Ricky Gervais, where Ben Stiller quoted his box office resume down to the opening-weekend dollar, while Clive Owen and Orlando Bloom played themselves as egotistical pricks wildly impressed by their own good looks.

THE PROCESS IS MORE DELICATE for candidates and newsmen, but no less potentially valuable. Examples include Mike Huckabee playing air hockey for delegates against Stephen Colbert, Hillary Clinton’s turn on “Saturday Night Live” and Brian Williams hosting “SNL” and guesting on “The Daily Show.” Williams’ appearances outside of his usual context revealed the NBC News anchor’s deft comic touch, which the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz cited as a contributing factor to his resurgence in the nightly news ratings.

Attempts to be overly clever can easily backfire. Oddities range from Kirstie Alley’s pitiable bid for weight-loss endorsements in Showtime’s “Fat Actress” to E!’s new Ashton Kutcher-produced series “Pop Fiction,” which goes to great lengths to “turn the tables” and punk the celebrity-chasing paparazzi — an endeavor that makes participating stars look nearly as moronic as the barking-mad tabloids.

A few disclaimers apply: Political candidates seeking exposure in friendly, controlled environments will inevitably generate petulant sniping among serious media outlets if they continue to duck or deny them access. Also, the redemptive power of being a good sport only goes so far if, say, you’re a major movie star known to proselytize for Scientology or a big-state governor implicated in a call-girl ring.

Then again, given the ascent of tabloid sensibilities, the number of truly legitimate news outlets recedes daily. Take Monday’s “Nightline,” on which Terry Moran probed former madam Heidi Fleiss for psychological insight into New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s alleged hiring of a prostitute. “I don’t have any problem with him getting laid,” Fleiss said, adding that Spitzer “gets props from me.” A fidgety Moran thanked her for the “inside perspective.”

Faced with choosing from among the sniggering Moran, MSNBC’s hyperventilating Chris Matthews or CNN’s unpredictable Larry King, why not skip directly to the shows of Colbert or Stewart, where people at least will be laughing for the right reasons?

Although NBC’s Williams fretted about undermining his credibility by letting his normally perfect hair down to ventilate his silly side, the alternative — taking oneself too seriously — appears more damaging. That’s one reason why cable-news firebrands Bill O’Reilly and Lou Dobbs offer such ripe targets, retaliating to criticism with their own all-out attacks that only invite further ridicule.

As always, there’s a fine line here. Celebrities can fall victim to charges of being too precious or protesting too much — insisting they don’t care about their images while obviously laboring to buttress them.

Still, as Damon and Affleck have shown us, if done right, there’s a lot to be gained by a little f**king around.

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