my old kentucky gnome

I spent an hour Friday watching Tom Cruise being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, and another two hours trying to get rid of Katie Holmes, who arrived at my door out of breath, demanding to use the phone and muttering something about “sweet, sweet freedom.” My column on Tom v. Oprah will appear in this week’s print version of Maclean’s, out Thursday. (For all you kids out there, a “print version” is just like the Internet but with staples and revenue.)

In the meantime…

Broadcast at the unlikely hour of 4 o’clock on Saturday afternoon was the single most inadvertently entertaining patch of television since a network executive declared, “Hey, I know – let’s make a Star Wars Christmas special!” Surprisingly, it involved horses. Unsurprisingly, it involved Billy Bush from Access Hollywood.

The program was called Access at the Derby, and it was NBC’s attempt to add some red-carpet A-list glamour to its coverage of the 134th running of the Kentucky Derby. And what a roster of A-list celebrities! Carson Daly was there. Nick Lachey was there. And uhh… gimme a minute… oh, the Entourage guy! The pretty Entourage guy was there. Also Eddie Money. Eddie’s date for the occasion must have been the year 1983, because clearly that’s who dressed him and did his hair.

Billy Bush – a Mary Hart for the 21st century, except shorter, younger and probably not an alien robot sent here to enslave us – was dressed in seersucker, the perfect fabric to endure the intense humidity of Hollywood’s colon, where he has resided since 2003. Billy tried to tell us that “over the past few nights and days there’s been more going on in Louisville than in Hollywood.” Billy tried to tell us that Hollywood stars were coming out “in force” to witness the race. And then Billy interviewed… Bo Derek. What – did Joyce DeWitt have a thing she couldn’t get out of?

To the question of how to boost ratings among an ever-more fragmented viewing audience, the answer always seems to be: more celebrities! More Americans will watch the NHL playoffs if Lauren from The Hills blogs about them, the thinking goes. More will watch our sitcom if we cram 19 celebrity cameos into it. More will watch the Kentucky Derby pre-show if Hef shuffles along the red carpet in the company of three blonds and an equal number of “put out to stud” jokes.

The problem, of course, is that there are fewer genuine celebrities these days: fewer stars who are universally recognized, and fewer still with broad appeal and manageable drug addictions. Fragmentation hasn’t just affected the audience – it’s afflicted the talent. New York magazine called Gossip Girl the Best. Show. Ever. But the members of its cast could stroll unrecognized through the nation’s Wal-Marts until mistaken for vanilla wafers and devoured whole.

The red carpet during Access at the Derby was so thinly populated that you suspected it was only a matter of time until a tumbleweed or Joe Piscopo came rolling along. At which point Joe Piscopo came rolling along. You might remember Joe from such career milestones as being on Saturday Night Live and then not being on Saturday Night Live anymore. The whole Derby experience must have been confusing for him: You want me to what? Walk along the red what? The guy hasn’t been snapped by the paparazzi since he was caught at Goldie Hawn’s front door in 1989. And then she paid for the pizza and he left.

Not to say the red carpet didn’t have its moments. Billy’s interview with reality TV icons Heidi and Spencer from The Hills opened with the following brain teaser: “Picking a dress for an event is a big task – and now you had to pick a hat, too. Which was tougher?” Thin wisps of smoke were just beginning to emerge from Heidi’s ears, rare but unmistakable evidence of the faint ember of a thought (possibly about cookies or kittens), when the boxer Lennox Lewis came up from behind. Instinctively, I pressed the ‘record’ button on my PVR. Like every other living human, and our more discerning domestic pets, I have long dreamed of seeing Spencer punched repeatedly in the face. But for it to be done by a professional! This was more than I could have hoped for.

Alas, Lennox was interested only in the chit-chat. Spencer told Lennox, “Heidi’s a boxer, too.” To which Heidi demurred: “A little. Not like you.” Thank you, Heidi from The Hills, for clearing that up so no one mistakenly inferred from the exchange that you are a former heavyweight champion of the world.

To those who at this point felt no depths could possibly remain to be plumbed, Billy once again proved innately resourceful. He spoke in rapturous tones of visiting the horse Big Brown: “The Jack Nicholson of the Kentucky Derby!… It was incredible!… I was star struck!” And then, saving the best of the worst for last, he introduced a segment in which a two fashion designers were actually enlisted to actually critique the silks to be worn by the Derby jockeys.

“Fuchsia and green together, it just doesn’t do it for me,” said James Mischka. Added Mark Badgley: “I think this one is too drab – I’d love to spruce it up a bit.” Hours later, a filly would be euthanized on the track after breaking down – but it was here, in the jockeys’ locker room, that millions of television viewers witnessed the traumatic sight of two men’s careers being humanely destroyed. Can’t wait for the Stanley Cup finals and an NBC fashionista’s scathing appraisal of Sidney Crosby’s bland taste in athletic cups. Got any plans yet, Joe Piscopo?

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