Listen up, public figures: We know your lives are tough. You make one little mistake — one ill-advised tweet, one overly gymnastic routine on Oprah's couch, one attempt to squelch coverage of your slaveowning ancestors — and the whole world gets to mock you for as long as it likes. It's just not fair!
It's always been part of our bargain with you, though, our right to take joy in your pain; I'm sure Anthony and Cleopatra inspired lots of vomitorium graffiti. But television and digital stepped up the pace, expanding the audience and accelerating the timeframe. Today, anyone can fan any promisingly salacious flames and coax them into a campfire worth gathering the planet around, in no time.
Fortunately, you have an escape hatch: the Performance Apology.
We want — nay, we demand — a public mea culpa. Doesn't matter if it's sincere, as long as it's demeaning and pathetic and mildly heartbreaking. We made Michael Jackson do it, and we made Bill Clinton do it; we'll make Bill Cosby do it, and we can make you do it too. There can be no absolution without confession. Why? Because we the people have decided we like the taste of this spectacle, watching our heroes squirm once in awhile, trying vainly to explain themselves. It brings us joy.
What do we want from you, and exactly how long do we intend to rub your nose in it? Well, the exact forgiveness algorithm is complicated — nothing you need to worry your pretty little head about. But in the interest of making this better theater for us, here's a quick guide to crafting an effective performance apology that will make the best of YOUR bad situation.
Rule #1: Be quick about it.
You denied the allegations; you blamed the liberal press; you straight-up lied to Congress about whether grown men were shooting steroids into your butt. But you got busted anyway. When's the best time to come clean?
The answer is NOW... sooner, if possible. It took approximately 2.7 seconds for the Michael Phelps bong photo to show up photoshopped onto a “Cheaties” cereal box. Proof of your misdeeds frees us legally to go to town on you for fun and pageviews...and we intend to hop to it. So the instant that first public proof comes out (thanks, Gawker!) don't let your guilt simmer unaddressed — get that thing off the stove.
Rule #2: Kneel before us. Kneel!
Why do we hideous muggles find your self-inflicted troubles so tasty? Because it's proof you guys aren't fundamentally better than us, whatever the scoresheet says; you're just lucky and well-born and beautiful. It makes us feel momentarily better about our depressingly average lives.
So for God's sake, don't be yourself... that carefully crafted, surgically enhanced, PR-buffed public persona all your agents, handlers, and other remoras built you into. THAT guy is an easy target; that's the one we can tease and mock and stone to death without hating ourselves even a little. Rather, be the wretchedly imperfect human sinner you once were. It's hard to hate on that guy; he's a little too much like us.
Rule #3: Stick to the script.
Want us to move on to the next scandal? Make us bored with this one. Don't overthink it — just repeat what the pros say. Fortunately, this is well-trodden ground. Here are some talking points to rehearse; you may improvise lightly:
There are no words to describe how completely ashamed and sorry I am for my (crime/misdemeanor/casual racism). My regrettable actions let down the ones I love, including most importantly my (family/voting base/fellow Yankees).
When I (took drugs/cheated/ranted at that delivery gal/started a dogfighting ring) I was (an idiot/young/stressed/a stressed young idiot). What was I thinking? I WASN'T thinking; that was the problem.
There's nobody to blame but myself. This is all on me — I accept full and total responsibility. In a way, I'm almost glad I got caught. [Editor's note: Just say that last part with your eyes.]
I'm going to rely on the support of friends and family to get me through this dark time, and respectfully request the media leave me alone now, to (ruminate/pray/fill my moat with Seinfeld residuals).
Rule #4: Offer us some proof you're punishing yourself.
You're almost off the hook, but not quite yet. We know your apology is performance art, after all, and we know that you know that we know. So you have to do something to prove to us you're voluntarily making your life marginally less awesome, at least for a few moments.
So enter rehab, or couples counseling, or donate a fraction of the profits from one of your skin care lines to sickly kids, or some other damn thing. For A-Rod, the demonstration of personal hardship was as simple as taking the time to handwrite his apology to fans. For Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, it's usually insincere and partially shirked community service. Be creative; find something that works for you.
Rule #5: Be realistic.
A performance apology is a great tool, but it can't work miracles. Did you win multiple U.S. golds for swimming, and get caught enjoying a few bong hits at a private party? Your apology is all we ask; that's within the realm of reasonable juvenile exploration. Go on, ya big lug, and sin no more. Did you secretly drink your own blood to win the Tour de France, again and again and again and again and again and again and again? Yeah — we're going to need those medals back.
Well, celebrities, that should get the news vans off your lawn for now. Just follow those rules, ignore Twitter for 12 hours, and you'll be right as rain. Don't say we never did you a solid.