In Mickey Rooney's hey day as the nation's biggest box office star some 70 years ago, his most famous movies centered around him rallying pals to put on a show, usually in a barn.
Rooney, who is pushing 90, recently was recruited for another kind of impromptu let's-put-on-a-show production – by Ben Stiller, who is churning out homemade videos satirizing social media.
In a hilarious YouTube short posted a couple weeks ago, Stiller tries to explain Twitter to a dumbfounded Rooney. “You find this fun and interesting?” he asks Stiller. “It’s not wholesome.”
On Tuesday, Stiller debuted a new video in which he lures Ryan Seacrest to a meeting under the pretense of discussing co-starring in a “bromance” movie – and instead asks for a “shoutout” to help him get more Twitter followers.
"I don't even talk to anybody that has less than 900,000 followers,” the “American Idol” host and popular tweeter snaps. “Call Al Yankovic."
Stiller, who also chronicled the debut of his Facebook page in a video, is among the comic stars of his generation who are mocking – yet tacitly embracing – social media.
Conan O'Brien's "Twitter Tracker” gag, which lampoons celebrity tweets, is one of the breakout bits from his nascent "Tonight Show" reign. Stephen Colbert tweets in the voice of his blowhard conservative character. “The amount of Twitter followers is directly proportional to your patriotic manliness,” reads one typical post.
The efforts show a sharp and timely comic sensibility, as well as a grudging respect for the power and reach of social media.
No less an authority than Sean (Diddy) Combs preaches that cultivating fans through social media is crucial to celebrity success. "The game has changed," Combs told Reuters this month. "You have to understand how to be able to brand yourself… you need to have a great Facebook page"
While Twitter has proven a valuable source of serious information, most notably in distributing reports about the political turmoil in Iran, it's content is increasingly entertainment driven, judging from the trending topics, Mashable notes. There’s also a growing belief in Hollywood that instant word of mouth on Twitter can determine whether some movies sink or swim at the box office.
Stiller's videos mark an attempt to forge a direct connection with the fans he’s hoping will keep buying tickets for his movies, by giving them a few free laughs. The folks at Twitter are in on the joke, and are perhaps laughing hardest. Twitter co-founder Biz Stone posted the Stiller-Seacrest short on the site's blog Wednesday.
Rooney, meanwhile, is riding the social media wave into entertainment history: His mass media career has taken him from silent movies to YouTube stardom. “There’s always more to learn,” he told Stiller.
Check out Stiller’s videos and see what the all the twittering's about.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.