How to Talk to Celebrities Like Ron Popeil

Last week, I blogged about my friend’s awkward interchange with infomercial legend Ron Popeil.

I invited blog readers to come up with clever things to say to Mr. Popeil, offering a prize to the best answer.

Having now slogged through hundreds of blog comments on the subject, I’m left with two general conclusions:

  1. A surprising number of blog readers agreed with me that the right thing to do is just to leave the celebrities alone.
  2. Nobody (at least at this blog) has anything very interesting to say to a random celebrity.

I read through the blog comments and wasn’t particularly struck by any of them. So I asked some of the researchers who work for me to go through the comments and pick their five favorites. Whenever I’ve done this in the past on subjective Freakonomics quizzes, there has been substantial overlap in opinions about what the best answers are. In this case, however, there was no agreement on the good answers.

Nonetheless, I promised to give some prizes, and I’m going to throw them to my former student Salar Jahedi (commenter 31), who is now a professor at the University of Arkansas. Salar wrote his dissertation about bargains, allowing him the opportunity to walk up to Popeil, look him right in the eye, and truthfully say, “I wrote my PhD dissertation to rationalize your business model.”

I bet that is one greeting that Popeil has never heard before.



(For those that don't know, I'm just kidding)

I celebrate non-celebrity.

There is, by definition, no such thing as a random celebrity.

Paul Kostro

Although I did not see the rejects, I applaud your choice -- it shows the greeter's involvement and community with the celebrity; and, I believe, may give some pleasure to Mr. Popeil.


Paul Kostro is a good-hearted soul -- he commends the winning selection on the basis that it "may give some pleasure to Mr. Popeil." I was shocked by how many people came up with rude things to say to celebrities. The only viable explanation I can think of is envy.


I agree with the original approach. Recognize the celebrity, express your appreciation of their work, then return to what you were doing. Celebrities, like most people, enjoy being recognized and having their work appreciated. What they don't want is to get button-holed by some major time suck when they are on their own time. When you approach the celebrity there will often be an awkward moment because they fear you will be that time suck but once that moment passes I think they appreciate the recognition.


The perfect response finally occurred to me!

"You ought to be on TV" (or the movies, etc.).

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

All Celebrities are NOT created equal. On the low end you have Ron Popeil and Balloon Boy. In the middle you have Paris Hilton, Mark Hamill and Greg Kinear. At the higher end you have the Pope, Obama, Lebron James and Lady Gaga.

Even mid level celebrities have access problems meeting Obama, Michael Jackson(RIP) and Lady Gaga. At the high end there is retinue, security and scheduling problems. You will not just bump into the Pope at the ATM line.

So you are consigned to the low level celebs like the candidates for American Idol or the Castaways from Gilligan's Island. Some of the long forgotten would be pleased just to be recognized. Many have large Egos. Buy them a cup at Starbucks and chat--Celebs tend to like Mochachinos with soy milk.


I try to come up with the most obscure reference I can think of. Say for Michael Richards, I'd reference UHF rather than the more obvious Seinfeld. As in, "Hey, kids, look! It's the guy from Stanley Spadowski's Clubhouse! We loved that bit!"

Once I waited in line after a concert to get a word with a musician who was hanging with the crowd. People were taking pictures with him, but when I (with my friends) got up to him in line, I asked him vaguely but excitedly, "Would you mind taking a picture?" He agreed thinking that we were like all the other fans until I handed him my camera and posed with my friends so he could snap a shot of us (he intentionally took it of our knees as a return joke).

Harry DeMott

I've had some great luck in life in terms of meeting celebs at various times. When I got to sit next to Al Pacino for 6 hours as we flew from NYC to LA - I waited an hour until they started dinner service and I broke the ice by saying "Al, it's petty obvious I know who you are - but was really interested in how you choose what movies you make. I've liked most of the movies - and I'm always wondering how a guy with such a good track record could end up in some that I really didn't like" With that we ended up talking for the next 5 hours about movie choices - why certain films got made (favors, $, etc..) He was particularly interested in which movies I did not like and why (1776 anyone? Never enjoyed Sea of Love). Seems like if you can find a common medium and give as much as you get - you can have a perfectly good conversation. The problem with most celebrity encounters is that the non celebs really don't have all that much to say - so why say it?



What the multitude of Billy Mayes Jokes didn't win??? why not ? XD


And I was going to submit, "Weren't you in rehab?"


Upon meeting John Stossel, I asked him, "Aren't you Michael Moore?" I had him going for a second or two, and then he laughed.


I am a White Sox fan who has lived in Minneapolis for many years. Not exactly Red Sox - Yankees, but still a rivalry.

In 1997, while intending to do something else entirely, I ended up in a hotel ballroom to watch the second Tyson-Holyfield fight. There were multiple TVs scattered around, and I found a seat close to a smaller one. After a couple of the prelims, the Main Event was about 15-20 minutes away, and someone pulled up a chair right next to me. I looked, and it was Frank Thomas, the first baseman of the White Sox, and a former AL MVP.

After greeting each other, I quickly decided that I wasn't going to be a "fanboy", so I simply asked, "Who do you like tonight?" That led us into about a 5-10 minute discussion about boxing, after which we watched the bout. After Tyson bit Holyfield's ear, Thomas nudged my shoulder and asked, "Did that really just happen? Did Mike bite him?"

At the time, I wondered if I made a sound decision not to talk baseball. I think I did, since we were simply two boxing fans who wanted to watch a fight, and I am almost certain any kind of baseball talk would have turned him off and lessened both of our experiences. After all, I wouldn't have wanted to discuss my work with anyone either.



I can't decide whether I'm surprised or not to see a UHF reference in the Freakonomics blog comments. Either way, well done.


My wife had the fortune of being randomly assigned as a college dorm roommate to a woman that would go on to be in the cast of a couple prime time dramas and as a supporting cast member of major motion pictures. We spent some time with her once post-college and she said that from her point of view, when she talks to someone who wasn't already part of her life (i.e., is talking to her simply because she is a celebrity) the ones with whom she likes to interact are the ones that ask her about her job and her work. As is the case with many celebrities, she doesn't like being the object of attention of adoring fans. If someone talks to her she doesn't want to hear the question "What is it like to be famous?" or about any of the trappings that go with it. She lights up, however, if someone asks her about her experience being a character on a particular show and the routine of her work week.

I haven't yet had the opportunity to interact with another celebrity but I promised myself that if I did I would try to think of some way to ask the person about their work, or maybe about some specific aspect of their style to show that I have an interest in what they do, rather than an interest in them as a star actor or sports figure.



Many years ago, my wife was working a golf tournament for some charity. She was checking people in, dealing with a large crowd. At one point, someone cuts the line and asks to be registered, and which point she, of course, tells him to get back to the end of the line. The person said, "But I'm XXX XXX!" Not knowing anything about football, she said the expected, "I don't care who you are; back of the line," and so he went. One of her co-workers came up to her and pointed out that it was the "XXX XXX Charity Golf Tournament", and the co-worker went off to get him checked in. Unfortunately, I forget who it was, but I don't follow football at all, and even I recognized the name when she told the story -- it was the random famous football player of the year at that time (but not someone "classic" that would be remembered in a few years).


People seem to think that celebrities are not people and some type of object instead. Not true, why not try speaking to them as if you just met some random stranger. For ron, I would ask him when he realized that his gift of being able to sell products to the masses was realized. Hes a very interesting man since most people unfortunately think that if its sold on tv its an inferior item or there is some type of catch to it. Rons products actually hold up the test of time and work very efficiently. I would love to talk to him and ask him about how he got his start. Whats easier then raising your voice, acting like a kid and making millions selling items that you designed? i cant think of anything better

Kim W.

One of the quirkier "things to say to a celebrity" I've ever herad came FROM a celebrity. Carrie Fisher was apparently at a party which Mick Jagger was also attending. The two had never met, and she was a fan -- but she also knew what it was like to be besieged by "fans".

At some point, she and Mick Jagger were next to each other, and he gave her a polite nod. She leaned in to him like she was telling him a secret and -- completely deadpan -- said, "Guess what? Someone told me MICK JAGGER is here!" It broke the ice, and they started chatting.