Welcome Home: Celeb Comebacks Often Succeed

Don Imus is making a comeback. Well, he's at least going to try.

The New York Post reported that CBS Radio may welcome the shock jock back to its airwaves as early as next fall.

Imus was fired and his nationally syndicated talk show was taken off the air in April 2007 after the host made racist remarks about the Rutgers women's basketball team. He referred to the basketball players as "nappy-headed hos," enraging civil rights groups and causing advertisers to backpedal.

But can celebrity entertainers like Imus really bounce back from career moves that garner overwhelming amounts of negative national attention and even cost them their jobs?

In Good Company

Celebrity comebacks are nothing new and often prove quite successful.

Stars accused of sexual fetishes even rebound. Just look at NBC sportscaster Marv Albert. Known as "the voice of basketball," Albert went on trial in 1997 for felony charges of forced sodomy, after a prostitute he visited accused him of biting her back repeatedly and forcing her to perform oral sex. After pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of assault and battery in a plea bargain, the broadcaster was fired by NBC.

But just a few years later, Albert was welcomed back onboard at NBC, and served as a sports reporter for the 2001 and 2002 NBA basketball seasons.

Sexually explicit voice mails left by "The Insider" host Pat O'Brien weren't even enough to ruin his career. After treatment for alcoholism, O'Brien has since returned to his show after giving an on-air apology to viewers.

And Imus isn't the only radio host to be given the boot by his broadcasters.

Opie and Anthony of "The Opie and Anthony Show" — coincidently, the same broadcast that first aired the O'Brien recordings — were suspended by XM Satellite Radio after a personality on their show talked explicitly about forcing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and first lady Laura Bush to have sex with him, Reuters reported.

But just 30 days later, the show was back on the air and the duo up to their usual eyebrow-raising antics, which in the past have included encouraging listeners to have sex in public places around New York City and then call in the details to the radio show.

Even everyone's favorite craft connoisseur, Martha Stewart, kept afloat after serving jail time for insider trading. Her fan base welcomed her back willingly, glue sticks in hand.

Forgive and Forget

Audiences — as unforgiving and unrelenting as they may seem during the peak of a scandal — are actually quite forgiving in the long run.

According to public relations expert Howard Rubenstein, audience members are unlikely to remember the nuances of celebrity scandals, unless they involve really dreadful crimes and accusations.

"The public's institutional memory of what [celebrities] have done usually fades, and people don't hold the details of what they've done in [their] mind unless it was something absolutely egregious, like pedophilia," said Rubenstein.

Take Michael Jackson, for example. Child molestation charges and strange behavior -- think dangling a child off a balcony in front of screaming fans -- can make a comeback virtually impossible. It goes to show that too much shock can, in fact, backfire into the ultimate comeback gone wrong.

Imus' scandal, like those of others who have had successful comebacks, didn't cross the line quite as much as Jackson's, allowing his fan base to stay intact.

"[Imus] built his reputation as a shock jock, and people expect him to say sort of nutty things and outrageous things," said Rubenstein.

Comebacks become somewhat of a highly anticipated event for true fans of the celebrity in question.

"A superstar in [Imus'] field is a celebrity that people still want to see and touch, and even the worst of the worst have been able to come back," he said. "There's an attraction to sort of nutty people."

But Emily Regas, a New Yorker who has followed the Imus scandal, doesn't think he stands a chance at a comeback.

"Imus' backlash was so incredibly emotional, it's too much to get over," said Regas, who doesn't expect Imus to be as popular as he was before his infamous remarks.

Others believe that true fans of Imus will stick by the host upon his homecoming.

"[Imus] succeeds in his own niche group," said Bart Hopkins, a New Yorker who followed the Imus saga. "They are attracted to that kind of thing, and his market will find him again."

Culture Counts

Cultural attitudes toward certain subjects — in Imus' case, race — are important factors that could determine whether a celebrity's career is over for good.

"The problem is the way in which Imus and his people are unaware of this sea change in what had previously been casual insult in what probably all males engaged in," said David Thorburn, the director of MIT's Communication Forum. "Ten years earlier, that language would not have been such a dramatic earthshaking thing to have said."

Knowing your audience, then, is an essential part of being a celebrity, especially one like Imus, who depends on listeners to gain advertisers, which keep him on the air.

What About Those Advertisers?

For many celebrities, advertisers are undoubtedly key contributors to their success in the limelight, and without them, it's hard to gain much steam.

In Imus' case, advertisers pulled out of deals almost as soon as he opened his mouth on that day in April. Regaining the trust of advertisers, who often want nothing to do with controversy, is no easy feat.

"A comeback is not only among your own fan base, but they also have to engineer a comeback among a much wider audience, and to get the broadcasters to feel that they can hire you again," said pop culture professor Rob Thompson. "Certain advertisers simply won't. They just won't want to touch the possible implication of getting behind Imus and another program."

This is where the good things a celebrity does really count. O'Brien did the right thing by going to rehab for his drinking problem, Martha Stewart served time, and Imus, amid the offensive material, conducted some engaging interviews.

"For all of the things that Imus said [that] were really offensive, he also put on a show the likes of which no one else was doing," said Thompson.

"He did interviews with people that went on for 20 to 25 minutes that you didn't hear in other venues. There were some things that Imus did on his show that were good things and that serious people actually miss. He covered some territory that wasn't available elsewhere."

The success of Imus' potential comeback will be played out in the coming months, and fans and critics alike must tune in this fall to find out whether the Imus they came to love — and hate — is back, and for how long.