The Curious Case of Kato Kaelin

Kato Kaelin's hustle has kept him afloat for the last 20+ years.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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The life of Kato Kaelin can be looked at, presupposing that one can’t, or is being paid not to, avert one’s gaze, in a couple ways. First, he can be seen as an amiable paragon of hustle; he took his limited means and made a career, never letting public scorn or outdated notions of dignity stop him. Conversely (though…not wildly conversely), Kato Kaelin’s ability to not just survive, but actually thrive, can be taken as an indictment of us all; Kato Kaelin as the soft irritating center of our worst impulses, the Scrappy-Doo of murder porn. 

Kato Kaelin (real name Brian Gerard Kaelin), as even the most passive collector of pop-cultural detritus can tell you, became famous in the mid-‘90s for being O.J. Simpson’s houseguest when Simpson murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. He was a minor witness for the prosecution, where his spaced out amiability and Skinemax good looks made him fans amongst Jay Leno monologue writers and their moral equivalents worldwide. Kato Kaelin, sweet and justifiably self-effacing, is back in the news with the upcoming FX mini-series, American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. He’s making the rounds, giving his take on the TV show; from the casting to whatever details he feels the makers of the show got right or wrong. Vanity Fair ran an article, a summation of a Daily News piece really, with the sub-head “Kaelin is on the case!” He was once a punch line and now he’s something far more durable: a personality. 

As Kaelin has taken pains to point out over the years, he had a career before his shadow notoriety, before he became the delightful digression of two people being murdered. He was in Beach Fever, a sex comedy most notable for its adherence to racist Asian stereotypes (if one needs some sort of lineage of the name “Kato” and racist Asian stereotypes in their relation to sidekicks, here it is: The Green HornetBeach Fever. You’re welcome.) and Night Shadows, a film that’s only easily found online presence is a series of YouTube clips of frat boys doing less than hilarious Mystery Science Theatre voiceovers. So, yes, Kato was working. It’s arguable whether, had his pal not committed murder, Mr. Kaelin would be so entrenched in the biz called show. Maybe he would. He’s got a pleasant voice and can play poker. All potential timelines for the inane being equal, maybe he’d be president. 

Victor Miller, screenwriter of the first Friday The 13th and soap opera writer for over thirty years, described to me recently that the infamous O.J. White Bronco chase was the beginning of reality television and the end of soap operas as a dominant daytime entertainment. Half the soaps audience switched to the pursuit and ensuing trial of Simpson and half of that half never returned. The networks discovered that people wanted, more than dramatic telling of old themes (lust and death), to watch real people fuck and suffer. And this could be cheaply done. (As an optimistic afterthought, a lot of both the cynicism and doom saying at the time was incorrect. It turns out that people also really want to watch real people bake cakes competitively.) Setting aside the initial blips of reality television, The Real World, The Menendez Brothers, Kato Kaelin was possibly the first Real Housewife—a kept dope, as easy to surface love as to surface hate, essentially harmless. Or maybe Kato Kaelin is a perversion of the scapegoat myth; we don't put all our bullshit on him and send him out into the desert so our sins are absolved, we give the goat a radio show and have him on Larry King because we want our sins to not matter at all. Two people died, we all fucking LOVED it, cue applause. 

Since the O.J. trial, Kaelin’s odd jobs in the periphery of the spotlight have been legion. He’s appeared in The Weakest Link, along with truly tragic figures like Tonya Harding, and been a guest of arch-disease parasite Dr. Drew. He was a host of sorts to a National Lampoon Strip Poker show and has poked fun at himself on sketch shows ranging from Mr. Show to Mad TV to Tosh.0 (where, in peak Family Guy-esque “this is a joke because it refers to a thing that exists” fashion, he performed as “Kato Kaelin Keyboard Cat”). He was even on an episode of Sabrina, The Teenage Witch. And, of course, the interview-style shows where various hosts of various level of celebrity concern troll the world by asking Kaelin if he thinks O.J. really did it. Kaelin keeps working. It’s…well, admirable shouldn’t be the word, but it’s certainly a fact that he keeps working. 

Kato Kaelin is also supposedly a multi-millionaire now because of his line of clothing. It’s called “Slacker” and is comfort clothing for watching TV. Slacker’s slogan is “Inactivate 2016” which is “funny” in the way that acknowledging the worthlessness of one’s position before it can be pointed out by others is solid substitute for wit. The clothing, sweat clothes for effort free sweating, has multiple pockets for remote controls so we can watch trials on TV. The fact that Kaelin has accomplished a fashion line without having to make even one sex tape (that I’m aware of) is worthy of consideration. 

The newest endeavor for our hero is a new sports radio show called Sports Haters. It will be focused on the surrounding irritations of all things athletic. He’s said its premise is, “You know the stuff you’re screaming at the TV? We actually say it on TV!” Though, presumably not what families of victims of violent crimes scream at the TV whenever Kaelin himself appears on whatever cable channel zero he’s on at any given hour. 

The list of people far worse than Kato Kaelin is a long one (Stalin, again Dr. Drew….) and unlike, say, Bravo’s Andy Cohen, he’s clearly not a man who pulls the dummy-exploitation strings. He happened to be around when a horrific crime, a crime that made a lot of people a lot of money and satiated a lot of celebrity murder hard-ons, occurred. So it would be miserly to begrudge him his portion of murder pie. He’s sweet, he exists, and he’s Kato Kaelin, the archetypical hanger-on, perpetually hanging on. 

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