Wide Angle

How John Krasinski Became America’s New Dad

While some celebrities sang their way to disaster, one figured out how to walk a fine line.

John Krasinski, wearing a suit and tie and sitting in front of a colorful "SGN" sign, points to an upper-right-hand screen that shows the celebrity "Imagine" video.
Photo illustration by Slate. Screengrabs from SGN and YouTube.

The mission of John Krasinski’s quarantine response series is right there in the title: delivering Some Good News at a moment when it is in unprecedentedly short supply. The weekly “news program” is formally indebted to “Weekend Update,” but it’s after uplifting smiles, cathartic tears, and warm-fuzzy reassurance instead of laughs. In each episode, Krasinski narrates dozens of viral clips demonstrating humanity’s resilience and passion for choreographed dance routines, spotlights heartwarming Americans, and facilitates interactions between said Americans and well-meaning celebrities. It’s wholesome and canny coronavirus counterprogramming—the first episode has been viewed more than 17 million times—that’s also wholesome and canny career management by Krasinski, who, with SGN, is slipping into the role of America’s Quarantine Dad easily, as if it were a pair of slippers.

America, of course, already has a celebrity dad: Tom Hanks, whose very blood is apparently being used to contribute to the commonweal. That Hanks might be edging, numerically speaking, into grandfather territory is of little consequence. (The 63-year-old does have three grandchildren.) What with our abusive presidential father, the American public is so desperately in need of reassuring authority figures someone tossing out Life Savers candies might get a second look. With SGN, Krasinski is doing more than that. In the past few years he has bulked up his familiar sitcom star persona with some action-hero brawn, becoming a vintage dad: corny, a little overconfident, but with his heart in the right place. “Whenever a dad does anything that’s super nice and wholesome, it makes me want to cry,” Billie Eilish’s brother, Finneas, told Krasinski moments before they performed for the virtual prom Krasinski had arranged (just as Matt Damon’s character in Contagion did before him). “I love that you think I’m a dad first,” Krasinski replied, wearing a tux and red glasses with the lenses knocked out. “Because I think I’m a dad first, too.” Krasinski has two children with his wife, Emily Blunt. His daughters painted the SGN logo.

Like a good dad, Krasinski is here to make the best out of the worst. His dark hair and beard growing slightly longer every episode, he introduces viral tweets, photos, and videos with gusto, good spirit, and a jokey cadence that belies his earnestness. He narrates nurses doing dance numbers, a husband crooning to his wife through the window of a nursing home, a man leaving toilet paper on his porch for delivery people to take, cities around the world clapping for essential workers, and a family doing a trick golf shot off the roof of their house. He praises heroes, celebrates joy, and is sure to mention which videos made him cry hard. When he interviews the regular people and medical professionals featured in these videos, he thanks them profusely. In collecting all of this in one place, SGN isn’t just providing examples of our ability to inspire, entertain, and distract one another in these trying times. It’s trying to become another such example, sampling others’ uplifting and creative gestures into a remixed megagesture.

The rapid-fire survey of human ingenuity and bigheartedness that takes up the first half of the 15-ish minute shows is followed by celebrity razzle-dazzle, which Krasinski delivers with self-effacing noblesse oblige. Celebrity is what he can bring to the table, so he’s going to bring it—it’s the least he can do. Episodes have featured the cast of Hamilton performing for a young fan on Zoom, Steve Carell reminiscing with Krasinski about The Office, cooking with Guy Fieri, the Red Sox’s David Ortiz gifting essential workers season tickets before letting them run around Fenway, and SGN meteorologists Brad Pitt and Robert De Niro tersely describing the weather.

These celebrities aren’t doing all that much, but they are doing at least some active entertaining—something that Krasinski, like other famous people successfully navigating the crisis, has intuited is necessary in the wake of the “Imagine” kerfuffle. Early in the quarantine, when Gal Gadot enlisted dozens of celebrities to sing along to “Imagine,” the participants accidentally revealed that they believed a celebrity’s mere presence—however cheesy and ineffectual—to be an uplifting gift. (The universally disdainful response must have come as a surprise to everyone involved: Just a week prior, these famous people and their teams had been living in a world in which mere presence was enough to satisfy brands, event holders, and fans.) But a video clip and a line of John Lennon aren’t going to cut it anymore, and savvy celebrities have grokked that they need to provide something of less dubious entertainment value.

It’s never been easier for a celebrity to seem self-important and out of it, but Krasinski has had a lot of practice walking the tightrope between self-effacement and self-aggrandizement, between humility and false humility. As Jim Halpert, the character he played for years on The Office, he was simultaneously the guy who was better than his surroundings and the one who was sometimes unbearable in this belief. Krasinski has well-honed line deliveries that rescue him from the latter category and beach him in the former. He begins each episode by recapping SGN’s popularity, calling attention to copycats and the fan art it’s inspired in tones of self-deprecating astonishment. His enthusiasm—look how big his little show has gotten!—masks the essential self-congratulation. It doesn’t always work. “Joy not only echoed across the globe—it echoed its way right out of this world” Krasinski exclaimed during one segment, as he cut to the astronauts at the International Space Station holding up SGN signs. The good news there was apparently that the news of Some Good News had made it into orbit.

For Krasinski this is good news: Like Amazon, Zoom, and the purveyors of jigsaw puzzles, he is poised to be one of the winners of this disaster. That this does not seem to have been his goal is part of the reason it’s happening. In retrospect, though, Krasinski was well positioned to deliver this kind of uplift. Americans’ claustrophobic intimacy with our sitcom stars—how we expect them to be like they were on TV—works against actors who are trying to do something new but in their favor when they can channel it. On The Office, we watched Jim Halpert mature from an underachiever with a doofy haircut into, well, a dad.

Krasinski struggled for years to figure out what to do next—his directorial debut was based on a David Foster Wallace book, and he was a runner-up for Captain America—but he slowly steered in a more macho direction, first with a Michael Bay movie and then with Amazon’s Jack Ryan, the sort of meat-and-potatoes American exceptionalist action fare that two-thirds of the extended family at Thanksgiving has seen. With A Quiet Place, the blockbuster movie he co-wrote, directed, and acted in, Krasinski auteured himself into the role of a protector: a father trying to keep his family safe amid the apocalypse. A Quiet Place Part II was supposed to be released in March, but it’s been pushed to September. In the interim, Krasinski is doing SGN and tracing the arc we always wanted for him, because we first wanted it for Jim: lost funny guy matures into upstanding, spirit-boosting adult before our very eyes.

In each episode of SGN—there have been five at the time of this writing—Krasinski sits behind a desk in a suit and tie, only to reveal at the end that his top doesn’t match his bottoms. He’s wearing Red Sox boxers, a tutu, a dress, a bathing suit, etc., It’s a dad joke. But it turns out the dad joke is a great métier for male celebrities whose persona doesn’t depend on being cool: a controlled, charming way to let people expel resentment they might otherwise hold onto while making them feel close to you. The joke of a dad joke is not the joke itself—those are only ever groaningly funny, if that—it’s the dad. In conscientiously making jokes in which he and his corny sense of humor are the punchline, the dad is creating a dad-sanctioned occasion to laugh at Dad, a pressure release orchestrated by the person in charge. Krasinski seems to implicitly understand how this works for a celebrity like him. Sitting in his office, in his boxer shorts, he’s happy to go for the soft, cozy joke instead of the sharp one. There’s more longevity, more reliability, ultimately maybe even more affection in being a comforting celebrity than a cool one.

That, after all his efforts, SGN might not actually make you feel better has less to do with Krasinski than with the limitations of the format. Who among us has not had a recent cry at a viral clip of someone doing something incredibly hard, or kind, or silly? But strung together, those clips lose their power. They blur together, and you go numb. Instead of revealing our resilience, their cheerfulness starts to seem almost pathological. It’s right there in the title: The amount of good news out there is only some. There’s not really enough to go around, though there does seem to be enough for John Krasinski.