March 5, 2014

Can camp be played straight?

Camp, meaning the exaggerated ridiculousness for comic effect, can come in naive or deliberate forms (using Sontag's terms). Naive, when the performers had not intended a campy effect and are not aware of producing it. Example: the movie Showgirls. Deliberate, when the performers did intend the effect, and are aware of working toward that goal during the performance. Example: the '60s TV show Batman.

One way of toying around with camp is to make an obvious parody of the style, whether in a dismissive or a sympathetic way. The music video for "Big Me" by Foo Fighters plays around with the campy Mentos commercials of the early '90s, partly laughing at them ("how campy!") but partly laughing with them ("remember when that was cool?!"). Camp makes an easy target, though, so these parodies don't strike us as clever or unexpected. The obviousness is like piling on, almost unsportsmanlike. It was only a matter of time before someone spoofed the Mentos commercials in a music video or Saturday Night Live sketch.

A more entertaining way of messing around with the style is to play it straight. How? The characters go through the same dialog and bodily motions that a deliberately campy performance would require, but they keep their expressions more in-tune with the setting and action. That makes their performances look apparently sincere. First I'll try to explain what I mean, and then give some examples.

The deliberately campy characters always have some kind of awareness that shows on their face and comes through in their voice. Think of Gomez Addams from The Addams Family, or Divine from a John Waters movie. It's like they're winking at the audience to remind them, "Hey, in case you couldn't tell, we're acting really WACKY!"

The naively campy characters are trying to make a serious effort, and are simply unaware of how ridiculous their performance looks. They may think that they're just pushing the boundaries of what's acceptable art, and so giving a serious performance. But the "boundary pushing" just ends up being over-the-top silliness.

In camp played straight, the characters are aware that their speech and acts will come off as comically exaggerated to the audience, but they don't let that awareness show during the performance. It's similar to deadpan humor or black humor. What sets it apart from other related forms is that the performance bears a striking resemblance to well known examples of camp, not just any old wacky situation. But they don't convey the awareness that an obvious parody, mockery, or tribute would.

It's like they don't appreciate that they're in a textbook case of camp, yet they do -- their performance will look unmistakably similar to a well known example of camp. How could you not notice that as a performer? Perhaps we should call these "deadpan parodies" of camp.

The apparently unaware expressions of their face and voice will not make them like the naively campy, however. This time, the work does not have high artistic pretensions, where they might be fooled into thinking they're "pushing the boundaries of art." They're aware that it's just a music video, TV show, or movie -- not Michelangelo or Shakespeare. Hence they avoid the cluelessly earnest performances of the naively campy, and put on a deadpan parody of camp.

What examples are there? A lot of what is called black humor from the '80s and early '90s belongs to the genre. The humor in This Is Spinal Tap does not come from any old incongruity between earnestness and silliness -- they're parodying, in deadpan fashion, the well established (deliberate) camp style of glam rock and heavy metal. Ditto for Heathers -- not any old incongruity, but one that pokes fun at the then-ubiquitous (naive) camp of the Save the Children after-school specials. RoboCop, Total Recall, and Basic Instinct are all deadpan parodies of (naive) camp in the then-popular crime, action, and erotic thriller genres.

In TV, Twin Peaks has moments where the camp is played straight. Agent Cooper has all sorts of bizarre "Eureka!" moments and bizarre memos to his secretary that are deadpan parodies of the well established (deliberate) camp of detective shows like Get Smart. That gets amplified whenever he's paid a visit by Agent Rosenfield, the forensic analyst, or his boss Gordon Cole. Their interactions are even more caricatured than in the Get Smart style they're parodying, but it's all played completely deadpan.

To end on a more energetic note, here are two music videos by Toto Coelo. Both the songs themselves and the videos are deadpan parodies -- they are not sung in a self-consciously wacky style, but as though they were typical New Wave dance songs. And they are parodying well known camp styles: in the first, the Mid-century (deliberate) camp of the Tiki culture and Gilligan's Island; in the second, of the '60s (deliberate) camp of The Addams Family, The Munsters, and the Hammer horror movies.

"I Eat Cannibals"

"Dracula's Tango"

Now, Toto Coelo did not write their own songs, and I'm sure did not design the music videos. But they do give good deadpan parody performances, which is a difficult balancing act to pull off. This example shows how pervasive the style was -- even a one-hit wonder that made dance songs were able to contribute to a genre that we normally associate with clever and daring creators.

I'm not a fan of camp, but I like the way the deadpan parodies of it come off. Being parodies, they allow us to have a long-awaited laugh at some overblown piece of pop culture. But being deadpan, they're more sportsmanlike than the obvious parodies that come off as mere mockery. They feel more lighthearted and fun-loving. And just because they don't mock doesn't mean they are tributes, homages, or revivals. They're even more caricatured than the source material, clearly poking fun at it.

It's striking how rich in tone some of our taken-for-granted pieces of pop culture are.


  1. Those Mentos commercials were a crack-up. Incidentally, "Big Me" is the only Foo Fighters song I really like (not that I've heard them all though).

  2. Deadpan camp takes good acting skills. Mocking camp doesn't. As you've pointed out, acting degenerates during cocooning periods, as people have less experiences to draw from. That could explain in part the decline of camp.

  3. Well camp is very much alive in cocooning periods, like the Mid-century or Millennial era. It's easiest to see in ads, but also in "novelty songs" or figures like Carmen Miranda.

    I think camp resonates with audiences more in cocooning times because it allows a mask to be put up between performer and audience. You're not *really* showing emotion (genuine or acted), you're just turning up the wackiness of some persona.

    That lets the performer feel at ease -- they don't have to open up before strangers -- and the audience to feel like they're watching at a safe distance, not as though some performer is creepily opening up to them.


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