I've been thinking a lot lately about the state of camp.
I recently reviewed Evil Dead: The Musical, a satirical musical based on a series of movies that parody the horror film genre. In other words, I was watching a spoof of a spoof. And while I was entertained, I kept asking myself What's the point?
I'm old enough that I remember when camp was considered clever; when it still seemed "new" and slightly naughty. A movie like Phantom of the Paradise (1974), which was a rock musical based on, among other things, Faust and Phantom of the Opera, seemed very adult and counter-culture with all its arcane comic references to things that now seemed silly. It was a send-up of old horror films that made fun of its own pre-punk soundtrack, written and on some tracks performed by Paul Williams. Who ever heard of such a thing?
Well, Richard O'Brien had. His Rocky Horror Show in 1973 launched not only a subgenre of musical that's haunted us ever since, but popularized camp in a manner from which we'll never recover. Almost 40 years after O'Brien spoofed cheesy sci-fi flicks on the musical stage (and, later, in the film version), the postmodern musical has begun to double back on itself. Today, we have movie versions of stage musicals based on films that themselves were spoofs of old movies. Need proof? Think of Hairspray, a recent movie adaptation of a Broadway hit that was based on a movie by John Waters that riffed on old movie musicals.
I called my friend Lisa Sutton to ask her about this. Lisa has spent her entire life thinking about--and writing about--pop culture and its impact on our everyday lives; she's the only person currently living who can explain the impact of the Cowsills on the punk movement and have it make sense. I told Lisa that I was confused about the point of a spoof of a satire of a send-up, and she didn't roll her eyes; she's that kind of person.
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You can ask her anything and she won't get mad; in order to piss off Lisa Sutton, you have to confuse the Hudson Brothers with Andy and David Williams. Then, look out. "If more people have seen Young Frankenstein than have read the novel it's based on," Lisa told me, "it's because we're growing increasingly more lazy. We don't want to consider the literary significance of Mary Shelly, we want to be reminded that when we were kids we thought that Universal horror movies were scary. We want to watch a show that's essentially a repeat of The Munsters, with funny songs."
In other words, we want the entertainment equivalent of comfort food: A show that's nostalgic but that also makes fun of itself, so that we don't have to take it seriously. We want rehashed material because it's familiar and reminds us of a time when we were younger and happier; a play or a movie or a musical that references things we already know, so that we don't have to actually think about what we're seeing. The result is that camp is now mainstream.
Which only makes me wonder: What happens when we run out of spoofs to spoof?