As gay men have stormed the mainstream, their sensibility has permeated the entertainment industry—but absent the sense of secret, “just us girls” knowledge that always characterized it. RuPaul told The Observer that the Internet makes the process of discovery easier: “Everything is on YouTube,” he said (speaking out of character), recalling a favorite clip from The Carol Burnett Show that someone had copied onto on VHS—routine viewing after a night at the club. “It is completely camp—she really gets it,” he said. But the fact that the clip is now a few keystrokes away tends to reduce its samizdat appeal.
In the crowded media market of today, entertainment companies “get” camp insofar as a certain sly humor helps bring in viewers. It’s a marketing technique, the least subversive thing imaginable.
The recently installed chairman of NBC Entertainment, Robert Greenblatt, is an openly gay man, best known for developing the gleefully profane likes of Dexter and Weeds on Showtime. That’s a very big deal, but the fact that Mr. Greenblatt is betting big on Smash may say less about his personal sensibility than about how gay the culture at large has become in the post-Glee, post-Dancing with the Stars era. Rather than smuggling an outré slant onto the airwaves, Mr. Greenblatt is going where the audience is—or so he hopes.
Camp emerged as a challenge to the traditional power structure, which is one reason it’s so hard to find now that openly gay men have found increasing acceptance. “Occasionally I’ll make complaints like that—things were better when gay was more dangerous and hidden,” said Mr. Musto, only half-seriously. “Oppression can be a pretty good aphrodisiac.”
As entertainers seek slices of an ever-shrinking audience, “camp” is still a dirty word: when we called Joan Rivers’s publicist to arrange an interview for this story, we were stonewalled. “She is not campy,” her publicist told us. (Tell that to the other panelists on Fashion Police!)
Even with all of the legal steps forward for the gay community, RuPaul argued that camp was still needed: “It has always been the refuge for people who are from our perspective,” he said. “Otherwise we couldn’t take all the hypocrisy and bullshit that this world would have us take for face value. With camp, at least we can laugh at it! You can’t take anything seriously.”
But Smash and Glee and American Horror Story and Lady Gaga all take themselves grievously seriously, and not in the failed-art sense that makes Showgirls or Baby Jane so much fun. They’re competent, solid, knowing. Referring to the 2010 Cher musical, Mr. DeCaro said, “If Burlesque had been so much worse, it would’ve been so much better.”
He added, “It feels like there’s a lot more bad-bad than there is good-bad right now, and there’s a lot of good-good too. Sometimes I wonder—is Showgirls once in a generation? Once in a lifetime?”
Camp like Showgirls depends on overextension. It requires mad artists to invest lavishly in a fatally flawed vision. Today, the “bad” in entertainment is execrable—intended for a common denominator devoted to it over the million other options. The “good” is for an audience on whom no reference shall be lost, produced by a corporation that can’t place too many potential risks on its ledger. Why bother making something bad-good in an original way when you can make something good according to formula? “Camp,” the chemical reaction between bad and good, cannot possibly bridge the gap between an Adam Sandler movie and a George Clooney one. Smash could be the most misguidedly ambitious thing anyone would have seen in 1975, but today it looks tame—what tastemaker’s going to watch an NBC drama that aspires to ER?
There are a few minutes where, despite itself, Smash betrays a marvelous ambition to dazzle that is beautiful and sad in a way that feels, well, camp. The camera cuts to a smirking, gorgon-like Anjelica Huston, watching her two pet divas try to outshriek one another. It’s a just a moment, but it offers a brief glimpse of just how good the show might be were it willing to be bad.
Maybe the Marilyn stuff will help. Said Ms. Hilty, of the Monroe appeal: “There’s so many levels to her and her story is tragic and beautiful and her whole life was centered around wanting to be loved. That’s something universal that everybody feels.”
If Smash wanted to be loved more than admired, it’d be an instant camp classic. Alas, it will probably just be a hit instead.