I have not written much here about camp, because that’s a great big topic and this is a very small blog, and if I were to go off on too far of a quasi-academic tangent, I think that hundreds of you would hit the back button and never return, but Stanley Ralph Ross’s episode “That Darn Catwoman” is a really good place to pause and indulge me a little.
If you’ve never read Susan Sontag’s essay Notes on “Camp” before, you really should, because it’s incredibly interesting. As an aside, one of the things I like to play with is that pretty much everything that we may consider as camp today – Jack in Will & Grace, Anthony Ainley and/or Paul Darrow in Doctor Who, armies of shirtless men in Bananarama videos, and, of course, the entire Batman show – came after Sontag defined the term. If you read the essay, she comes up with some completely surprising examples, like Aubrey Beardsley drawings and Warner Brothers musicals of the 1930s, which really makes her point so much clearer. It’s been diluted by decades of people being too deliberate, rather than genuine.
So while genuine camp has often been obfuscated by incredibly mannered and affected acting in the modern day, with actors – most obviously Sean Hayes as Jack – really playing to expectations of type in an unnatural way, Batman was often pretty effortless in its goofball naivete. So if you were to ask me what’s the most camp episode of the series, I’d argue it’s this one, without a doubt.
Exhibit A: Pressed to portray a drugged and evil Robin, Burt Ward has no clue whatsoever what he should be doing. That should be all that’s necessary to give this one the award, but then there’s Catwoman’s new protege.
Exhibit B: Pussycat is played by Lesley Gore, who, halfway through the episode, brings the show to a screeching halt because Gore had a new record in the charts that week and she needed to sing it to Catwoman’s henchmen. (It’s “California Nights,” which was her final hit in the US.) I think that casting Lesley Gore effectively straddles both Sontag’s original explanation that genuine camp is natural and without affectation, and the more modern and deliberate mutation of what we perceive. On the one hand, while Lesley Gore is a wonderful singer, she doesn’t seem to know what the heck she’s doing in this show, and on the other, perhaps larger hand, Gore is one of that crowd of sixties female singers who got big new audiences years later after male singers with large gay fan bases (Neil Tennant, Calvin Johnson, Morrissey) started championing them. Bryan Ferry covered “It’s My Party” on his first solo record – yes, a 28 year-old man singing as a 14 year-old girl – and there’s not a cabaret or drag club in the western world that hasn’t had a queen lip-synching to Lesley Gore since.
Exhibit C: Batman tells Catwoman: “I find you odious, abhorrent, and insegrievious.” The line was so ridiculous that Gary Owens started using it on Laugh-In a year later. Adam West delivers it as naturally as he might order a pizza.
Thanks for the indulgence, we’ll get closer to normalcy with part two tomorrow night!