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After ‘Rocky Horror’ Fizzles, Where Is Camp Now?

As the season of Halloween 2016 leaves us, first we must be thankful that the so-called trend of scary clowns died down quickly.

Second, we can revel in the fact that my wife and my costumes were cosplay nerdtastic. We were Mina Murray and Captain Nemo from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Hell yeah.

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And while the most racist reactions I got to the costume included a guy bowing while making a gong noise, and another guy asking if I were “one of those guys who email me asking for money,” an Indian man straight-up told me that my costume of this Sikh Indian prince resembled the garb of Indian kings in history.

Third, we can forget a subpar “Treehouse of Horror XXVII” on The Simpsons and FOX’s professionally lifeless production of Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again.

And fourth, we can celebrate that we stumbled onto a new face of Halloween joy: David S. Pumpkins.

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What is this Saturday Night Live haunted-hotel creation? His owwwnnnn thaaaaang. What about those b-boy skeletons? PART OF IT.

Thank Samhain for David Pumpkins, because he provided the oddball Halloween campiness that the latest Rocky Horror was missing.

I sure did enter RHPS 2016 with some moderate hopes. Sure, it would be on broadcast primetime TV, but then you pretty much can run the 1975 movie unedited now with little complaint. We’ve come that far.

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The casting of Laverne Cox as Dr. Frank N. Furter sounded like new ground for transgression. After all, tell me how many black trans women are starring on primetime broadcast TV?

My hopes took a hit in finding out that Kenny Ortega was directing this production. The man behind High School Musical, The Descendants and, yes, Xanadu isn’t a bad choice at all. However, would his eye and tone translate to a 1970s campy musical based on B-movies and rock music from the 1950s?

Ortega’s cast and crew were a little too polished, a little too professional. The cast and singing, too actually good. The slapdash, held-together-with-duct-tape feel that audiences are accustomed to, was gone. The sets were too pretty. Rocky the fabricated man’s gold short-shorts, not short enough. Frank’s not randy enough, not lascivious enough in a new way. For a show fueled by the rough and raucous, there wasn’t much of it here. (Adam Lambert came the closest, though. Loved him.)

But, instead of coming to pan RHPS 2016, I come here with a bigger game in mind. There’s little fun for me in comparing it to the 1975 film featuring some of the original show’s cast. That’s just me and my member berries, right? Besides, the show has been staged a lot of times since 1975, so it’s not just the movie.

No. I have a better idea. Watching RHPS 2016, it’s clear: We need new camp. New oddball. New queer. For this time. Because Rocky Horror, as much as folks may want, can’t really time do the time warp without giving up a lot of what it is.

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Camp in 2016 is not the same as camp in 1975. We’re over here, deep into the post-post-post-post-postmodern world. Everything has been remixed, chopped and screwed. We’ve already had 40 years of SNL. From Family Guy to the Austin Powers franchise, we have had decades of comedies whose go-to move is pop-culture spoofery and winking at the screen.

Our science fiction and fantasy material isn’t even the same. None of the mass-market stuff is cheap any more. Even the bad movies aren’t cheap, or at least don’t have to look bad. The RHPS opening song has references so bygone to modern pop audiences that this production had an usher walking past posters for those old B-movies.

We also have different gay panics in the 41 years since Rocky Horror debuted. Imagine the eyebrow-raising transgression in the Soap, Mapplethorpe, pre-AIDS period, not even a decade after the Stonewall riots.

But here we are, on the other side of Will & Grace, the liberal pansexualism of Kink.com and Shortbus, and legalized same-sex marriage. Frank N. Furter’s bisexual energy packs punch, still, but for those of us already queer or rainbow-friendly, this isn’t the shock so much any more.

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Perhaps RHPS 2016’s producers thought casting Laverne Cox as Furter would supply all the necessary edge. However, I think there is no edge if the production doesn’t tackle the transgender panic in the same way that the original goes after gay panic. Perhaps in the “Isn’t it nice?” seductions of Janet and Brad?

Now that would have been incredibly risky, to find a sweet spot that was delightfully tasteless. They’d have to stand resolute on owning whatever blowback such developments would get, given how fraught transgender issues are in our time amid discrimination, abuse and bigoted laws.

They’d want to avoid the revulsion-filled “twist” of The Crying Game that quickly was regurgitated into transphobic-in-hindsight comedy in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, or the fumbling of the villain Dagger Type in the Batgirl comic book. RHPS already features a cross-dressing villain, but it’s done joyously so and not as a plot device.

That said, there were things that were matter-of-fact in Cox’s casting, such as how much her voice would slide up and down the scale. It’s small potatoes to many with wider horizons, including me, but there’s something to be said for just going with it. Representation alone is transgressive, while also not transgressive enough. However, how fun that we have gotten to this point. There’s no turning back.

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And that’s the sad twist of fate in FOX’s production. We’re here trying to modernize something that will resist modernization at nearly every turn. While many slammed it for not being enough like the original, I think there’s not much of any way to make this modern, for the kids.

Rocky Horror Picture Show is so tied to 1975, and the pop culture that Richard O’Brien and Jim Steinman grew up on. O’Brien is 74. Steinman is 69. Kenny Ortega, who directed the FOX production, is 66. They get why Furter accosts Dr. Scott with an “Or is it von Scott?” referring to old Nazis in hiding, as explored in movies such as The Marathon Man and The Boys from Brazil. Those movies came out in 1976 and 1978, respectively.

That’s a long, long time in pop culture. I don’t expect “the kids” today to get it, given how much of a leap we’ve made from the 20th century. Time moves so much faster now. Rock hasn’t been kids’ main folk music for 20 years, and now you want them to dig showtunes based on doo wop? Hot patootie, bless my soul.

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Even John Waters can’t do good camp any more. His last comedy movie was the mixed-reviewed A Dirty Shame in 2004, and the bloom already was coming off the rose with Pecker (1998) and Cecil B. Demented (2000). Since then, Hairspray became an awesome musical and Waters has written rather earnest, funny memoirs.

People in today’s heyday need to make their own version of modern camp. Let them lampoon their own ideas and time period!

But here’s the rub: Unfortunately, I have grown up with baby boomers and Generation X telling me that their stuff was great, and their way was best. If I see one more Facebook meme comparing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls),” I’m gonna lose it. You know Freddie Mercury, a lover of R&B and glam, would have loved Beyoncé were he still alive. Search your feelings, you know it to be true.

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People can’t keep harping on something from 40 years ago being the greatest, and then want people to do new things rather than re-create the old stuff. Really, we just want the reboots to be good if the core concept can be translated to modern sensibilities and panics in the zeitgeist. Battlestar Galactica, for example, took a cheesy bit of post-Star Wars B-level television, and turned it into something speaking to issues of the 2000s such as gender and the Iraq war.

So, where do we find camp today?

I think works such as the Evil Dead musical, the Anchorman movies, some elements of Robot Chicken, the best Internet memes, or Lip Sync Battle is where camp is now. Music videos have had some good grounds for camp: Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money,” the Lady Gaga-Beyoncé jam “Telephone” and Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” have the overblown artifice, pop culture references, hit-them-in-the-throat/crotch comedy, and exploitation shocks you often see in good camp.

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It can’t be the same as camp was cultivated in the mid-20th century, most likely. Our prestige entertainment is so introspective now that even BoJack Horseman uses camp as its launchpad but then goes into the midnight of BoJack’s soul.

Today’s campiness has to be with the stuff that is resonant to the folks now, so basically stuff from the 1980s and ’90s. Even something such as Stranger Things could be campy, if it didn’t go for drama. I’m not even sure the upcoming Netflix series based on the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (ah, G.L.O.W.) will choose camp over playing it straight and gritty.

Now, if someone makes a Halloween musical recalling The Goonies in which it turns out that the Great Pumpkin is actually David Pumpkins, count me in.

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