When word arrived that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were expecting a child — news that set off an inescapable frenzy of anticipation for what would certainly be the most beautiful child ever — didn't you have a sneaking thought that some recessive ugly genes could produce a baby who was “a little goofy looking,” as the artist known as 14 put it on her Web site? Sacrilege in the hype-driven world of movie-star news, that idea was the inspiration for great satire on 14's Gallery of the Absurd, the best of many sites that skewer celebrity culture. She created an image of Brangelina and Child as the Holy Family, turning them into icons in the original Byzantine sense, complete with halos but with a child who looks a bit too much like Gollum from Lord of the Rings.
Smart celebrity satires are flourishing online — rarely anywhere else — and they do more than deflate the self-importance of stars. They also mock the gushing media that glorify them, and demonstrate that while taking tired potshots at stars is common (see any Britney-bashing episode of Saturday Night Live or Mad TV) satirizing TomKat or Brangelina so effectively that you expose the inane soul of celebrity culture itself is an art. In the form of artists' blogs, fake news stories and tongue-in-cheek analyses of fame, together these sites function like an underground movement, subverting the cult of celebrity even as they feed off it.
In the last year or so that movement has gained in sophistication and has grown rapidly online, thriving there for some of the usual reasons: the Web is fast, cheap and plays to short attention spans, so it can afford inconsistent wit. More specifically, Web satire can be rude, with the freedom to address the most ludicrous rumors, the kind that make magazine editors and television producers (sometimes even the tabloid kind) skittish.
The fake articles on Postcards From the Pug Bus, which does for celebrity what The Daily Show does for politics, sound so authentic that Tom Cruise's lawyer once demanded a retraction; his letter (reproduced on the site) insisted it was “false and defamatory” to say that Cruise “had a previous life, that he is old beyond reckoning, that he took his present form because ‘Bingodulla elected him to spread the gospel of Scientology.’”
Beneath such lunacy, these sites provide trenchant criticism of celebrity culture by turning the mainstream approach inside out. More than ever, stars have become the touchstones of everyday life, which accounts for the media obsession with their marriages and families. The reverent approach of People, Us Weekly and television infotainment like Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight depends on the illusion that the famous are Just Like Us (the title of a regular Us Weekly section, showing stars walking their dogs or eating ice cream cones).
Satirists recognize those starry images to be grotesque exaggerations of the ordinary. By making fun of the celebrities' delusions, missteps and puffed-up attitudes (flying a Los Angeles obstetrician to Namibia?), they show how distant the famous are from everyday life.
The caricatures that 14 posts weekly on Gallery of the Absurd (galleryoftheabsurd.com) display the qualities that make celebrity satire work. Her inventive Tom Cruise valentine, which playfully attacks the star and his spin, exaggerates his love-besotted public displays, depicting him as a grinning little guy wearing silly platform shoes, surrounded by cute valentine hearts. And it exposes the distance between that calculated image and what so much of the public thinks by adding Devil's horns and picking up on the widespread rumor of a TomKat legal agreement.