The New York Times, 10/8/06


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 Mr. 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 ( 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.

“BE MINE. ALL MINE!!!” the valentine reads, “But first you must sign this contract” (with a pen that has an alien’s head) and “become a Scientologist.” As the sardonic text accompanying the caricature reads, “Nothing says love like signing a $5 million contract agreement to pose as a loving companion to a tiny man with a very large ego.”

An artist in her late 30’s who uses her real name, Erin Norlin, in her day job as an illustrator, 14 started the site in May 2005. It now gets 17,000 to 20,000 hits a day, she says; a line of Gallery of the Absurd greeting cards, including the Cruise valentine, can be e-mailed from “

When I look at Star magazine or at Us, it’s like looking at a comic book,” she said in a phone interview. “I’m interested in the characters that gossip turns these celebrities into.”

That attitude — rejecting even the illusion that these celebrity-figures are any more real than holograms — goes to the heart of why celebrity satire is trickier to pull off than political satire, which seems to be everywhere. Pug Bus ( began as a political satire blog after the 2004 election, said its founder, Phil Maggitti. A retired freelance writer and editor, at 63 he is as far from the typical Web demographic as you can get.

He stumbled into the celebrity niche after writing a fake news article about Brad Pitt. “I discovered that bashing the president didn’t get you as many hits,” he said. Although the site still has political satire, its traffic (5,500 visitors a day in September) is “almost entirely driven by celebrity,” he added. Since it began, the site has expanded to include other writers, but its staff also includes several of Mr. Maggitti’s alter egos, like Biff Scuzzy and Chip Hilton (no relation to Paris). The mock-news articles begin close to reality, sometimes with facts themselves, then veer into territory so outlandish yet logical that the satire is both silly and scarily plausible.

“Anna Nicole Smith Selling Dead Son’s Personal Effects, Ashes,” reads the headline on a story that landed soon after Ms. Smith sold those hospital-bed photos of herself, her soon-to-be-dead 20-year-old son and her newborn baby to In Touch magazine and television. The story included an all-too-realistic fake quotation from an actual person, Howard K. Stern, Ms. Smith’s lawyer, who later announced on “Larry King Live” that he is the infant’s father. The fictional Stern asks the public “to respect Anna’s privacy at this difficult moment” as she decides on “a fair pricing structure for her son’s personal effects and remains.”

What the piece ultimately attacks is Ms. Smith’s icky complicity in her own media spectacle, a sophisticated criticism that sets Pug Bus apart from the plethora of sophomoric humor sites like Cracked ( and College Humor (

Pug Bus and Gallery of the Absurd are also more consistently funny than the Onion (, which, like many sites, is better at satirizing politics than celebrity. Addressing life-or-death stakes, political satire is often driven by anger and partisanship. Celebrity culture is more elusive. Its genuine appeal is that it offers the escapism of a demented fairy tale, playing to the public’s envy of wealth, beauty and fame, as well as to its schadenfreude about sham marriages, drug problems and other common blights of celebrity life.

Satire is even more difficult because celebrity news often arrives in the form of ready-made jokes. A celebrity news and gossip site like TMZ ( can be funnier than any attempt at comic spin. “B-List Baby Pics — Who’s Cashing In?” read a droll headline on a story speculating about the amount that lesser celebrities like Sharon Stone and Heidi Klum might get paid if they chose to sell photos of their infants. The idea that there are B-list babies has the mad, slightly cruel plausibility of satire.

Celebrity culture’s built-in absurdity also explains why so many satiric Web sites are only intermittently clever. Among the wittier sites, Fametracker ( is an odd mix that at times wryly worships stars in a section called “Hey! It’s That Guy!” featuring minor actors whose faces are more familiar than their names. But at its irreverent best the site charts the stars’ fortunes in its Galaxy of Fame, where Harrison Ford is the sun, and the shifting cast of planets veers closer to or farther from his light.

Recently Adrien Brody became “Saturn — A Healthy Stroll” away from the center, as he wondered why every word written about his new film, “Hollywoodland,” had to mention Ben Affleck’s comeback. “What about my career?” the fake Brody asked. “I’ve done a lot to run it into the ground.” But weeks and months have elapsed between Galaxy updates; whole careers come and go faster.

The gentle tone of lesser sites also characterizes the television series devoted to celebrity satire, like “The Showbiz Show With David Spade,” just renewed for a third season on Comedy Central. Mr. Spade’s snarky persona is too grating and his humor too tired to endure for a half hour, even with features and interviews added to his signature fake celeb newscasts. In one typically lame joke he announced that Brangelina and family were coming home from Namibia, then whispered to the camera, “Let’s all pretend we didn’t even know they were gone.”

“Best Week Ever,” a weekly show on VH-1, may be even less creative, with comics making mocking comments after showing clips or photos of celebrity idiocy. That’s the definition of redundancy. The Best Week Ever Web site ( is just as obvious, although by trolling there you can find the occasional gem, like a video (originally from the television show) in which the real New York 1 reporter Pat Kiernan announces the breaking news that the police are searching for Matthew McConaughey’s missing shirt and displays a police artist’s rendering of the T-shirt; it’s the cleverest of many Web attempts to make fun of his constant display of abs.

Celebrity satire should work on television; when the creators of “South Park” go after Hollywood, they do it as fast and as brilliantly as anyone. There just hasn’t been the right alchemy — the mix of writers, sensibility and a star like Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert — to make a brilliant celebrity satire series.

And there’s another major factor working against television satire: big money. The more expensive a form, the less it can afford to defy the mainstream. A glance at the Web reveals how easily an irreverent site can be co-opted. One of the funniest on-line celebrity satires is a video spoof on iFilm ( called “Mel Gibson’s Signs of Anti-Semitism.”

The video uses scenes of Mr. Gibson in M. Night Shyamalan’s movie “Signs,” but here the Gibson character finds Jews everywhere rather than extraterrestrials. He is horrified when he spots a Star of David in his field instead of alien crop circles. When he discovers an alien locked in a closet, what emerges is not a scary hand as in the film, but the sound of Adam Sandler singing his “Hanukkah Song.” Good luck finding anything else as clever on iFilm or YouTube (, sites now loaded with movie trailers, clips from television shows and other big-business gambits.

There is no better reason that the little satiric Web sites have a value way out of proportion to their relatively tiny audiences. They prove that while celebrity culture is everywhere, it is not monolithic. Smart people pay attention too, if only to make the best jokes.