I stumbled upon this very funny video the other day on Funnyordie.com by Abby Elliott, one of Lorne Michaels’ better additions to the SNL cast in recent years. Here she stars as Gwyneth Paltrow, who, of all things, makes chicken during a very weird four minutes. I laughed all of the way through and then, thought, geez, that’s random. I don’t know how Elliott ever came up with that.
Especially funny moments seemed like something a star like Paltrow would say, such as the constant name-dropping. “Wes Anderson taught me how to do this” she says as she wraps tin-foil on the pan of chicken before putting it in the oven. Likewise, Deepak Chopra taught her how to slice lemons. A characteristic unfamiliarity with cooking (let’s face it, Gwyneth probably has had more personal chefs than friends) also marks Elliott’s performance. She curses when she picks up the chicken from the oven and immediately drops it.
Yet this performance seemed out of nowhere. No way would Gwyneth Paltrow, a megastar, actually release an internet video cooking a chicken dinner.
Oh, how I was wrong. This wannabe Martha has a whole line of lifestyle videos, Goop.com, that are almost as hilarious as Elliott’s video. In the real one, she is equally self-important, name-drops, and is about as unfamiliar with cooking as in the parody.
This raises the question: which is better—the parody or the primary source? In a mediated world inundated with parody, it’s a question not asked enough. Celebrities are willing to make fools of themselves, and can hardly keep pace with the comedians who are willing to make fools of them. More often than not, I would prefer the original over the copy—enjoying true life embarrassment and humiliation over the much milder facsimile.
Except in this case. Abby Elliott here embodies the best of parody—finding the funny moments, drawing them out, and remarking upon them in a funny way. So much parody is cheap, hitting the surface of why something is funny, the droll plot points—this person’s too old, too ugly, too stupid—that get old after the first hearing. But here Elliott digs deeper. It’s not enough to mock Paltrow. For example she doesn’t just wear a Kabbalah string, she constantly futzes with it, bringing attention to her faux-spiritualist aspirations. In parody, it’s not enough to wound egos; it’s those little slings and arrows that deflate them.