My World of Flops, Excelsior Case File # 106/My Year of Flops II #3: Stripperella
When Stan Lee died at 95 the world mourned a giant. The world mourned a creator. But the Shakespeare-level creator that an adoring public is still in the lengthy, perhaps never-ending process of mourning was clearly many years removed from his period of peak productivity.
In his final years Lee’s job, and one he did masterfully, was to serve as the public face and avuncular soul and spirit of Marvel in all mediums, to serve as a mascot whose grinning, soothingly familiar visage could be seen briefly but memorably in pretty much every Marvel movie post Iron Man. Needless to say, Marvel puts out a LOT of movies.
Lee’s noble destiny towards the end was not to create new characters who might catch on with the public the way previous inventions like The Fantastic Four did but rather to be Stan the Man, the human personification of Marvel as a company and comic books as a medium.
Lee brought his super-powers of self-promotion to Stripperella, a smutty, non-Marvel Spike TV collaboration with Pamela Anderson Lee about a stripper/secret-agent/kinda-superhero-maybe that ran for one season in 2003, a few years before 2007’s Iron Man ushered in the current Age of Marvel. Stripperella has subsequently been forgotten, a smutty joke that didn’t quite land.
During the time of its brief, unmourned existence, Lee sold the hell out of Stripperella. In full-on pitchman mode he gave a public whose tastes and needs he understood on a profound level the hard sell on the character and the TV show as an inevitable multi-media dynamo whose saucy, buxom charms would soon be spilling out all over pop culture, not just on her eponymous television show but also in merchandising and comic books and the inevitable film adaptation, for which there would be a massive talent search to play the lead, never mind that the character makes no sense outside the cult of Pamela Anderson.
On paper at least, the show exuded a certain vulgar appeal, appealing as it did to both the public’s enduring love of campy secret agent shenanigans and enormous naked breasts. It was going to be Adam West’s Batman but with big boobs, T&A and tee hee hee, camp with a kitschy heroine with a tramp stamp. And the nudity! Such nudity you’ve never seen on basic cable before, in such volumes that it becomes distracting, even off-putting! Such nudity that’ll make you say, “Wait, are they allowed to show naked boobs on basic cable?”
When I was a teenager, the notion of nudity being gratuitous or distracting from a movie or TV show would have struck me as preposterous. The non-essential display of naked breasts wasn’t a creative fault to me back then. It was the essence of life. It was the raison d’être of human civilization, the reason movies were made, songs were sung, indeed, why human art proceeded beyond the cave-painting phase.
That was a long time ago so I spent much of Stripperella irritated by its endless parade of animated T&A. Has anything ever been made funnier by the addition of enormous naked breasts gyrating rhythmically? True, these naked nipples were pixilated in the episodes that aired on Spike TV, which adds an additional level of pointlessness to the endeavor. What’s the point of showing naked breasts when you can’t actually show naked breasts?
You’ve got to at least give the show credit for truth in advertising. True, it was pitched as a Stan Lee superhero show and is more of a secret agent show but boy oh boy does Stripperella live up to the “stripper” part of its title. If you enjoy seeing animated stripping that isn’t shy about the bold display of nipples then this is the show for you.
Anderson, who also serves as a Creative Consultant, voices Erotica Jones, a humble stripper who leads a glamorous and dangerous secret life as the titular crime-fighter, Agent 69 (that’s funny because it’s a sex number!) for a clandestine agency that fights evil and a series of campy, cartoonish super-villains.
Stripperella is at once a dazzlingly efficient secret-agent and a ditz we’re invited to ogle and leer at as something approaching a pure sex object. She also, unsurprisingly shares Anderson’s beliefs about animal rights (she is a supporter of the organization Animals Need Universal Support, or A.N.U.S for the giggling twelve year old boys out there who composed the show’s target audience) and will directly address the camera to express them.
Stripperella reminded me a lot of of Striptease, which was similarly undone by a clothes-shedding sex symbol of a lead actress who doesn’t seem to be in on the joke, or even particularly cognizant that they’re in a raunchy, irreverent lowbrow comedy and not a drama about grimly determined heroines overcoming obstacles.
Erotica/Stripperella is consistently and predictably the least entertaining and funny aspect of the show. The farther removed from her, the funnier any individual element is liable to be. That’s partially because she’s cursed with playing straight woman to grotesque villains and bumbling, leering comic relief. But that’s also because there isn’t much to the character.
You know you’ve attained a curious form of fame when “You as a super hero” somehow becomes a palatable commercial conceit and something people might be willing to pay money to experience. Stripperella is essentially Pamela Anderson as a superhero. Stripperella has Anderson’s bombshell dimensions, sex kitten purr, fierce animal rights conviction and famous weakness for bad boys and hunks, particularly of the musical variety. She’s ambiguously super powered but also fumbles over her words and is unlucky in love in ways that are supposed to be humanize her and make her more relatable but instead serve to further soften a character that’s already cotton candy to begin with.
Also, Pamela Anderson in a campy, kitschy, self-aware comedy would be more of a draw if that didn’t pretty much describe everything she’s done, from VIP to Stacked to her supporting turn in the dreadful Baywatch movie.
Stripperella reminded me of Barberella in the sense that it’s a hip, sexy, swinging and totally with it satire that, alas, is not, ultimately hip, swinging, sexy, with it, swinging, funny or satirical but rather a labored, clunky, ultimately clunky attempt to give audiences something to laugh at while masturbating furiously.
I am not disparaging TV shows or movies created to help facilitate feverish self-pleasuring. That’s what the entirely honorable pornography industry is devoted to: aiding humanity by giving people something to look at while pawing at themselves in an onanistic orgy of self-love. But there’s a reason porn is more or less exclusively devoted to helping people gratify themselves sexually: when entertainment is that focused on serving as an aid to self-pleasuring it’s hard for it to do anything else satisfactorily, like, say, make audiences laugh or immerse them in an intriguing and challenging mystery.
The brain trust behind Stripperella seems to have realized just how dramatically the softcore, peep show element of the show clashes with its superhero and sitcom elements because halfway through its run the animation style changed dramatically along with the tone. The characters became softer, rounder, more cartoonish-looking and less pornographic in design and animation. The change suited the show, as did a scaling back on the “erotic” elements but the material remained just as uninspired.
Stripperella’s answer to Q are a pair of nerdy weapons experts, one white and short, the other tall and black, whose primary motivation in life seems to be finding an excuse to get their grubby, sweaty, yearning little hands all over the titular character’s erogenous zones. This is, of course, played for naughty laughs but today feels problematic and in questionable taste. But then the ostensible appeal of the show was that it was proudly, unapologetically naughty in a post-South Park, post-Austin Powers way. It was “politically incorrect”, raunchy, thumbing its nose at propriety and good taste.
Stripperella is deliberately offensive. Some of its attacks on propriety feel like the product of the dire period post-There’s Something About Mary when opportunistic lowbrow filmmakers competed in a race to the bottom to dream up and execute the most stomach-churningly tasteless comic tableau, mostly just punishing moviegoers in the process. This is most apparent in the character of Agent 14, a more or less competent co-worker of Stripperella’s who wears a protective helmet and is “comically” mentally challenged. He’s a “special” agent in more than one sense of the word.
In keeping with the rest of Lee’s oeuvre, Stripperella is a fourth wall busting post-modern extravaganza that is continually winking at the audience and celebrating its artifice and acknowledging the groaning cliches of the medium in ways that grow progressively less funny as the series progresses. Stripperella makes almost no effort to hide her secret identity from her coworkers, loved ones or the public at large but no one seems to notice or care. Similarly, Erotica is a Pamela Anderson and Kid Rock super-fan and thinks she looks just like the Playboy sex symbol but other people just don’t see it, a running joke that limps along, growing less and less funny.
What’s frustrating about Stripperella is that there are flashes of real comic invention, even wit, throughout, like a bad guy named Cheapo who looks and acts like a thrift-store Joker, pulls off literally penny ante crimes like knocking off “Take a penny, Leave a penny” trays and wishing wells before building up to stealing the world’s largest Cubic Zirconia. Cheapo lives up to his name to the extent that he and his two underpaid henchmen are forced to share a single gun to cut down on costs.
The sheer randomness of Stripperrella can be a delight. Deep into a dreadful episode characterized by more dire than usual double entendres involving a “Dr. Clitoris” whose island, needless to say, is bushy and wet and down under and covered with crabs, we briefly survey an out of control party at the strip club that Stripperella is missing that features not just Kid Rock and Pamela Anderson but also a 1980-era “Cheech” Marin, a middle-aged James Brown and a drunken monkey throwing beer bottles back and forth with American pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic, who appears on the show twice without delivering any lines, the second time when Cheapo makes him an offer he can, should, and does refuse to join him on a surreally pointless heist.
There’s funny stuff in the margins of Stripperella but the grand gestalt stubbornly does not work. Instead of ratcheting up the tawdry, pandering sexuality of comic books to comic and satirical extremes, Stripperrella ramps them up to levels it imagines are sexy and titillating but just end up further undermining comedy that was shaky to begin with. The show seems to imagine that naked breasts and a juvenile conception of female sexuality can only ever be assets when they’re huge detriments in the wrong context.
According to Wikipedia, “In 2003, ex-stripper Janet Clover, a.k.a. "Jazz", a.k.a. "Stripperella", filed a lawsuit in the Daytona Beach, Florida circuit court against Viacom, Stan Lee, and Pamela Anderson, claiming she is Stripperella's true creator and Stan Lee stole her idea when she discussed it during a lap dance. Clover filed the original suit herself without an attorney as she said she couldn't afford the $6,000 lawyer fee.”
For people who subscribe to the popular conception of Lee as a sleazy, selfish idea thief and self-promoter who shamelessly ripped off Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, among others, the image of old Stan the Man getting his latest billion dollar idea not just from a professional sex worker but during an actual lap dance is irresistible and utterly damning. It almost doesn’t matter to these folks whether or not it’s true. It sure seems like the kind of thing that could be true.
Wikipedia goes on to dryly propose that the bad publicity from the lawsuit “as well as creative differences led to the show's demise” but I’m not sure the show could have succeeded under any circumstances.
The show was pitched as Stan the Man’s return to creation but while the show’s vulgarity, campiness, broad humor, winking post-modernism and superhero milieu all make this feel like a bona fide Stan Lee production the raunch and mean-spiritedness feels weirdly off-brand for the Marvel maven.
An unmistakable child-like innocence informs so much of Lee’s art and life but Stripperella is smutty and self-consciously naughty in a decidedly juvenile or adolescent fashion.
When Lee put his energy and name behind Stripperella he could not have imagined how dramatic and intense the decade and a half ahead of him would be. He could not have foreseen just how massive his creations would become, how they would take over pop culture and become a multi-billion dollar multi-media with Dr. Octopus-like tentacles spreading everywhere. But he also could not have imagined that in his final years he’d be the subject of dark whispers of elder abuse and exploitation.
Lee’s life was a roaring, epic, two-fisted melodrama full of highs and lows. Needless to say, Stripperella was not one of the highs but there are moments throughout that suggest the sly marvel that could have been if the late in the game superhero spoof weren’t so self-defeatingly intent on being “sexy” above all else.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco