A month ago, a billboard advertising Lifetime’s latest cautionary tale-style movie, to join the ranks of such films as The Bride He Bought Online and I Killed My BFF, appeared on Hollywood Boulevard. Although some past Lifetime movies have drawn some media attention prior to their release–The Pregnancy Pact, in particular, gaining a serious online following before it even aired in January of 2010–the attention this new film, A Deadly Adoption, received had nothing to do with its uncanny resemblance to real events (though both films claim to be inspired by true stories). Instead, it was the two heads hovering at the billboard, over a pregnant woman standing on a dock, which propelled the Internet into wild speculation. At the helm of this Lifetime movie, both looking a little resolute and a little alarmed in profile on the billboard, were comedians Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig. The tagline: “The birth of a plan gone wrong.”
This was not the first we’d heard of Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig’s collaboration with Lifetime. In April, the secret project was leaked to the public and Ferrell issued a statement to Entertainment Weekly that he’d scrapped the entire thing. But here it was on a billboard, effectively the birth of a plan gone wrong, claiming to air Sunday, June 20, despite the fact that June 20 was a Saturday.
The Internet speculated that perhaps Ferrell and Wiig had convinced Lifetime to allow them to make A Deadly Adoption ironically. In other words, they’d spoof the genre on the very channel where it was more or less born. We’d see Ferrell’s patented “glass case of emotion” level of overacting coupled with Wiig’s trademark phoning it in, as when she performed an impression of Michael Jordan on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in which she covered her hair, wore a jersey, and knew next to nothing about Jordan. It’s a comedic unpreparedness that we have seen in both her 2013 Golden Globe Awards presentation with Will Ferrell and her regular Garth and Kat sketch on Saturday Night Live. There’s a hint at these performances on the billboard: Ferrell looking spooked and a little fragile, Wiig giving off an expression of resolute confusion.
Certainly, A Deadly Adoption had the potential to be one big joke. A Deadly Adoption was written by Andrew Steele, the co-creator of IFC’s The Spoils of Babylon, a miniseries that parodied sprawling epics á la The Thornbirds and even featured Ferrell and Wiig. The film was produced by Adam McKay, creator of Funny Or Die and the mind behind Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers. In addition to being leading man, Ferrell is also one of the executive producers, claiming that he is a big fan of Lifetime movies. It seemed that Lifetime was taking its hands off of the movie to allow Steele, McKay, Ferrell, and Wiig to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary by propelling the network into self-parody.
Except they played the entire thing straight.
According to Entertainment Weekly, A Deadly Adoption is not “a parody … but rather a ‘high-stakes dramatic thriller’ with a knowing wink at the type of TV movies that the network is famous for.” The move was somehow a little brilliant. It caught its audience off-guard, left them reeling to try to piece together where the irony was, what the joke was here. After all, fans of Ferrell and Wiig professed to be watching A Deadly Adoption ironically, not because they found Lifetime movies particularly entertaining but because they found the idea of the comedians “trolling” the genre hilarious. But there was no hilarity to be found in A Deadly Adoption. Though Wiig and Ferrell have previously appeared in “serious” acting roles–Wiig in The Skeleton Twins, Ferrell in Stranger Than Fiction–both had used their comedic chops to create moments of levity. But even the final sequence of the family dancing in the kitchen swerved from the hilarious lip-syncing scene in The Skeleton Twins and instead hovered between corny and heartwarming.
The audience was left wondering if the joke was on them. The winks Entertainment Weekly hinted at are fairly pervasive through Lifetime’s movies; the network is pretty aware of its reputation and its audience. It seemed less like Wiig and Ferrell were mocking a genre, or even that Lifetime had called their bluff, than that the audience was actually the butt of the joke. They were being trolled. Lying somewhere between prank and insult, trolling involves feigning genuineness or obliviousness to intentionally provoke a reaction. In the case of A Deadly Adoption, the audience was lured in believing the film would be an outright lampoon and instead were left sifting through what they had seen and wondering where they could pull out the joke. There had to be a punch line somewhere.
I’m reminded of Andy Kaufman, whose death in 1984 remains rumored as a piece of comedy. During his career, Kaufman was famous for performances that often verged into a kind of trolling. For example, one regular act involved Kaufman standing next to a record player turning out the “Mighty Mouse” theme song. During the song, Kaufman was otherwise motionless, a little frightened under the lights, his fingers nervous at his sides. Only at one line–“Here I come to save the day!”–would Kaufman raise a hand and lip-sync with great enthusiasm before resuming his previous stillness. His impersonations predated Wiig’s in their intentional awfulness, their total ineptitude. He told jokes incorrectly, he messed up punch lines, he was funny because he was an outright failure at being funny. He understood the trademarks of comedy and failed at them, because he knew the abjectly humorless was somehow hilarious.
At thirty-five, Kaufman died suddenly of lung cancer. It’s been said that at his funeral, mourners prodded their fingers into the casket to see if Kaufman would move, believing he might at any moment leap from the casket and declare his death to be another joke. A good thirty-one years later, fans still speculate Kaufman will emerge and bring an end to the joke. A faked death: the ultimate act of trolling.
Considering A Deadly Adoption through the lens of Andy Kaufman, I have to wonder what it is about the nature of comedy, or perhaps instead of perception of comedians, that sends us searching for a joke whenever they appear (or disappear, in Kaufman’s case.) Certainly, we think, Kaufman’s career was not cut short by tragedy in the same way that Will Ferrell didn’t just want to work in a genre he enjoyed. We try to find something deeper, some other motivation. We are wary of comedy because at its root is a trick, a turnaround, a suspension or flouting of expectations. We cannot trust comedians to be genuine when genuineness is so often their lure.
A popular joke/party trick goes as follows: “Two polar bears are sitting in a bathtub. The first one says, ‘hey, pass the soap.’ The second replies, ‘no soap. Radio!’” Everyone but one person laughs. This isn’t because that one person doesn’t get the joke–he or she is just the victim–but instead that the joke is intentionally nonsensical and the other participants, or co-conspirators, want to see if the victim will laugh. Inevitably, he or she usually does. Maybe the real comedy of A Deadly Adoption is actually in our own attempts to understand it as comedic. We twist it this way and that, we study the actors’ faces for signs of bemusement. We say we get it, that we are in on the joke, but perhaps the joke is truly on us.
Image: Still from “A Deadly Adoption” (Gary Sanchez Productions, 2015).