I spend a lot of time writing jokes (and non-jokes) about celebrities, and here's a secret about that trade: It's easy to get sick of celebrities! When Zooey Deschanel emerged as a breakout star on “New Girl,” it took about 20 minutes before every comic's version of an adorkable punchline felt stale and annoying, even if it was right on. The Justin Bieber renaissance was worse. He's still impossible to mock without feeling like a pox on humanity. Did you see his Comedy Central roast? That looked like a room of struggling pros to me. Only Martha Stewart and her artisanal, nutmeg-dappled prison jokes soared. Celebrities can often be reduced to one or two barbs (“Tom Cruise is delirious! And perhaps closeted!”), and if you have an assistant with Twitter, it doesn't take long to be in on those.
Fortunately there is an everlasting wellspring in the celebrity joke universe, and her name is Taylor Swift.
Pop stars are probably the ripest demographic of joke-worthy celebrities, and Taylor Swift is the most tantalizing candidate within that category thanks to the studied, agonizing precision with which she plays down her stardom. The bonus is that millions believe her. When she picks up a Grammy or a CMA or a Nobel Prize in Economics, she stands at the mic and her first word is always the same, bemused “Wow.” Taylor Swift built a career on catchy, relatable music, but she built her superstardom on believable line-readings of “Wow.”
The theatrical humility — itself a hilarious contradiction — is a treat, and not just because the “All About Eve” comparisons write themselves. To my eyes, Taylor Swift is the opposite of Madonna, even if they're both boardroom pros. Madonna's career is about seizing superstardom like a thunderbolt of Zeus and laying her most taboo ambitions bare for everyone to love or revile. Sexual superiority? Shocking vulnerability? Muscular perfection? Capitalistic sorcery? Quasi-guerrilla tonsil warfare with Drake? In her gall, Madonna is guileless. You know what she wants. She treats fame as an opportunity to ask herself, “What can I get away with today?” Sometimes she gets away with it, other times she doesn't, but she's always a fame game combatant with more wins on her record than losses. She is nerve personified, deified, and vilified.
Taylor Swift also considers fame a game — specifically, “Big Brother.” If you watch the CBS reality series, you're aware it's an exhausting exercise in diplomacy. It's about getting ahead by pretending to convey personality, sympathy, and trustworthiness when you're really offering no new information or perspective at all. The only real object is not to get voted out. The sweetness of Taylor Swift as joke fodder is that her aw-shucks veneer is nothing but a game move, a way to stave off a nomination for eviction. Bashfulness is her “Sex” book, a maneuver designed to keep her on the right side of pop's revolving door. Like Anna Kendrick, Chrissy Teigen, or Emma Stone, she makes you believe she's kind of rebellious for being laid-back and self-deprecating — as if those aren't the only two qualities for which we don't burn female celebrities.
Today she apologized for Twitter-rumbling with Nicki Minaj, but her initial tweet to Minaj is a perfect example of why she's a comic's dream. After Minaj groused about the lack of VMA Video of the Year-nominated clips featuring women of shapely proportions, Swift — a nominee in that category — replied, “I've done nothing but love & support you. It's unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot.” Using borrowed dialogue from feminist debates (e.g. “pitting women against each other”), she tried offering up the most anodyne version of “Step off my game.” The shamelessness with which she openly masks egotism as friendliness is pure Regina George, the campiest high school villain of the 21st century — and you know Taylor Swift thinks she's a Cady Heron. Perhaps the funniest thing about her jerry-built sweetness is there's actually nothing wrong with egotism, particularly if you're an active pop juggernaut. The Fort Knox-sized defense around her justified defensiveness is bizarre. And, I guess, necessary. But for someone who seems to spend a lot of time telling fans to embrace their weirdness, Swift denies even her faintest moments of unpalatability.
Until Taylor Swift lowers her glance like Madonna on “American Bandstand” and confesses that she does, in fact, want to rule the world, she'll always be one of the funnier characters in pop. For now, she's still confidently reporting that players gonna play, play, play. Wonder where she learned that.