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Billionaires Run Amok on TV?

Satirist Terry Southern's Wacky Idea for Tube a Reality

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2004; Page C01

Ladies and gentlemen, let's have a big round of applause for the mad genius who prophesied television's latest craze!!! Put your hands together for Mister Terry Southernnnnn!!!!!

Terry? Where are you, Terry Southern? Don't be shy, Terry baby, come on out and take a bow!

Terry Southern's novel "The Magic Christian" became a mediocre movie starring Peter Sellers, right, and Ringo Starr. (Commonwealth United)

Oops. Sorry, folks, but Terry Southern is not here with us today. Terry couldn't make it because he's . . . um . . . deceased.

Southern, the legendary novelist, journalist and screenwriter, died back in 1995, way too soon for him to savor the exquisite pleasure -- or perhaps the hideous pain -- of seeing one of his most outrageous comic ideas come to life as the latest craze in reality TV, which is, of course, sadistic billionaires tormenting money-grubbing weasels.

As fans of what Southern used to call the "quality lit game" will no doubt recall, Southern was into sadistic billionaires tormenting money-grubbing weasels back when prime-time TV billionaires Donald Trump and Richard Branson were still schoolboys.

Back in the '50s and '60s, Southern was famous, the author of "Candy," a comic porn novel, as well as the screenplays of such classic movies as "Easy Rider," "The Loved One" and, best of all, the brilliantly demented Cold War comedy "Dr. Strangelove." Southern had a dark, sardonic wit and he traveled in the hippest of circles, hanging out with the Rolling Stones, Allen Ginsberg and Lenny Bruce. He was so cool the Beatles put his face on the cover of their "Sgt. Pepper" album.

In 1960, Southern published a novel called "The Magic Christian," the comic tale of Guy Grand, a billionaire who amuses himself by staging elaborate pranks that cause people to reveal how much they're willing to degrade themselves for money.

In the book's most famous scene, Grand buys a building in downtown Chicago, demolishes it and builds a gigantic vat perched atop a huge gas heater. He fills the vat with 300 cubic feet of manure, urine and blood purchased from the Chicago stockyards. When this hellish cocktail is nice and hot, he stirs 10,000 $100 bills into it and puts up a sign that reads "FREE $ HERE."

And then. . . . well, people will do just about anything for money, won't they?

"The Magic Christian" became an underground classic, and in 1969, it became a mediocre movie starring Peter Sellers, Ringo Starr and Racquel Welch.

By then, Southern's heyday was past. His career collapsed about the time yippies became yuppies. When he died in 1995, he was widely dismissed as a '60s period piece.

But sometimes even the most outrageous, outlandish satire has a way of coming true.

A few years after Southern died, a new kind of TV program was born: "reality" shows such as "Survivor" and "Fear Factor," which showed average Americans eating rats and bugs for a chance to win big bucks. To those aging souls who remembered "The Magic Christian," that seemed vaguely familiar. The only thing missing was the sadistic billionaire.

Enter Donald Trump. Last year, as everybody who watches TV knows, Trump got his own reality show -- "The Apprentice," in which he torments young sycophants vying for the dubious pleasure of working for him. Every week, he puts the little weasels through some horrific task, which ends with him bellowing, "You're fired!"

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