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!
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!"
Trump's show became the highest-rated program in America. Inevitably, it spawned copycats. In September, another egomaniacal billionaire -- Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team -- got his own reality show. "The Benefactor" enabled Cuban to torment another gaggle of striving weasels before firing them one by one.
Cuban's egomania proved less telegenic than Trump's and "The Benefactor" was canceled. But that didn't stop the relentless march of sadistic billionaire shows. Two premiered this week on Fox, which is, perhaps coincidentally, the network owned by sadistic billionaire Rupert Murdoch.
The most hyped of the new shows is "The Rebel Billionaire," in which egomaniacal billionaire Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Airlines, torments -- yes, you guessed it -- money-grubbing weasels willing to debase themselves for a chance to work for him.
"They will do anything to win!" a breathless announcer bellowed at the start of the first episode Tuesday. "They'll have to go through hell and back!"
A few minutes later, Branson was taking the weasels up 10,000 feet and making them walk a plank between two hot-air balloons. It was enough to make Guy Grand's little vat of stew seem positively inviting.
The second new billionaire show is even grander. It's called "My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss," and it's billed as "the most outrageous con in the history of television." This time, the billionaire is a fake -- just an actor impersonating an egomaniacal tycoon -- and he puts his weasels through ordeals that Guy Grand would have loved.
In the first episode last Sunday, he divided the weasels into two teams -- the guys against the girls -- then sent them out to panhandle on the streets of Chicago, not far from the site of Grand's fictitious vat. He punished the losing team -- the guys -- by making them sleep in a vacant lot in a slum neighborhood. And he rewarded the winners by letting them sleep on mattresses filled with money!
As it turns out, money makes lousy bedding material and the gals toss and turn all night, muttering, "These mattresses suck!"
Terry? Where are you, Terry Southern? Reality has finally Trumped your weirdest fantasy and it's time to take a bow.
Southern is unavailable for comment, but his son, Nile Southern, says he's noticed the similarities between "The Magic Christian" and the billionaire shows.
" 'The Rebel Billionaire' -- isn't that Guy Grand incarnate?" he says, laughing.
Southern, 43, edited "Now Dig This," a 2001 collection of his father's writings and recently published "The Candy Men," a book about the strange story of "Candy." He can imagine how his old man would react to the billionaire shows.
"I think he would look at them and he'd say, 'Wow!' " he says. "I think he's gathered around with the ghosts of Michael O'Donoghue and Lenny Bruce and looking at all this with astonishment. And chuckling."
In Terry Southern's first novel -- "Flash and Filigree," published in 1958 -- he invented a TV show, his son recalls. It was a game show called "What's My Disease?" On it, a panel tried to guess what ailment was tormenting the week's guest.
"The first question was always, 'Can you speak?' " Niles Southern says, laughing. "Then the questions got weirder -- do you have a goiter?"
(Memo to Murdoch: This might work on Fox. Maybe the guest could win a year's free medical insurance?)
"I think this would be a perfect time to do a remake of 'The Magic Christian,' " Southern says.
In fact, a Hollywood producer is trying to do that. Marc Toberoff works for Intellectual Properties Worldwide, which owns the screen rights to the novel, and he sees the reality TV connection as a prime selling point.
"That's how we pitch it," Toberoff says. "When we pitch the movie, we say, 'This movie is more relevant today than when the book was written due to all these reality shows.' "
Toberoff recounts the scenes in "Fear Factor" where the contestants sit in a box full of bees or climb into a pit of snakes.
"It's not exactly the scene in 'The Magic Christian,' where people are jumping into a vat of excrement to get dollars," he says, "but it's pretty close."
He's talking on his car phone -- hey, this is Hollywood -- and suddenly he says: "As I'm talking to you, I'm pulling into Fox Studios for a meeting and I'm looking at a big poster for the Branson show. It says, 'Winner Takes All!' and it shows Richard Branson skydiving and it says, 'Rebel Billionaire -- Branson's Quest for the Best.' "
He emits a dry chuckle. "It's tough to write satire," he says. "Satire has a way of becoming reality."