hathos (hay'thos) n., pl. double hathos A pleasurable sense of loathing, or a loathing sense of pleasure, aroused by certain schlocky, schmaltzy or just- plain-bad show-business personalities: "Hearing the audience applaud when Dr. Joyce Brothers told Merv Griffin that, aside from being a brilliant comedienne, Charo is a 'genius on the classical guitar' filled me with hathos." {American: hate/happy + pathos + lachrymose (?)} -- ha-thot-ic adj.

Or as some people prefer to call it, the Squirm Factor. By whatever name, it's an emotion almost all sensate human beings feel under the proper conditions. When Michael Landon explains the Meaning of Christmas to a flinty old miser on "Highway to Heaven," we feel it. When Webster tells Alex Karras, "I wuv you, Dad," we feel it. When Willie and Julio sing an extra-slow-tempo version of "To All the Girls I Loved Before," boy, do we feel it. And when Sammy Davis Jr. appears on the Labor Day Telethon and plugs new words into "Candy Man" to reflect his tremendous love and respect for you-know- who ("The Jerry Man") . . . well, it's like getting hit by a 1,000-foot double-hathos tsunami.

Is it purely psychological? No. In 1983 medical men discovered that hathos is controlled by a tiny cluster of highly aggravatable brain cells nestled deep within that super-complex organ's shadowy folds -- the so- called "hatholamus region." The exact mechanics of this neurological oddity remain a mystery (Why do we feel pain and pleasure?) but scientists, using rhesus monkeys, human volunteers and resources made available through the auspices of Erol's Video Club,* have constructed the following scenario.

Let's say you're sitting in front of your TV watching HBO and something hathotically foolproof comes on, like Jerry Lewis' 1981 film "Hardly Working." (Sorry to pick on Jerry, but there is no better hathos sample in filmdom.) In this comic romp, l'idiot stupide plays Bo Hooper, an unemployed circus clown who schleps his way through a series of jobs -- among other things, he's a zanily unattentive service-station attendant, a wacky disco dancer, a bartender who tends toward insanity and a Japanese steak chef who's a real cut-up (here Jerry uses his patented fake buck teeth with hilarious results) -- before he finds a nutty sort of redemption as a letter carrier whose irreverence climaxes the day he delivers the mail in clown attire: a satirical stab against bureaucratic rigidity that compels 500 cute kids to follow him around until he releases a van-load of cuddly bunny rabbits. (No, I'm not kidding.) When the movie opens, Bo and his sad-faced clown pals are informed that the circus is closing because the Bank People have said "enough." (Enough what, Bank People? Caring? Happiness?) Anyway, within seconds Jerry is . . . that's right, sitting in front of a mirror, removing his greasepaint. While crying.

Now, as you sit there, the light from this image enters your brain by way of the jelly-filled balls on either side of your nose -- the human eyes. Your retinas' ever-ready photoreceptors take this sensory input and reluctantly convert it into the "brain language" of electrochemical impulses. Then, after passing through the optic chiasma, where signals from both eyes are mingled, the images travel to various parts of your think unit -- the thalamus, the optic radiation, and the visual cortexes on the rear inside edges of each cerebral hemisphere -- all of which say, in lightning-fast brain code, "Send this somewhere else." In nanoseconds your brain's hearing and thinking departments second and third that motion, Jerry's cloying sentimentality is zap-mailed back to your eyeballs, which bulge slightly and re-reject it, sending the info back through your brain loop, wherein various SOS signals are dispatched to different parts of your body, including your eyelids ("Down, down") and your arms ("Throw an ashtray"). By now, however, your hatholamus (assuming yours is "healthy" -- a relative term, of course) has received the information, kicked in and overriden these biochemical vetoes, and you -- writhing, ashamed for mankind -- are suddenly filled with a strange sense of well-being that somehow makes it all worthwhile.

What causes this? The source of your pain is obvious. The pleasure/pain thrill is more difficult to explain but is believed to be an odd type of catharsis: As we watch entah-tainers brought low by their flaws, we sense that, in a very real, profound way, we are lucky not to have any talent for acting, singing, tap or toadyism. Hathos tells the human animal that it's not just "okay" to be ordinary, faceless and not working in the business of show -- it is superior.

Some people, of course, don't ever feel hathos -- directors of French bedroom farces, Fox Television executives, college students in line to see "Harold and Maude" and Jamie Farr's agent, among others -- while some have such a highly developed sense of it that they are distracted from important daily pursuits like eating and sleeping enough, reading, waxing their car, marrying somebody and getting in step with reality. I probably don't need to tell you where I fit in. Hathosing is the only thing I'm a genius at, and I spend many, many, many hours in pursuit of this bizarre pleasure. Last year about this time I overdosed, watching five straight days of "Silver Spoons" and "Facts of Life" reruns while recovering from a high fever. Professional mind-wranglers tell me that the combination of the fever, a frigid ice-pack on my head and boy actor Ricky Schroder caused my hatholamus to blow up like a just-whacked pinåata donkey. It was feared -- by me, mainly -- that I would never cringe again. But I followed my doctor's orders ("Listen to two Captain & Tennille albums and call me in the morning"), and just one month later, as I sat in the front row of an Anne Murray concert with my features plastered back like a test pilot getting hit by 20 G's, I knew that I was whole again.

All of which is my way of explaining why I was so excited last month when I embarked on a hathos fan's dream trip: to see Jerry and Sammy -- schlockmeisters extraordinaire -- together on a nightclub stage for the first time, in the Celebrity Room in the Bally Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada. In short, Mecca. ::

Next Week: The Trip to Bountiful. *Films found most effective: "St. Elmo's Fire," "Billy Jack," "Cannonball Run, Part II" and "The Goodbye Girl."