"Michael Jackson. He's back. He's 'Bad.' Is this guy weird or what?" -- People magazine, September 14

lthough I agree with them, I still say those finks at People should be tossed in a vat of boiling glitz. Three years ago Michael Jackson was their No. 1 adulation target, and at the end of '84 they squealed: "After running five covers, 73 photos, and 33,205 words on him (we counted), what more is there to say about Michael Jackson?" (They found it; heaping fertilizing piles more.) Now they turn on the guy with a mean cover story that trots out all the familiar details of his kooky life style. We're told he has a Liz Taylor shrine in his Disney-like fantasy house, that he came to the "Captain Eo" premiere disguised as a nurse, that he tried to buy the Elephant Man's carcass for $1 million, that he snoozes in an "oxygen-rich hyperbaric chamber" and that his best friend is a roller-skating chimp named Bubbles who moonwalks and gives high fives . . .

Okay, up to this point I'm thinking, "Scrap the nurse bit, add a go-cart track, and that's pretty much what I'd do with a trillion dollars," but then we come to . . . The Face, with its surgically altered features and (allegedly) "chemically bleached" skin. Critics soft-pedaled the visual shock of Jackson's new Daryl-the-Preppie look in the "Bad" video, but let's be honest: He was very, very scary, like a mad scientist's hybrid of Bambi, Thumper and a socially inept veal calf. Parents even tell me they're getting good results using him as a disciplinary bogyman for their tots, as in: "If you don't get yourself in that tub right now, I'm gonna send Michael Jackson in there!" Can the kids be blamed for yelling "Eeek!" and hopping in the broth? No. They're just coming up; they don't know Michael Jackson used to be cool. They just know mommy's talking about that awful TV man with the planed-off nose.

Sad as all this is, I haven't been able to refrain from taking a few cheap shots myself. (This won't do much for my image as "Mr. Understanding," but I can't help it -- it's fun.) I've been going around at parties challenging people to a conversation game I made up called "Marooned With Michael." To start play, you ask, "Would you rather be marooned on a deserted island with Michael Jackson or . . ." Then you plug in another freakish celebrity and start arguing.

A few weeks ago, after his big "Nightline" appearance, Gary Hart's name came up, and we played. I know, warts and all, Michael seems like an easy winner over ol' Hotpence, but once you get into it, it's not so simple. "I'd take Michael," my opponent said, "because he could domesticate the local critters with his Dr. Doolittle skills," and the crowd said yes, point scored. "You're forgetting something," I said. "When Thanksgiving rolls around and you head for the petting zoo, rubbing your belly and muttering, 'Mmm, stuffed spider monkey with all the trimmings,' the Timid One is gonna turn into an animal-rights kamikaze."

So I won and went home thinking I was pret-ty funny. That's when, with Michael and Gary still bubbling in my mind, I made a big mistake by power- snacking on the following items: unthawed jalapenåo egg rolls swallow- lubed with barbecue sauce, two Pizzas for One, a shake and a 24-inch licorice whip. Then I hit the sack. The result? Let's just call it a more vivid version of "Marooned With Michael" than I'd bargained for. The nightmare began with me standing knee- deep in the warm, cobalt waters of Heard Lagoon, spearing fish with the surgical precision of a drunk lunging at buffet meatballs with a toothpick. Still, I was happy -- lord of all I survey, and for the first time in my life the odds-on favorite should I decide to hold a "Best Bod on the Beach" contest. That's when I heard "it" behind me -- a breathy, falsetto voice -- and I turned to see . . . yes! Michael Jackson, clad in his leather-and-zippers suit, doing clumsy dance steps in the sand and frowning sternly at me. My eyebrows shot up like two caterpillars that have somehow stumbled onto the surface of a working Air Hockey table, and I froze. Michael "shouted" something, but I couldn't hear it. "What was that?"

"I said,

Your butt is MINE!' "

Aaaaaah! Much later I remembered that this is the opening line of "Bad," the song, and realized that Michael was actually issuing a friendly halloo in the only language he's comfortable with -- music -- but at the time it seemed like . . . well, it seemed like a good idea to hydroplane across the water and make a quick dash to the other side of Heard Island. This I did, stopping when I saw a man climbing out of a battered boat washed up on my finest beachfront property, the future site of Heard's Dominion. "Excuse me. Bub? Mac? You'll have to get this hunk of junk off my -- " That's when I noticed: The boat was the Monkey Business, and the castaway was you-know-who.

"Hi," he said. "All the food and womenfolk were washed overboard, but I managed to salvage these." It was a huge box of Hart-for-President position papers. "I've got some thoughts on where we should go with our farm policy. How's this? 'More coconuts isn't better. Fewer coconuts isn't better. Better coconuts is better.' " I fled.

Briefly, here's what happens next. I "Robinson Crusoe" the fellows for a year and make them do all my work. And of course, not wanting union problems, I don't tell them about each other's existence. Unfortunately, they cross paths one day, hit it off instantly ("Your butt is MINE!" "Hey, I used to say that a lot") and find that they have much in common. Both consider themselves victims. Both got burned playing by a set of outdated rules. (Gary didn't realize the press no longer "looks the other way." Michael thought rockers could still get away with anything short of marrying a 7-year-old first cousin.) Then comes the bad part. They decide I'm a dictator, plan a coup and drive me to my mountaintop fortress, on which they mount a final, deadly assault.

Too bad for them, because I release a stack of rolling logs that flatten them like gingerbread men. Hustling down the slope, I hear their last faint words, spoken in unison: "Keeping in mind that in this dream's context you symbolize Big Media, look at what your reckless behavior has donnnne . . . And not just to us, but to all prominent victims of an overzealous press -- " Yeesh, pretty literal metaphoric speech. I had to put a big boulder on them or they would have never stopped. Then I woke up.

Well, it obviously doesn't take a dream expert to interpret that one. Here are the lessons I carried away: 1) Gary and Michael didn't mean what they said. They were just upset about being flattened. 2) In fact, the opposite is true: The Media's Okay, They're Not, and they won't be until they hold a redemptive press conference where they flat-out admit they've screwed up without couching it in the confusing argle-bargle Hart used on "Nightline." And, most important, 3) No more licorice whips after midnight. ::