Sometimes, despite taking great pains to avoid it, one finds oneself having to go to the Internet for information. An inconvenience, to be sure, especially if one is trying to limit one’s exposure to ads for home mortgages that feature photos of hideously ugly deformed men, the kind you expect to see under freeway overpasses sitting in a shopping cart filled with rags and using a Ralphs Rewards card to eat generic franks and beans from a dented can. But if it’s trivia about Sid and Marty Krofft’s H.R. Pufnstuf you’re after (and I assume that represents more than 80 percent of Internet traffic), then you can be on and off in relatively short order and with a minimum of bother. (Oh, and I’ll spare you the searching. Yes, it’s drug inspired. And no, the Magic Flute was not killed in action in Vietnam.)
The ancient Greek ruler Phalaris wasn’t an easy man to work for. He was known as Phalaris the Tyrant of Agrigentum (and no one ever says of people with Tyrant in their name, “Great guy! I’m always better off for having seen him.”). He wasn’t content with the state of the art of torture and execution, e.g., boiling, flaying, burning, sawing in half—you know, the classics. It was good technology that got the job done, but Phalaris was a man who pushed his employees, constantly asking the question, “What’s next?” Under his firm and visionary leadership, the brass worker Perilaus of Athens developed what would become the next big thing in execution—and entertainment—for a decade or more. Known as the Brazen Bull, it was a large, hollow brass chamber in the form of, as you might guess, a bull (think the Wall Street bull, only without the tourists posing next to its metal genitalia) with a lockable access door. Horrible to be trapped inside, of course. Even more horrible should someone light a fire underneath it, which, this being the rule of Phalaris the Tyrant, they did without fail.
It’s happened to all of us at one time or another: You’ve just popped an action movie into the player, settled back on the couch with a cold one (meaning of course a cold slab of yesterday’s meat loaf) all prepared to crank the sound as high as possible until the subwoofer causes all the closet doors to rattle and buzz, when you suddenly realize, dang it—it’s 3:00 in the morning. Your two-week-old quintuplets just got to sleep after an epic struggle, your great-grandfather who lives in the attic has gout and any noise over a whisper causes him to cry out in agony, and the world-record house of cards you have set up on your dining-room table is scheduled to be examined by the certifying team from the Guinness Book the very next day. You have little choice but to either abandon your movie or go to plan B: headphones.
Not long ago, a Northern Irish filmmaker caused a sensation when he posted a video of a “time traveler”: a woman captured on film at the 1928 premiere of the Chaplin silent movie The Circus walking past the Chinese Theater apparently yammering into a cell phone. Now, on one level, this is entirely plausible, as what sane person among us wouldn’t take the opportunity to travel through time in order to get out of a contract with AT&T? But then again, is this a likely mission for a time traveler? “Hmm, I have the ability to project myself into the past and change the course of history. What should I do, take out Hitler? Poison Stalin’s borscht? Prevent the formation of sports talk radio? Or, even though it’s on DVD—I own it, in fact—should I check out that old Chaplin film while speaking into my cell phone, which will be rendered useless because of the lack of cell phone towers in 1928? Why, the choice practically makes itself—1928 Hollywood, here I come!”
You probably believe, like I used to, that there is literally nothing more boring than listening to someone describe his dream. An understandable belief, but completely false. The truth is, there’s literally nothing more boring than my actual dreams. If through some unfortunate series of events you were in the area while I described one of them, you would die. No matter how artfully told, a description of my typical dream would grip you in iron pincers of tedium and slowly crush the last spark of life from your helpless body. If you somehow managed to live, you would wish for death rather than having to endure the haunting memory of its supernatural torpidity. Let me give you an example.
Being a home theater enthusiast can be a richly rewarding pursuit, but it’s not without its pitfalls. Nearly electrocuting yourself while you try to install surround speakers in bare feet on what turns out to be a damp basement floor is the most common—but let’s not dwell on my past. Another less-talked-about danger is that of becoming too insular as a group, of only speaking to those who already share our passions and opinions, either in person or more likely on Internet forums while wearing a bathrobe. That’s why every so often, I like to go out into the wider world and hold informal focus groups in order to take the pulse of the average Joe or Josephine and see what they think about this hobby of ours.
A few times, I’ve used this column to pay homage to those once beloved and bleeding-edge technologies that serve us well for years but when, once supplanted by newer and superior technology, are quickly cast aside and forgotten. (Today’s chunky hipster glasses are tomorrow’s zebra-print Zubaz, I guess.) I have criminally neglected one technology that probably more than any other deserves credit for creating the idea of home theater in the first place. Let us now sing the praises of Laserdisc.
In days gone by, marketing was easy. If you had a product that you felt sure would benefit the general public, say, a nerve tonic (or an herbal tincture, suspension, or unguent), you would simply emblazon its name on the side of your covered wagon. You’d take care to correctly spell invigorating, rejuvenatory, and Dr. Southerby’s, of course, and then travel from town to town extolling its marvelous benefits. You’d be certain to mention how it can clear up milk leg in a fortnight, soothe nettle rash, and possibly even reverse ragpicker’s disease if used judiciously. To drive your point home more effectively, your organization’s single employee would mingle with the crowd and impress them with his own miraculous recovery from scrivener’s thumb in just two doses.
While the hobby of home theater may seem benign, it’s not without danger. How much danger? Experts tend to peg its level of potential hazard as being somewhere between that of stamp collecting—in which nothing whatsoever happens at any time and so the risk is quite low—and emu farming, where the chance of having your carotid artery flayed open by a razor-sharp spur is ever present. With home theater, the risks are somewhat more hidden but no less dangerous. If there are individuals who have somehow managed to flay open their carotid arteries in their home theaters, it probably went unreported. I know if it were me, I’d want my family to buy an emu and blame it on him to spare them the shame. To help you avoid the pitfalls, I’ve compiled this list of common home theater ailments.
There’s much to admire about Larry King, not the least of which is his longevity—he began broadcasting his show via Pony Express during the Buchanan administration. There’s also the fact that he has achieved so much despite his strong resemblance to a large, partially shaved rodent. He’s also to be commended for his ability to shift rapidly between subjects (almost as quickly as he shifts between wives), both in his TV show (“Tonight, I’ll be talking about radical Islam with author and former member of the Dutch Parliament, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I’ll then be cooking a delicious and healthful egg-white omelet with funnyman Carrot Top”) and in his late, lamented column for USA Today (“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Nothing beats a nice, cold glass of pineapple juice... Went to see Legs Diamond on Broadway, accompanied by former Match Game host Gene Rayburn: Man, Peter Allen looks great in a tux!”). And so, Larry, I dedicate this wide-ranging column to you.