There it was, like a burp that resurrects the memory of a junk-food binge: Celebrity Boxing 2. And this after Fox put out a week of miserable series finales only roaches and rats could survive: the undead horror that was The X-Files got a stake put through its heart, and Ally McBeal was finally kicked out on her neurotic no-ass. It was nearly too much to handle, but those of us who watch Fox -- the roaches and rats of the TV world -- are still standing.
Despite losing much of its negligible charm from the first go-round, Celebrity Boxing still managed to be somewhat entertaining. Celebrity bride Darva Conger pummeled former Olympian Olga Korbut. Ron Palillo, of Welcome Back, Kotter fame, appeared in the form of a fey woodland sprite, bleached pixie cut and all, and received a horrible beating at the hands of Dustin "Screech" Diamond from Saved by the Bell. Manute Bol, a 7-foot-7-inch former NBA player from Sudan, swatted at former NFL celebrity William "The Refrigerator" Perry in a bout that brought to mind images of a daddy longlegs taking on a giant, sweating bumblebee. But the folks at Fox saved the best for last: Joey Buttafuoco mauled Joanie Laurer, the formidable Chyna of WWF -- er, WWE -- fame. It was a nasty, brutish battle -- clean punches from Laurer and below-the-belt tactics from Buttafuoco -- that reaffirmed what everyone in America knows already: Joey Buttafuoco is a bad, bad man.
John Wayne Bobbitt was supposed to fight him, but he was too busy wailing on his new wife.
As I watched the bouts, I battled with my own demons of existential gloom. What is it about celebrity? Why would these has-beens risk physical beatings, humiliation, and the scorn and nauseated pity of snarky TV critics? Is celebrity an awful addiction that degrades the formerly famous, sending them out on the streets to peddle their tired wares? And if they are the crack hos, who am I?
Like the preceding Fox TV week, it was nearly too horrible to contemplate. But contemplate I did, because celebrity reality TV has become unavoidable. Perhaps it all started with Celebrity Fear Factor. We rapidly progressed to humiliating celebrity episodes of The Weakest Link, where the famous revealed that all that strenuous exercise, dieting, and laxative abuse enfeebles not only the body but also the brain. At one point there was even discussion of a celebrity version of Survivor, but that went nowhere.
All of this is a twist on a pre-existing genre -- sadomasochism TV (SMTV) -- but it's somehow more exciting when celebrities are the ones being tortured. There's a delicious Foucaldian quality to it -- the public arena, the ritual humiliation writ large on the body. Celebrity SMTV has at its center a sort of power reversal, where we -- the blobby, unbeautiful, and unexciting -- get to revel in the punishment of the glamorous. In the case of the has-been or wanna-be celebrity, it seems even more ugly. For trying to climb out of the crab bucket, the once-famous get pulled down. And eaten.
Accompanying this rise in celebrity SMTV is a parallel cultural juggernaut, The Osbournes. Watching Papa Ozzy shamble around his house has become a beloved pastime of many millions of MTV viewers. And the show has strained to show us the normal in the spectacularly abnormal, to make us relate to the "family values" underlying the macabre house decorations. It's a far nicer way to bring celebrities down to our level than SMTV. There is a lot of love in the Clan Osbourne, along with defiantly un-housebroken pets, ham flinging, and devil heads.
Ozzy is lucky; in the world of SMTV, the once-famous face a much harsher game. As I watched the Refrigerator clinch with his walking-stick opponent, it struck me that the clutching was an apt metaphor for the relationship between fan and (re)aspiring celebrity. With its sweaty weariness, its stench of desperation, the clutch is a gesture of exhaustion and aggressiveness masquerading as love. That's why it's so perfect. We need these wanna-bes -- to feel superior to, to mock, to convince us that we don't really want to be famous.
Celebrity is "A Massive Swelling," as diva writer Cintra Wilson's book calls it, "A Grotesque, Crippling Disease." Yeah, but while a disease eats from within, sometimes that desire for fame gets you from the outside, too. When I saw the gamine Palillo huddling in his corner after his fight, a huge shiner rising up along his cheekbone, I felt a horrified pang. I had watched this spectacle, the lamb being sacrificed on the celebrity-gods' altar. That big lump under his eye was a swelling all right -- a throbbing, discoloring mess that fascinated as much as it repelled.
But I guess Palillo didn't feel as awful as I did. He was game even after his brutal trouncing. "I felt like the man just walking out here," he said.
To which the commentator had a bittersweet, cruel, and cutting reply. "You're the loser," he said, "but you're the man."
In more ways than one.