ASIDE FROM PROVIDING A BOON FOR THE CABLE industry, insomnia does nothing better than bring a soul down a notch or two. You can coast on average self-esteem during the day, but late at night you just feel unattractive, lonely, and overcome by a surreal helplessness. The condition inspires violently reckless pursuits; I've stayed up until the wee hours to watch John Hughes' Some Kind of Wonderful, convinced that a screening of pre-Caroline in the City Lea Thompson would make me feel whole again (she used to have something, didn't she?). It's exactly this kind of desperation that fuels the infomercial industry.

To watch infomercials is to allow television to take a dump on you, then beg for more; it's the entertainment equivalent of scat. I recently spent a sleepless week rolling around in these programs like a dog.

Surely you've seen infomercials. They're those magic half-hours of commercial programming that provide a reality in which aghast audience members say things like "Cook a pot roast in 30 minutes? That's crazy talk!" to a seemingly smack-addicted soap star. They are larger than life and insanely optimistic; more importantly, they promise the impossible.

Most infomercials are done in a pseudo talk show format, and many are hosted by an effervescent, middle-aged blonde named Nancy Nelson. The moniker rolls off an insomniac's tongue like butter: Nancy Nelson. This woman could not be more naturally enthused ("Oh, for heaven's sake!" she often exclaims in delight). She commits to her performances in a way Julia Roberts can only dream of. She is fascinated by every product she helps to pitch, and everything she helps to pitch is quick, easy to use, and--who knew?--fun. I think I love her.

Nelson pitches beer makers, paint rollers, Space Bags (which let you store your belongings in a vacuum!), and food dehydrators (my old roommate, Diana, had to talk me down from that one: "Steve, you will not be making as much turkey jerky as you think"). She also helps Jay "The Juiceman" Kordich hawk his big plastic juicer, a product that, in addition to making disturbing vegetable drinks (even ol' Nancy has visible trouble downing these monstrosities), supposedly has the power to bring tradition into your home.

This is classic info-speak: Products Can Bring You Closer. These programs are filled with any number of people who will swear that because they now vacuum-pack their sweaters they get to see more of their grandchildren.

Kordich, possessor of the world's most ominous eyebrows (the great gray tufts of an owl) is 76 years old and proud father to two adolescent boys, a fact which gives one pause. His favorite drink is a horrifying "anti-aging" beverage consisting of liquefied carrots, parsley, beets, and apples. He says he gives this drink to his boys every day; you just know they're waiting for the old man to die.

Unfortunately for the Kordich sons, pater is using his juicer to fight off the Eternal. In his program's most humbling moment, the Juiceman looks right into the camera and, pulling at the imaginary roots of a carrot for emphasis, equates his "live food" with "live bodies," explaining, "Dead food = cooked food. Dead food. Death. Death." Jay Kordich will not enjoy my pot roast.

I don't think Suzanne Somers is going to be stopping by for a home-cooked meal either. Now that her thighs have been famously mastered, she's moved on to the Torso Track, and couldn't be happier with the results. "When I don't have my clothes on I can see my ribs, which is kind of exciting," she says. "I haven't seen my ribs in a long time." (Oh, that Suzanne's too, too solid flesh would melt....)

This is the kind of statement that passes without comment in the world of infomercials. Whether it's Bob Eubanks pitching car cleaner or Marilu Henner espousing the virtues of a vitamin/mineral supplement (which keeps her going after eight performances a week of the musical Chicago!), the celebrity undead that host most infomercials really really mean it. At two o'clock in the morning their pronouncements feel like revelations.

Judith Light, Daytime Emmy winner and late of Who's the Boss?, wants America to be acne-less--and truly, who doesn't? She wants it so bad it stirs the soul. Judith, it should be said, has not spent her down time collecting residuals. This lady (and, yes, I call her a Lady, thank you very much) has roamed the streets in silent empathy with our huddled masses, who yearn to be pimple-free. "In their faces I see their struggle and I feel their pain," Ms. Light intones, impassioned but serene because she knows she's being filmed through a mattress and a couple of plush comforters. "Here's my chance to reach out."

Even One Day At a Time's Mackenzie Phillips uses Proactiv, Judith's solution--now she can go out without any foundation, "just mascara, blush, and, like, lip gloss." For years she believed she would never be attractive to boys (um, Mackenzie, I... I have some bad news...).

If we're going to talk about skin care, and how very crucial it seems after watching Karen Valentine try to make you buy a CD compilation of '50s tunes, we must mention the dueling divas of "estheology": Victoria Principal and Connie Sellecca.

Principal is the maven behind The Principal Secret, a product she describes with the help of interviewer Lynda "Wonder Woman" Carter. Lynda has problems with dark circles, you see; with Victoria, it's puffiness. The Principal Secret's various cremes, however, will solve all ailments from the neck on up. ("If you don't forget about your neck, neither will he," Victoria tells us.) Best of all is the testimonial from a woman with three kids whose husband left her for a younger woman. Now, after buying the former Dallas star's magic lotion, she has a modeling contract! Boy, is her ex-husband's face red!

It's been work, work, work for Connie Sellecca. Six years ago, someone gave her an ancient Egyptian recipe containing frankincense, sandalwood, and myrrh. (Apparently priority one for anyone with an "ancient recipe" or scientific breakthrough is to track down a prime-time has-been.) After scouring the planet and "remote volcanic tide pools in Hawaii," Connie and her chemist goon Sheree Ladove have come up with The Sellecca Solution, a simple two-step process for better-looking skin that simply thrills Teri Garr.

Teri is a long-time friend of Sellecca's (six years is a long time in Hollywood) and though she initially rolled her eyes at Connie's quest, she soon realized she was "on a mission." To hear Teri Garr and Connie Sellecca claim it was not career success but the perfect face creme that they've been desperate to find all these years is to understand the logic of infomercials.

The hope for a better tomorrow is only a phone call away. In the early morning hours it can be awfully nice to have some stilted starlet tell you how much better life can be, and how easy that life is to reach. Principal and Sellecca are Stepford wives at the controls; along with all their infomercial cohorts, they're busy selling you a piece of the dream you can't have because, of course, you're still awake.


Three Shows Not to Be Missed While You're Awake

The Ronco Electric Food Dehydrator
The sublime Nancy Nelson helps mutant tycoon Ron Popeil and his cocky 11-year-old, Lauren, hawk a plastic behemoth that makes turkey jerky, fruit roll-ups, and potpourri. This is the quintessential infomercial, the one that most proudly flaunts everything the format should be: the words "Health, Economy, Nutritious, Fun" are even outlined on the screen for handy reference. Ron, who has previously pitched spray-on hair, will say anything to get you to buy his junk. The man has a face like a blowfish, but he's cunning as a shark. Here he conjures up images of being stranded after a hurricane without dried bananas, then throws in a free Dial-A-Matic Food Slicer for good measure (the audience is audibly moved as a potato is reduced to waffle fries). The sympathetic Nancy speaks with a health-conscious dehydrator owner who has had six bypasses, and another who dries apples and tops them with red and green Jell-O "for Christmas." A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

The Florence Henderson/Robin Mattson Debacle
The shenanigans in this infomercial are so jaw-droppingly smack-induced that I can never remember the name of the product being promoted. This program features Carol Brady and her soap star guide trapped in a kitchen with a few wooden guests and some cookware that can apparently defy all known laws of food preparation. In the time it takes Florence to preheat her oven, Robin has completed a beef pasta entree that serves five. These gals "converse" and move about in robotic hyper-speed, as in some feverish dream. You worry about them. Robin literally hurls all conventional cookware to the floor in disgust, and Florence acts like she's been mainlining Wesson Oil. No doubt David Lynch is off somewhere gleefully hugging himself over all of this. Hypnotic, transfixing, and completely beyond the scope of human imagination.

Anything Psychic
Never pass up a psychic. You shouldn't need Dionne Warwick or Latoya Jackson to tell you this. There's something lovely and patriotic about watching a soap opera actress receive an on-air psychic reading telling her she has a movie-of-the-week on the way. These infomercials are the most baldly vicious in targeting your late-night hopes and fears--if you don't call, you could miss out on money, success, and the love of any other human being, ever. Stoned out of my gourd one post-party Friday night, I called a psychic hotline and was aurally assaulted by a salesperson who used my name as a fetish ("Steve, thank you for calling. Steve--would you like to know what lies in store for you, Steve?"). Happy and high, I played along ("That's for me!") and was referred to another number which was answered by some groggy woman in Pasadena who recited from a script and scared me: "Steve, you seem like the kind of person who's interested in the future, am I right? Steve, you seem like the kind of person who'll buy a guy a cup of coffee then worry later about what he says behind your back, am I right?" Watch, but don't try this at home.


Three Offers You Can Refuse

Enforma, the Fat Trapper
I know--this sounds so promising. It opens with glistening, flat-stomached models emerging from a bacchanal in the pool to spoon gravy on their food and shove dripping crap into their mouths. A voice-over informs us that we can now burn calories just by standing still, because Enforma is like "exercise in a bottle." Unfortunately, this is followed by host Steve Garvey and nutritionist Kendall Carson lying through their teeth without an ounce of magic between them. There's no love here. "Does this mean I can eat anything I want?" asks Steve. "Of course not, Steve," Kendall replies. Then why should I buy it?

Total Gym 2000
If there's anything more boring than Steve Garvey, it's watching Chuck Norris and Christie Brinkley flap their tired, old has-been gums about the convenience of exercising at home on a medieval rack of plastic. Chuck and Christie show us every possible position on the damn thing, and it's not even remotely sexual. They can't even manage to cart out someone fun like Markie Post to tell us how Total Gym 2000 changed her life and scored her a new movie on UPN.

Tae Bo
I know this is all the rage, but I'll have none of it. Even if Billy Blanks is a seven-time World Martial Arts champion, if the best he can offer is Sinbad feeling "reborn," there are some serious issues he needs to face. Why is Sinbad doing an infomercial if he's doing so great? Blanks' Tae Bo exercise program is filled with testimonials from the icky people who go to your gym and talk about how great their workout was. There's a bunch of hoo-ha about how sweating through some judo kicks can transform your inner self ("God gave me a chance to work inside," Billy claims) and far too much bad hair to mention.

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