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Original Essays

The Carnie Awards

by Peter Fenton
  1. Eyeing the Flash: The Education of a Carnival Con Artist
    $7.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "This autobiographical portrait of the con artist as a young man is as delightful as it is revealing of the seamy midway underbelly." Library Journal

    "[A] hilarious, twisted coming-of-age story." William Grimes, The New York Times

  2. Truth or Tabloid? "I was fooled over and over by these absurd headlines. Then again, I am an idiot." Michael Colton, coeditor of ModernHumorist.com
  3. I Forgot to Wear Underwear on a Glass-Bottom Boat In this incredibly funny, entertaining book based on stories from the popular underground newsletter The Secret Exchange, people everywhere anonymously disclose their deepest, darkest secrets. There is nothing juicier than a good secret, so be prepared for the wildest and most outrageous among them.
"Where can I find a carnival?" That's a question I'm asked every time I talk about Eyeing the Flash in an urban area. People want to ogle the con men and scam artists my book describes, from a safe distance, of course. But carnivals rarely put down stakes in the land of skyscrapers and asphalt.

The good news — sorta — is that new technologies now allow city dwellers to experience the guilty pleasure of cheap carnival thrills at work and home. Without the downside of mosquitoes, manure, bad food, and sunburn. Television and the internet have created an easily accessible "electronic midway," making carnie pleasures available 24 hours a day. For instance, what is reality TV, like Fear Factor, but an old-fashioned carnie geek show? On the midway, as a primitive form of mass entertainment, crazed geeks bit the heads off of chickens. On Fear Factor, ordinary folks eat worms and spiders for millions of gawkers. And they're not even crazy, although an inordinate number of them are bartenders.

Or if you're in the mood for a titillating girlie act — the kind that carnivals staged after hours in a dimly-lit tent — watch music videos. Back when cars had fins, grandpa would spend a day's pay for the privilege of observing seasoned pros bump-and-grind while grandma was contemplating Mason jars at the pickled wax bean exhibit. Now grandpa-friendly sex kicks are available for only fifty bucks a month with expanded basic. Thrill ride? Rent a DVD with lots of computer special effects. Crank up the home stereo and it's like riding the Octopus or Squirrel Cage sans the sprained neck, contusions, and projectile vomiting.

What about the midway-style barkers and baloney artists? Is the public too sophisticated to be conned by carnival come-ons? Not really, I'd contend. Americans are as gullible as ever. It's only the hucksters who have changed. Celebrities, it appears, are the new carnies. With a mix of sophisticated technology and old-fashioned ballyhoo, celebrities mesmerize the eager throng and make a good buck at it, too.

I believe it's time to honor those celebrities who know that there's still a sucker born every minute — and have the bank statements to prove it. Therefore, ladies and germs, I present to you the first annual Carnie Awards.

Selected by a panel of distinguished grifters, the following celebrities realize that when it comes to drawing a crowd and emptying wallets, the sizzle is more important than the steak. In fact, many of the five honorees don't have any talent at all, except for pulling wool over the eyes of the media and public alike.

Let's all congratulate the Winners of the 2005 Carnie Awards:

Ozzie and Sharon Osbourne
Ozzie hasn't had a hit record in years, but that didn't stop this cunning pair from turning their bizarre family into a reality-show cash cow. Years ago, Ozzie trumped the geeks by purportedly biting the head off a bat. Recently, the Osbournes parlayed Ozzie's weirdness, their daughter's alleged drug problems, Ozzie's purported ATV accident, and the alleged theft of the family jewels into high ratings and mega-millions. Which could lead a skeptic to ask: Do the Osbournes truly live such a colorful life, or are they heavy-metal cons?

Donald Trump
A skillful carnie tricks his mark into thinking that he's going to get something for nothing. At his recent nuptials, Trump turned this old ploy on its head by convincing wedding suppliers to give him everything for nothing. From floral arrangements to gourmet treats for hundreds of guests, businesses provided their wares to the occasion for little more than a song — and the wedding singer probably came free as well. Just why is an aging real estate developer a celebrity anyway? Can you say "Art of the Con?"

Bill O'Reilly
Even the most die-hard Lefty must admit: talk TV firebrand Bill O'Reilly is a master showman. With the greatest of ease, the red-faced ranter can whip his legion of fans into a frenzy about anything from French fries to the sales figures of his latest book. And when a sordid sex scandal at the end of last year earned O'Reilly better ratings rather than a pink slip, you have to wonder if the whole strange episode was simply a heaping helping of Irish blarney.

Sponge Bob Squarepants
This colorful cartoon character bloodied the bluenoses when they hilariously accused him of leading the gay agenda. Sponge Bob turned their ire into a hit movie, massive merchandise sales, and more gossipy chatter than a hair salon at high noon. Now inquiring minds nationwide want to know: Is this sponge squishy or swishy? I'm sure that Sponge Bob won't come clean until the cash registers stop ringing.

Paris Hilton
Paris can't sing, dance, act, or do much of anything but pose for photos on the red carpet of someone else's movie — but the paparazzi will be mobbing her rather than the actual stars. That's because Paris is the celebrity world's greatest master of ballyhoo since Madonna writhed onto the scene. Who else but Paris could earn screaming headlines because she lost her cell phone? Which must have all Hollywood trembling, because if Paris ever discovers a talent equal to her ability to draw the attention of rubes, there's no telling what worlds she won't conquer. Hey, if Arnold can become governor, why not "Paris for President"? spacer

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