Back in the late 1990s, I was sitting in my living room with my buddy Matt Stokely, sharing some fine distilled spirits and some fine cigars, when the two of us made a wager. Within 12 months, I'd pull some sort of publicity stunt that would get my name in at least two of the 15 largest newspapers in the country and on at least one TV network.
The only ground rules to the bet were that I couldn't actually kill myself or someone else to achieve this fame and that I couldn't leverage my position as a universally acclaimed and widely beloved newspaper columnist.
I easily won the bet, for reasons I'll detail later on. But I thought of that contest last week when I saw the reports of the balloon boy hoax, in which an allegedly fame-hungry man engineered a stunt that got him coverage on all American news networks and in hundreds of newspapers, not to mention thousands and thousands of Internet mentions.
By today's standards, my achievements in the '90s were extremely modest, not even remotely approaching the level of notoriety that the Balloon Dad has received, with the satellite trucks parked in front of his house and every network waiting its turn to interview him.
One wonders what makes an individual so hungry for attention that he'd allegedly trigger a panic and potentially face criminal charges for it. The so-called Octomom is another example of extreme behavior apparently done to achieve fame and a small fortune.
There's a term for this kind of person: "attention whore." And, admittedly, I was one of them during the span of my bet. But I didn't actually think I'd become rich because of my efforts, nor did I have anything in mind but harmless pranks to win a bet.
At the end of the day, both the Octomom and the Balloon Dad are famous but not rich. And anyone with any brains knows that it's stupid to be famous and not rich.
The mind travels back to Tonya Harding, in the midst of her 1990s scandal, being chased by paparazzi and TV camera crews as she hustled towards her car, which was in the process of being repossessed for non-payment.
You can escape the burdens of being rich and famous. You can hide away in seclusion in Martha's Vineyard or in Italy. If you're poor and famous, you're being photographed for free while watching your possessions being taken away.
In my lifetime, I can think of exactly four Indianapolis natives who became both rich and famous. Kurt Vonnegut, Jane Pauley, David Letterman and Rupert Boneham from Survivor.
Vonnegut got to be rich by being a literary genius and best-selling author adored by millions. Pauley got to be rich by being an honest, hard-working TV reporter. Letterman became famous for being a brilliant comedian and television personality. Even Rupert did actual work to become famous.
They did things that people loved and they were rewarded for it by fame, fortune, and in Letterman's case, an unending procession of young beauties.
The point is, it's never been easier to fulfill the Warholian prophecy of being world famous for 15 minutes. But there doesn't seem to be any point to it, which enrages me that there are some people out there still stupid enough to try it.
So, as far as I'm concerned, both the Octomom, the Balloon Dad and every YouTube and Twitter celebrity out there deserves all the ridicule they get. In the process of becoming famous, they forgot to get paid.
As for how I won my bet, well, it was pretty easy. I thought of a cause that was so ridiculous that no right-thinking person would go along with it, and I became its champion.
I was the president and sole member of the Committee to Free Amy Fisher, the "Long Island Lolita" who at that time was serving a prison sentence for shooting her lover's wife in the face.
In that capacity, I was interviewed by the New York Post, Long Island Newsday and NPR. I never made it to network TV, but Matt and I agreed that that was good enough to collect the rewards for the bet, a 1.75 liter bottle of Crown Royal Reserve. And so went my time as a professional media whore.
I'd do it again, if the scale of the fame was large enough to win another bottle of booze, or if the idea were funny enough. But I wouldn't do it thinking I'd become a national hero over it.
Personally, I wish these people would leave the media spotlight so we can turn the national debate back to more important topics, like Britney Spear's crotch-flashing or the Erin Andrews nude video scandal.
You know, something more consequential and meaningful, unlike the crazy Balloon Dad or the Octomom.