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Thursday, March 06, 2003


Married by the Mob Dept.

I remember the time I was married by America, in front of and chosen by a national television audience. It did not turn out well.

To be fair, it wasn't my first trip down the aisle that was voted on by the general public. I'd been a ten-time loser at the matrimonial mercy of various radio call-in shows, magazine contests tied in with product promotions (let's hear it for Massengil's "You Can Marry a Douche Bag" sweepstakes), and an internet poll back in the days where everyone claiming to be an attractive female was, in fact, a less-than-female software engineer. Luckily, Mexico doesn't check under the hood when you sign your marriage license and I was able to collect my prize money, and later, my dignity when our neighbors to the south were equally inattentive with the annulment papers.

If there was some mechanism for taking the soulmate decision-making process out of my hands and a small monetary reward for my faith in their system, they had me at "I do."

But doing it on television was a big mistake.

Sure, the prize money was good. It wasn't Fox-getting-Superbowl-ratings-with-dumb-guys-and-greedy-sluts good, but I had rent to pay and a bookie salivating at the prospect of feeding my kneecaps to his favorite crowbar. So I found myself pursued by a camera crew from a a cable station easily ranking among the top 300 on the digital channel lineup. All I had to do to collect my appearance fee was attend (on-camera, of course)several support-group meetings for women mourning the recent loss of spouses as the star of "Second Husband: The De-Widowizer."

My mission was to try and ease the pain of freshly-minted widows by offering to take the place of their lost husbands. According to the rules, it was acceptable for me to approach a woman that was sobbing. But once our encounter began, she was disqualified if the crying commenced anew. The first twenty "contestants" spanning eight different support groups washed out in the first five minutes of conversation. Once the producer stepped out from behind the camera brandishing a neatly-pressed hanky and a release form at the first sign of tear-duct leakage, I was whisked off the next challenger. If any chat lasted a sob-free fifteen minutes, I was compelled to immediately and abruptly swing the talk to a marriage proposal, prompted by a pointed clearing of the throat by the clock-watching producer. These attempts inevitably led to a negative reaction; there were slaps, screams, explosive grief displays involving mucus and clumps of shed hair, and the worst--a single tear rolling down a cheek like the first snowball of an avalanche, landing squarely on the wallet-size picture clenched in the hand of the the neophyte widow, showing her and the recently-deceased frolicking with the polio-stricken newborn that daddy had just left behind.

That clip made the highlight show, Surprisingly, it did not take long to resuscitate her after she collapsed.

Perhaps I shouldn't have mentioned how happy they'd looked in the picture.

After that, I was nearly ready to give back my fee and move on. But the quick-thinking producer used the troubleshooting skills that had catapulted him to the top of the reality-television pile. He offered me double the money to pretend to go along with my televised quest for eternal love of the second-time-around variety. And we'd stage the whole thing with one of his production assistants. He didn't exactly have an understudy to take my place and he needed the nuptial money-shot. It was clear none of the previous contestants were ready to bury their grief by walking down the aisle with the man the promotional materials described as "America's Most Eligible Multi-Divorcee."
As smoothly, wonderfully, and empathetically I'd handled my fragile crop, marriage was just not on the horizon. My pockets were stuffed with phone numbers, but it wasn't my last name that they were seeking.

The producer worked tirelessly behind the scenes to salvage the show by rigging the telephone vote, the live internet polling, and the audience reaction to ensure that America chose to have me assuage the existential grief brought on by the expiring of Tracy the Production Assistant's high-school sweetheart, Troy. Clever editing by the producer made the choice a clear-cut one for the living rooms of America as Tracy carried the day by a margin of 45%. The genuine widows came across as melodramatic shrews who'd chased their harried loved ones into the sweet release of prostate cancer, brain aneurysms, and skydiving accidents. Meanwhile, Tracy's impressive emoting made our United States (and later in international syndication some 75 countries) believe in the possibility of the rebound marriage as spiritual redemption and a second chance at happiness.

The live series finale drew 52 million viewers to witness "America's Greatest Wedding Celebration!" (exclamation point theirs). Tracy and I strolled down the aisle of the world-famous Notre Dame cathedral, as the correct Catholic palms were greased to ignore my previous marital failings (and to look the other way when she and I were discovered in a confessional fumbling with the needlessly-complicated tailoring of her connubial undergarments). The ceremony was beautiful. Charlotte Church sang the opening hymn as Billy Joel accompanied on the massive pipe organ. P. Diddy waited patiently at the back of the church with a pail of rice, and Pope John Paul II was holding on a cell-phone to give the closing blessing.

I knew the whole thing was a sham. But still I allowed myself to believe in the healing power of television with high production values. My heart lurched inside my Armani tuxedo as the priest droned through the sacred rite. I could see that Tracy's eyes were quivering with emotion through her veil. Even the impressively stoic Vera Wang, who was attentively holding the train of the exquisite dress she'd hand-sown for the occasion, began to mist up. Roy, the steadicam operator, got a beautiful shot of Charlize Theron hiding her runny nose behind a Kate Spade bag.

Then came the fateful phrase the sowed the seeds of my undoing, the undoing of America's greatest marital triumph: "Let whoever objects to this union speak now or forever hold his peace."

I was thrown; I'd seen the script, and the priest was clearly caught up in the moment and was going off-book.

The celebrity-strewn pews hummed momentarily like an old t.v. set warming up before springing to life. Elton John and Eminem exchanged glances, then shrugs. We had their blessing.

And then, the voice from the back of the church, strangled and distant at first, but then stronger and more insistent as its owner came storming down the aisle.

"You can't marry him! He's still married!" A thousand heads on swivels panned to the protest. At first I didn't recognize him, but it didn't take long for his face to click in my memory. It was Wilton, the PASCAL programmer I'd married (and supposedly annulled) in Mexico in the early Internet contest conducted on a crude text Compuserve electronic bulletin board, a sick joke perpetrated on me at the dawn of e-mail by a cadre of hackers who didn't like my screen name. I knew what was coming next.

"He's married to me!" A hush. Gasps. Billy Joel's stunned elbows slipped onto the keys of the pipe organ, issuing forth a dissonant chord. Wilton held in his hand the Tijuana marriage license he'd promised he was keeping only as a souvenir. The bouquet in Tracy's hand fell limp as we were circled by the camera crew. She ran. I could hear shouting in the producer's headset as he swooped in to do damage control. He covered his mic with a cupped hand and whispered in my ear, "There's going to be a marriage today, motherfucker. Can you say 40 share?"

I clutched my head and lamented how I'd let Wilton keep that damned document at the low price of two shots of Patron. Then it dawned on me.

I was set up.

The big ratings are reserved for that once-a-year football game or an event with a suspenseful twist. A big twist.

I looked back at the Jumbotron behind the altar. It flashed a question: "Should this couple renew their wedding vows?" Real-time results spun like fruit on a slot machine as the television audience phoned or beamed in their votes over the internet.

It was a landslide. Wilton and I were going to make what was old new again in the eyes of God and the viewing public. In the third pew back, Tom Green and Marilyn Manson high-fived. The producer pumped his fist and disappeared from the altar.

The priest continued. This time, there were no objections before the "I do" exchange. Those two little words stung freshly. They hadn't had meaning the first ten times I'd said them to cash a prize-money paycheck. But in front of millions upon millions of viewer eyeballs, this time they had weight, rolling around in my mouth like a pair of jawbreakers.

We processed out of the cathedral onto a red carpet throng that was parted by the camera crew, documenting our march into married life. The last thing I saw before the limo door slammed shut was the shit-eating grin of Matthew McConaughey hovering above an enthusiastic thumbs up,

I didn't speak to Wilton as the car pulled away from Notre Dame.

I knocked on the divider. It slid down and the driver's face came into view. I tossed a roll of hundreds into the front seat.

"Don't stop driving until you get to Amsterdam. You can buy anything there." I said pointedly in Wilton's direction. "Like a quickie divorce."

Wilton sighed and crossed his arms. I pulled down the LCD screen for the DVD player and cued up a copy of "The Wedding Singer," laughing softly to myself.

I knew that in the next week I would intentionally throw making the finals of "Marry an Incapacitated Heiress."

Right after the first check cleared.

About this site

This is the internet home of Mark Lisanti, a Los Angeles writer sometimes known as Bunsen. He is the founding editor of Defamer, a weblog about Hollywood, where he now serves in the nebulous capacity of "editor-at-large."
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