I feel like
I committed the perfect crime. For 100 days Helium.com
members up to $3 for
every 400-word article they wrote. So I cranked out nearly
and now they owe me about $900.
But of course it wasn't that simple...
Helium tried to make it harder by adding a rule that
the pay-out would decrease if the articles' "quality score" averaged any
lower than the top 15%
— but there was a loophole. They'd only perform that quality
check after three people wrote about the topics.
So all I had to do was review things so obscure that no one else
would ever review them.
Some of the things I wrote about?
Even individual songs could be reviewed — so I wrote up
Shumba, the forgotten 1963 single by a girl group called the Tammys.
I wrote about a made-for-TV
movie about Gilligan's Island.
I reviewed Lancelot
Link, Secret Chimp.
I mean it — they were paying $3 for reviews of
The forgotten spaghetti western Django.
site where I bought
Funicello. Molly Ringwald's 1987
movie with Robert Downey Jr.
If you could name it,
could write about it.
"Topkapi is the name of a village in Turkey. But it's also the name of
a 1964 comedy starring Peter Ustinov...."
Unfortunately, there were more nerve-wracking rules. Helium wouldn't
anything unless I also submitted my ratings for 300 pairs of
their own stories. (And the quality of those ratings would be judged
by a secret invisible algorithm that you couldn't see.) But
I gave it a shot, and early on the site indicated that I'd passed the
So then it was back to reviewing more bad TV
There was one other very tricky rule. At least 25% of the
articles had to be on topics
that other people actually were writing about too. I couldn't
so I scoured the site for 75 topics so trivial that there were
exactly two articles, both of which I could beat when the "quality" was
And then it was back to reviewing bad movies.
After I'd written 75 really-good articles, I'd play it safe. I'd write 225
more articles, nearly all on topics no one would ever want to write
In fact, the hardest part was dreaming up
enough obscure things to review after I'd used up the first 200 most
Were they really accepting reviews of comic books? I reviewed the bound
collection of issues
1-6 of The
Irredeemable Ant-Man. And then I reviewed issues
Ultimately it was like my brain exploded, spewing out a written record of
wasted hour of my childhood. It was like a leftover homework assignment
from high school — "Review every TV show you've ever watched."
It was like a mid-life crisis gone horribly wrong...
At its best, I was cataloging a lifetime's worth of guilty pleasures.
I reviewed that
Peter Lorre movie I watched
when I was six.
I read as a teenager. The
Garbage Pail Kids movie.
Trek V -
And then something strange happened.
I'd spent 150 hours of my life living with this project,
and developed a kind of Stockholm Syndrome —
a horrible sympathy for the people who'd churned out
mediocre entertainment in lifetimes gone by.
I think it was when I was describing the plot of a
1927 silent movie.
44-year-old Lon Chaney had spent his entire adult life acting out
morbid stories with grotesque makeup, and that melodrama was one of the
crowning achievements of his life.
And I felt another pang of bittersweet nostalgia while writing up the 1955
TV show starring the actor who'd
Alonzo quarrels with the circus's owner, and strangles him with his
double-thumb... Safely back in his circus wagon, Alonzo lights a
cigarette with his feet. As he pulls it to his mouth with his toes, the
dwarf makes a strange observation.
"You are forgetting that you have
"It was the last year of Robert Newton's life, and he'd earned a roguish
reputation in real life as an unpredictable
alcoholic. But he brings a real delight in his final star turn as the
pirate, fussed over at the Cask and Anchor tavern..."
I'd originally begun including biographical
information about the actors'
lives just to pad things out.
But now I was really beginning to feel for them.
By the time the musical was
released, Oscar Hammerstein had
To add new songs to the
film, Richard Rodgers wrote both the melody and
Caroline Ellis is nearly 60 years old now, but she still reaches out to
any fans who remember her youthful stardom on the
Bugaloos in 1970.
Devo's founder Gerald Casale was 57 years old when he released a
nostalgic solo album. "There was a time when time
was on our side," he sings... "Now it's too late. That time has passed us
Maybe I was beginning to wonder if it all meant something, when taken as
a collection — a secret history of the 20th century, as seen by
33-year-old Sammy Davis Jr. performed in one of the first starring
ever for a black actor...in a heart-tugging story that was written by Kurt Vonnegut.
Winchell created a popular children's show called "Winchell Mahoney
Time," but the studio later destroyed all their tapes of it in a bitter
dispute over syndication rights.
William Shatner was 73 when he recorded Has
Been... In one chilling,
two-minute track, Shatner even whispers his memory of finding his wife's
body drowned in a swimming pool after accidentally combining alcohol
They were all snapshots of someone's life, and every moment I'd
spent watching it represented a moment in their life
that they'd spent creating it.
Just three years before the group's only album was released,
Linda Perry had been singing on the streets,
and had already struggled with substance abuse.
J.D. Natasha was just 16 years old when she recorded Plastico.
But her first album became her last album, and "Plastico" stands as
a stark wail at the start of a career that never was.
To pad out the film
still further, the producers included a ten-minute
sequence in which live monkeys re-enact "Cinderella."
What does it mean? I'm almost afraid to ask. Maybe pop culture is a
broken mirror, and if you look at it too long you'll go insane.
But even if that's true — at least I was there to pick up the
pieces, and sell
them all to a
web site for $900.
for a list
of all the reviews
Or click here for the surprising follow-up to this essay!
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