America, Land of Shtick

You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” – Winston Churchill

The latest in an endless stream of non-events elevated to the status of sensationalistic national news is bounty hunter Duane “Dog” Chapman’s getting caught in the N-Word Trap. Can we learn anything worthwhile from this spectacle?

For me, it was just another reminder of how many people in America, Land of Shtick, become rich and famous without ever producing anything of real value.

Case in Point:

John Basedow is the front guy for TV’s Fitness Made Simple infomercials. For years, I assumed Basedow was a deaf mute, because as we watched him posing and flexing, all we heard was an actor doing the voice-over for the ad. But then, at the end of one of his infomercials, I heard Basedow himself say, “Real results for real people.” Wow! Not just any old results, but real results.

Case in Point:

Japan’s Takeru Kobayashi is one of the most talked about athletes of our time. What’s that? You don’t know what sport he’s in? Shame on you. Kobayashi is a competitive eater – the six-time winner of Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest. Sadly, he was defeated by California’s Joey Chestnut in the 2007 event.

But give the guy a break. He had an injured jaw. Even so, he managed to make it a close race against Chestnut, who set a new world record by downing 63 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes. With such natural athletic ability, why work for a living?

Case in Point:

John Edward – “international psychic medium” – is perhaps my favorite. Don’t confuse him with the John Edwards of $500-haircut fame. The John Edward I’m talking about deals in the ultimate shtick-instead-of-work scheme: talking to the dead.

Based on the few times I’ve seen Edward perform on television, I can say with confidence that if he can talk to the dead, I can sing opera. You’d think Edward, as a result of the law of averages, would occasionally get lucky and make a right guess. But I’ve never seen him make even one.

In all fairness, however, I have to admit that he’s fabulous at talking fast and cleverly getting his subjects to provide him with personal information – information that he then appropriates for his own use. “I’m getting a P name. Who is this, please?” This is known in the trade as a “cold reading,” and some so-called psychics are pretty darn good at it. Unfortunately, Edward isn’t one of them.

Case in Point:

The other night, I flicked the channel to see who was on Larry King Live. I quickly regretted it. Something called “Criss Angel” – that refers to itself as a “mindfreak” – was King’s exalted guest. Angel looked 16 years old, though I later discovered that he is actually 39.

My jaw froze in the open position as I watched with awe… black baseball cap sitting sideways on his head… gaudy rings on every finger except his right thumb… while he explained how he’d had fishhooks inserted into his back, then hung from a helicopter 1,000 feet above the ground. Now that is what you call SHTICK! I’ve always admired grown men who have fishhooks inserted in their backs.

The list challenges infinity. Richard Simmons flitting around in pink exercise outfits. “Skateboard champion” Tony Hawk endorsing products as though he were a big-name athlete. Guys fitted with harnesses and pulling semi-trailer trucks behind them. And a long list of experts in fields that don’t exist. (“Workplace culture expert,” for example.)

Which brings me back to bounty hunter Dog Chapman’s latest dilemma.

Dog realized early on that he was born under a lucky star when, in the 1970s, he was convicted of murder but got only a five-year prison sentence for his little misstep. Then, after being released from the slammer, the newly rehabilitated Dog made the decision to jump sides and go after the bad guys.

Dog Chapman, Bounty Hunter! Flowing blond hair… fashion-designer bands around his biceps… scrubby beard… lots of leather. Every prop one could imagine. This is as good as it gets in Land-of-Shtick America.

So, can we learn anything from the blizzard of shtick that relentlessly comes at us from our television sets every day? What should we tell our kids? That shtick is better than working for a living? What should we tell ourselves? To stop busting our buns to produce value in the marketplace and, instead, find a gimmick that has fame-and-fortune potential?

Tempting, to be sure… but I think not. The problem is that no matter how many people you fool, you can never fool all of the people all of the time. Worse, you’ll never totally fool yourself, no matter how hard you try to buy into your own BS

There are, after all, some things that really are more important than fame and fortune. Little abstract concepts such as integrity, for example. Integrity is adherence to one’s code of moral values. Meaning that if, in your mind, you know what’s right, what’s sound, what’s moral, what’s of real value to yourself and to the world, do it.

When the unpayable U.S. debt finally comes home to roost, people may be too busy earning a living to watch shtick on TV. And that’s when you’ll be thankful that you’re a creator of wealth rather than a purveyor of shtick. That’s when it will become obvious to those who once applauded shtick artists that it’s guys like you who are stoking the badly crippled U.S. economy.

So I say, ignore the temptation to deal in shtick. Instead, be persistent about staying the course that leads to wealth creation. It’s a great insurance policy if shtick should go out of style.

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