I first discovered Michael Larson’s story on one of those random internet listicles with a click-baity title, something like “10 Most INSANE Moments in Gameshow History!” I don’t know why I bothered to read it. I wasn’t interested in gameshows, per se; but I caught a glimpse of this disheveled little man in a bushy beard who was blowing the lid off of a gameshow that was supposed to be mostly about luck. He had figured something out that no one else had seen. He was gaming the gameshow.
I went down the Larson rabbit hole, leaving the superficial listicle and dredging up more in-depth articles on the man: how he had dedicated his life to studying Press Your Luck, breaking down every moment of every episode until he finally cracked its code. It was an unbelievable process, probably one that no other person would have even bothered with.
America has one great mythical figure lodged deep in its heart: the Rugged Individual.
America has one great mythical figure lodged deep in its heart: the Rugged Individual. We worship those lone people who buck institutions, who are faster, better, smarter than everyone else around them. We salivate over this idea that some scrappy underdog who dedicates his entire energy and mind to a project can beat The System. What is The System? Well, we’re pretty fuzzy on that, as you can guess from reading any number of things posted on your Facebook feed, but we know that it’s out there, and it’s vaguely threatening in some way. So, we’re always looking to our great hero, Rugged Individual, to swoop in and sock it in the eye.
That’s the myth, anyway. The truth, as per usual, is much more complicated. Sure, Larson beat The System on Press Your Luck, but America didn’t keep its eye on him after that moment. He went on, trying again and again to beat more systems, and that’s where the myth breaks down. He lost every cent that he had won in increasingly crazy schemes, and when those didn’t pan out, he transitioned from legally exploiting loopholes in systems to outright scamming individuals with a remarkable ease.
Unfortunately, that’s the true story of the Rugged Individual, taken to its logical extreme. With such a blind devotion to the idea that you are the smartest person in the room, it is easy to skip across moral boundaries without even noticing.
Unfortunately, that’s the true story of the Rugged Individual, taken to its logical extreme. With such a blind devotion to the idea that you are the smartest person in the room, it is easy to skip across moral boundaries without even noticing. Look at the Enron debacle, the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme, the collapse of the housing market. All of these troubling stories were driven by individuals who sincerely believed that they were the smartest guys in the room and therefore had a right to skirt the rules that the rest of us follow. They became addicted to the idea of “winning” (whatever that means). Look where that got us.
Michael Larson embodied that same mode of thought, and he died before he could be brought to justice for his final illegal schemes. I watched a documentary about him, where the contestants and crew from that infamous episode of Press Your Luck got together to remember him. Peter Tomarken, the host of the show, raised a toast to the deceased Larson and said, “If there’s a God up there, all I can say is, watch your pockets.” Everyone laughed. They still respected him in a weird way, even though he had ended his life literally stealing money from people.
That’s how embedded this idea is in our culture, and I think it’s at the root of most of our terrible behaviors as Americans. Every single one of us believes that we’re secretly the best and deserving of the best, damn the consequences for others!
That’s how embedded this idea is in our culture, and I think it’s at the root of most of our terrible behaviors as Americans. Every single one of us believes that we’re secretly the best and deserving of the best, damn the consequences for others! This isn’t all bad. It can lead us to all trying our hardest to make new discoveries, new creations, to be the best and brightest that we can; but the Bernie Madoffs of the world also swim in that pool, applying all their massive talent and energy to making a buck and contributing nothing else.
So, how do you explore this idea without massively depressing your audience and sending them home in fits of rage and/or desperation? Thankfully, Michael Larson was such a delightfully odd man, and gameshows are exciting. I want to bring the audience fully into the gameshow world, take them on the roller coaster of hope and anticipation, and give them a scruffy, lovable underdog to root for as he takes them, smiling, across that line. Hopefully, the audience will laugh and cheer, enjoy themselves, and then at some point down the road think to themselves, “Wait a minute! This is wrong, isn’t it?”
And maybe they’ll win a prize along the way. We do so love winning prizes.
Derek Lee Miller is Project Lead for Sandbox Theatre’s Big Money, playing January 12-28 at Park Square Theatre in the Historic Hamm Building on the Andy Boss Thrust Stage.