There are two kinds of insomniacs: the productive and the unproductive. The productive work all night, putting their fretful hours to good use. Some people ask: “How does he or she manage to accomplish all that in a twenty four hour day?” But they are being much too hard on themselves. The normal person does not have a twenty-four hour day, but a sixteen or seventeen hour one, the remainder being taken up by a boat ride on the river Lethe. Only the productive insomniac manages to cheat nature.
The unproductive insomniac is another species altogether. He spends his late night and early morning hours half dosing, as the time slowly slips by. Sad to say, the unproductive insomniac waits with eager anticipation for the dog to get up. It is a wonder how such persons ever remained sane, if they did, before the advent of cable TV. And what progress has been made over the past few years! From the days, I mean nights, of Australian football and Philippine badminton on ESPN, the modern insomniac now has a much greater choice. A conservative need no longer suffer through Hannity more than once or repeat in his mind every line of Lenny’s from Law and Order. Nowadays the early morning fare has been supplemented by a new and creative genre: the infomercial.
There has been a remarkable evolution in this genre. Take exercise. From the staid and rationalist pitch of Chuck Norris and Christie Brinkley for the “Total Gym,” we have graduated by stages to the intense “Insanity” infomercial. Our trainer Shaun—we are on a first-name basis—promises ripped abs in sixty days, but only to the truly devoted. No babying here: “How badly do you want it?,” a stern voice asks. At 4 am I can be tempted.
Let’s not ignore the infomercials for beauty and anti-aging products. I put it to you point blank: which unproductive insomniac is not fully familiar with Dr. Jean-Louis Sabagh, the genius who has managed to keep Cindy Crawford looking in her twenties as she slips into her forties? The Crawford-Sabagh infomercial, which is the most sophisticated of the genre yet produced, lets us have a close relation to Cindy, who in turn introduces Dr. Sabagh. The program then treats us to some lovely scenes from Provence, the birthplace of Dr. Sabagh and the region from which he extracts the secret ingredient that is the foundation of his miracle lotion. It comes from a certain kind of cantaloupe that grows only those environs.
It is the cleaning and kitchen equipment, however, that has long been the staple of the late-night infomercial. I have always been drawn to the programs in this area, if not for their cinematic qualities, then for their sound consumer advice. True, this genre started out in a crude and amateurish fashion, featuring Japanese ninja-style chefs who wielded knives capable of slicing thru all manner of things, from tomatoes and potatoes to counter tops and microwave ovens. These infomercials were also originally vulgar enough to add: “and wait, there is more,” as you were promised an additional mini version of the knife set at no extra charge, other than for shipping and handling. These infomercials also allowed you to purchase your product in three easy payments, a practice I never appreciated- not because I am a snob, but, on the contrary, because I always suspected that this was meant to take advantage of the little guy.
Yet as time went on, these kitchen infomercials began to blossom, adding layers of complexity and nuance. An important breakthrough was a “live” audience in a studio setting, with allowed for spontaneous reactions and applause. And over the years, the diversity of these audiences grew to keep pace with the changes in America’s population. Well in advance of the 2012 election, the best of the infomercials had figured out the current shibboleth that demography is destiny. In this genre, there was a wonderful series on blenders and juice extractors, each program more subtle and textured than the last. I have three or four juice extractors on a shelf in my basement that testify to the dramatic power of these sales pitches.
I have saved the best for last, which are the infomercials on cooking devices. We are long past the day of George Foreman grills and hot sandwich makers. I am talking about new kinds of ovens, all the way up to the nu-wave, an amazing device that cooks faster than a conventional oven and leaves a much smaller carbon footprint. The secret is found in a tri-partite cooking method, worthy of Hippodamus: conduction, convection, and infra-red. The device sits right on your countertop, and when you are done goes right into the dishwasher. I took mine on its inaugural voyage last evening , and enjoyed a sweet night of REM sleep dreaming of new recipes.
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