Forgive me if you’ve heard this story before. It needs retelling after I came across the video on youtube. His name was Paul Michael Larson. In the winter of 1984 he was selling ice cream out of a truck to the kids of Lebanon, Ohio while repeating clown music drove him to watch television games shows.
Larson especially enjoyed watching the game show, Press Your Luck. It was a fun show. Contestants would slap a big plunger button in fear of a whammy lighting up on the big board. If the whammy came up, you lost. If not, the random flashing board would light up a prize. You can keep the prize and quit, or, you can try for another prize, but if you get the whammy you lose everything. A person’s greed always kept the large prize money in check. Getting a whammy was only a matter of time. (Odds were about 1 in 6.)
Larson thought he saw a pattern to the flashing board and took it upon himself to tape each episode and study them meticulously. He found the pattern. There were only six background boards that would repeat in sequence. After he memorized the boards and the pattern it was only a matter of coordination.
On May 19, 1984, Michael Larson made that whammy his bitch. It wasn’t until the second half of the show, when the big money board was being used, that Larson made his move. What happened next has my schandenfrued guru lusting to go back in time just to watch the Press Your Luck executive producer/director Bill Carruthers lose his mind.
I’m sure lost money was fueling his anxiety, but after a while he had to be questioning his own sanity. Why would this guy spin again with $60k in the bank if there was a chance to lose it all? Why is he doing it again? Why is he spinning again? Why? Why? WTF is going on? How can he not hit a whammy?
Carruthers, in freak out, made the call to Michael Brockman, CBS’s head of daytime programming, in hopes of freaking him out. I imagine he succeeded. Bringing the story into historical context, the scandal of the TV game show 21 was difficult to forget. For game show producers, the nightmare scenario was more Congressional hearings. Stopping the game only because they were losing must of appeared to be a one-way ticket to subpoena city. Unless they could figure out what was happening, there was nothing to stop Larson from looting CBS with this stupid little show.
After $80 thousand I imagine Carruthers must of been spinning around room like the gay guy in Airplane yelling, “Auntie-Em, Auntie-Em, It’s a twister! It’s a twister!” Brockman must of been on the other end of the phone demanding updates on the disaster. “How much? How much?!? What the **** is going on over there? I’m calling in a bomb threat!”
But then, Larson lost his nerve. After 45 spins and over $100,000 in prize money, Larson stopped. 100k was his number. It was the most money won my ever won at one time on a T.V. game show. 21 had payed out the huge sum of 120k to Charles Van Doren over 15 weeks. This was 1984 dollars and it took Larson less than a day. In the end, CBS had to pay him $110,237. After all, Larson had not cheated and it wasn’t illegal to pay attention.
It’s important to note that Larson’s opponents were suffering from the same level of confusion that Carruthers was facing. The host, Peter Tomarken, was awestruck and had a hard time concealing his feelings. Everyone in the audience was wounded as well. No one could figure out how, or why, or what, they had just seen. There was no rational explanation as to why Larson would continue to spin with so much money in the bank. There was no rational explanation as to how he could become so lucky. On top of that, no one in the audience could really work up the good will towards Larson’s win after viewing repeated violations of the laws of physics. Confusion reined.
That’s what tickles me the most. Hundreds of people, all at once, going home from a long day, and repeatedly questioning themselves, “What the F**k did I just see?”
Life didn’t treat Larson well after that. He lost most of his money in a Ponzi scheme and the rest was actually stolen from him. Larson’s story was the story of the little guy, the loser, the sad sack, and how, one day, one perfect day, he stuck it to the man. He beat the bank at it’s own game. Bravo Michael! It was smart not to get greedy. I don’t want to own CBS either.
After a while the feds had tracked down Larson for the Ponzi scheme, but they didn’t get their man. (Oddly enough, here’s a picture of Charles Ponzi for which the Ponzi scheme is named after.) This time the whammy was Wal-Mart. Larson was an assistant manager and was shit-out-of-luck when it came to health benefits. In good Christian fashion, even though Wal-Mart makes more money than many countries, they would rather their employee’s die than pay for their health insurance. In 1999, Larson died of throat cancer before the feds could apprehended him.
Philosophers often wrangle with the question, “Would you want to know how and when you are going to die?” Most people say no. I have always been a yes-man to that question and for just that reason. When I die of natural causes I want to be a million dollars in debt with the mafia and have a thousand cops busting through my front door only to find my fresh corpse with an unpaid prostitute. Larson had the right idea. He stuck it to the man one last time.
Here is Michael on Press Your Luck: