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Pam and Tommy Bring the Handycam


So there they are, driving the Jeep to Lake Mead, a couple of newlyweds in the full, narcotic bloom of love. He’s a semi-washed-up glam-rocker, all tats and bedhead. She’s a TV star best known for her ability to fill out a red bikini, bottle blonde and pneumatic.

“Damn, baby!” he says, because, despite the fact that he’s steering in the rain while attempting to operate a camcorder, his bride has started to give him head. “Move your hair so you can see,” Tommy tells her helpfully. “Look at that. Fucking rad.” He shakes his engorged man-part for the camera. Then he almost crashes the Jeep and they both laugh.

“Our first holiday, baby,” Pam says. He replies by waggling his cock.

“Don’t hurt him,” she says. “That’s got to get me through the rest of my life. I get this for the rest of my life, kids. Yes!” Pam grabs Little Tommy and squeezes, as if to emphasize the point. She is apparently addressing her unborn children, as if they, too, are destined to view this video.

Soon they’re at the lake. Pam is frolicking nude in the water. “What’s up, lover?” Tommy yells. “Fuck, I love you so much. Fuck, you rip! Fuck, you look amazing. I love you.”

Pam lies nude on the prow of a yacht. “Where’s my cocktail?” she purrs. Tommy tilts down to his dangling appendage, which he will later use to steer the yacht.

And so it goes for 90 mostly wind-swept minutes. If it does nothing else, the footage confirms Tommy as a bona fide rock’n’roll sex god; he’s better hung than you and he gets hotter chicks. There’s clearly enough coitus captured to qualify the video as a sex tape. But anyone who’s seen this romp-and, really, who hasn’t at this point?-can tell you, this isn’t truly porn.

There’s a tenderness to the endeavor, a hammy naïveté that runs contrary to the prevailing narrative of porn. (What self-respecting triple-X starlet would demand of her costar, “When are you going to make me preggos?”)

“The Pam and Tommy Show” remains a pivotal moment in our cultural history. It was, to begin with, our first true viral video. This seems remarkable in the age of YouTube. But 15 years ago, the Internet was still viewed as a relatively geeky realm, not a pathway to salacious scandal. Their video also provided a swift object lesson in the power of porn as a means of promotion. Far from being condemned for their indiscretions, the happy couple were instantly plunked, nude and panting, in the middle of the pop-culture vortex. Every­one had a quip. Everyone had an opinion. Everyone wanted to see the rude bits again.

Pam and Tommy appeared genuinely distressed, at least initially. They claimed the honeymoon tape was stolen from their home and sued to block distribution. But eventually, they settled for a $1.5 million share of the proceeds. (Unwittingly, they’d produced the best-selling porn video of all time.)

Nonetheless, the era of the sex tape as career move had begun: Paris Hilton moping naked in the sickly green light. Kim Kardashian parlaying her romp with singer Ray J into instant celebrity. The inevitable descent of the genre into the ranks of the truly desperate followed: attempted murderer turned porn wannabe Amy Fisher, dwarf actor Verne “Mini-Me” Troyer, mannish pro wrestler Chyna. Could anything be more disgusting? Ah, yes, here it is: Screech inflicting a dirty Sanchez.

But the sex tape is best understood as something more profound: a signifier of our societal willingness to trade individual privacy for the pleasures of mass voyeurism. The essential appeal of these artifacts, after all, resides in their authenticity. We are not watching professionals paid to pump, but amateurs laid bare before us, in all their awkward, human glory. We now have an entire cottage industry devoted to trying to capture this same magic.

The tragic irony of our more prurient “reality programming,” of course, is its blatant artificiality. The producers supply rivers of liquor to contrive conflict, the editors amp up the drama, and the players-most of them aspiring actors-wind up conforming to the clichéd patterns they’ve absorbed from a thousand reruns.

All of which brings us back, ruefully, to Pam and Tommy. Today, it’s almost painful to watch them cavorting. They’re so blissfully ignorant of what’s to come, not just the personal setbacks, but the broader cultural corruptions they unleashed. They bump uglies and moan stupidly, as only soul mates can. They call each other “lover” and “baby.” Tommy begs Pam to spread her legs and she obliges. Then the camera swings violently and Tommy says, “We’re gonna fucking crash, you know that?”

Just a couple of crazy kids, unwittingly foretelling their own fate and just maybe trying to warn the rest of us.

Steve Almond’s Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life (Random House), featuring an awesome essay about his November 2007 Foo Fighters SPIN cover story, is available now.