Character breakfast of champions 

It's a tough time to be a walking cartoon. But no one can say they didn't see it coming.

Almost two years ago, I took a trip to one of the theme parks to do my small part in bailing out the local tourist economy from its post-Sept. 11 torpor. I also wanted to see if the rumors I had heard of rampant personnel cutbacks were true. (Legitimate response to calamity or convenient cost-slashing excuse? For a low, low $51.95, you too can make the call.)

One of the first things I noticed was the drastic whittling down of a stage show I had remembered as an elaborate horror-and-comedy spectacular. Its trained, multiple-actor cast was gone, replaced by one pudgy, petrified redhead who had clearly never received an hour's worth of instruction in public speaking. As the idiot-proof jokes in her lazily mumbled script somehow coaxed polite chuckles from the audience, I realized that the entertainment-services sector was about to exit a long and shameful period in which it had been a closed shop to inanimate objects. My mind raced ahead to future visits and the giddy prospect that I would one day be greeted at the turnstile by a flank steak.

Now, I'm not going to name the park in question. I know the bloodier-minded souls among you may be disappointed. To them I say: You don't understand the concept of the "media buffet," nor how degrading it is to be barred from one. But I thought back to my experience with the talking rump roast again recently, when I heard that the corporate parent of the very same park had merged with one of the big broadcast networks. Again, no names; but it's not CBS, ABC, Fox or The Golf Channel.

Rumor had it that, as a reward for closing the big deal, some of the company's top players were in line to receive bonuses totaling in the tens of millions. That struck me as odd, since only weeks earlier, the park had let go of another passel of its contracted performers, through a long and complex process human-resources executives refer to as "shitcanning." The company had trimmed said fat by abruptly discontinuing an estimated 14 costumed characters, including a bunch of stunt-riding cowboys, Boris Badenov, Barney Rubble, Betty Rubble and Yasser Arafat. (Come to think of it, I'm not sure about that last one. I'll get back to you.) If nothing else, this impressed me as a novel approach to downsizing, and one that could stand us all in good stead in our personal lives: "Honey, I'm not divorcing you per se. I'm just eliminating the character of the Shrill, Keening Fishwife."

It was the actors' best guess that they had been purged to make the company's bottom line look more alluring, thus greasing the coming merger. In the wake of the bonus stories, though, I thought I'd glean some further context by talking to one of the actual performers bounced from the park (which is located extremely close to Kirkman Road but is not The Holy Land Experience). We'll call him "Steve," since that's my own name, and I never grow tired of hearing it.

Steve, I've just done a quick profit-and-loss statement here. On second thought, it may be a cost-benefit analysis. I never took any business courses. Somewhere, your former bosses managed to cobble up a bonus pot of at least $10 million. There were 14 characters cut from the park. Doing the math, that comes to a base savings of $714,285.70 per character. I think the question that needs to be asked is, just how in the hell much were you guys eating, anyway?

Well, they didn't feed us. We had to pay for our own food.

Oh. Did anybody offer you make-up work as a worm wrangler on Fear Factor?

Yes. Unfortunately, though, my skin ... I can't do that. My doctors told me to stay away from that. Which is going to affect my unemployment.

'Fess up, now. Who was it that got you all fired? Was it that Barney Rubble? I never did trust that Barney Rubble.

It was Barney and Betty's shenanigans. They were having a thing going with the Men in Black and it kind of got freaky and someone said something. It all went down bad.

Now that you have so much free time on your hands, have you been able to avail yourself of greater Orlando's many fine yachting opportunities?

Yes, at the Eola Yacht Club. I've got my boat docked there. And my tan has improved tenfold.

Here's a real brainteaser to wrestle with -- a moral dilemma, if you will. Let's say your old boss calls you back and offers you seasonal work at hourly wages, but with no health benefits or insurance. While you're mulling this proposal, he hits you with a plan B: Instead of accepting the temp work, you can just have a flat payment of $10 million. You can't take both; it's one or the other, and your choice is final and nonnegotiable. Which way do you jump?

Wow. That is a brainteaser. I'm going to have to be a tried-and-true American and stick with it and work the hourly wage. Because that's what Americans do. We work for our money. We don't take handouts.

Finally, do you really think that having an extra $10 million would make you happy? Or would it only exacerbate the problems you have now?

I think I'd be a lot less fun to be around.

There, now, that wasn't so inflammatory, was it? A burning issue dissected in detail, without a name named or a single strip of black tape ripped from anyone's eyes. And anyway, I'd never want to suggest that workplace injustice is a phenomenon restricted to one parcel of amusement-biz real estate. In all walks of life, the haves are living it up at the expense of the have-nots, and the situation is going to get worse before it gets better. When you get right down to it, I guess what I'm saying is that the problem is universal.

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