A long time ago my family came up with an idea for a business. Basically it consisted of a solitary operator sitting by a phone who, when called, would pick up and answer a simple question: "Is RANDOM CELEBRITY NAME dead?"
The name of this hypothetical cash cow? 1800-ARE-THEY-DEAD.
Is it too many numbers? Yes. Is it relatively macabre? Yes. Was it an awesome idea? Absolutely.
But, since this was the mid-90s, the idea became quickly moot as the powerhouse that is AOL taught us all what it was like to sit through modem noise, only to be disconnected moments after launching our Netscape browsers.
In other words: The Internet killed our business idea. There is an irony to writing that sentence in a newspaper column, but I can't seem to find it.
So we didn't become billionaires based on the idea that people would spend money to settle small arguments with each other over whether or not Burgess Meredith is dead.
He is. For a while now.
And I'm OK with that. Normally, when I feel I have been jilted out of unearned millions by people who have never met me, I become somewhat incensed and usually quell my rage with scotch and some VERY aggressive channel flipping.
But not this time. Because this time my family's idea (1-800-ARE-THEY-DEAD) was beaten out by a far superior piece of internet wonderdom, the Internet Movie DataBase.
Yes, that great settler of all arguments that start with "Wasn't he the guy who was in that one movie?" IMDB is an invaluable tool for people that just want to know if TV's George Peppard is dead (yes) or if there really was a different kid playing DJ in the first episode of Roseanne (also yes, and it makes watching that episode really strange).
But IMDB is so much more than merely a repository for all the Trivia that Time Forgot.
Take an American movie classic like "Breakfast at Tiffany's." On the surface you have just another movie about prostitutes finding love and eating pastries. But let the wonderful world of IMDB show you just what you've been missing with such Web 2.0 innovations like the always classy User Reviews.
Your love of Audrey Hepburn will increase ten-fold when you read reviews with headlines like "What is an Asian?" and "She was so skinny!" With a reviewer named bigbluecheese how can you go wrong?
Not into the whole "user generated content" thing? Demanding to hear a "professional" opinion? IMDB offers Critics Reviews, which is just like User Reviews, but it consists mostly of Roger Ebert telling us why all movies made after 1965 are garbage.
I miss Siskel.
But what if you don't care about reviews? What if the only thing you want to know is just how much cursing can I expect when I show this movie about two prostitutes to my children?
Behold! The greatest hidden treasure of comedy in the Western World, the IMDB parent's guide.
The IMDB parent's guide is what would happen if The Christian Science Monitor bought Mr. Skin. Every potentially offensive word, action or image in a movie is cataloged by a dedicated cadre of movie watchers, then broken down into five categories: Sex&Nudity, Violence&Gore, Profanity, Alcohol/Drugs/Smoking, and Frightening/Intense Scenes. Then each instance is listed in the proper category and given a numerical value, then the values are added together into an easy to read total that reminds you maybe your kids shouldn't be watching "The Hangover."
But the real charm of the IMDB parent's guide shines through when you do a side-by-side comparison. You see, while the dedicated cadre of movie watchers may all understand their job, each interprets the rules to fit their own interpretation.
Case in point: "E.T." versus "Scarface."
"Scarface:" Three instances of Sex/Nudity.
"E.T.:" Four instances of Sex/Nudity. Four! Including one of my personal favorite "offensive" image listings "A man kisses a woman in a movie playing on TV."
That's meta offensive! Hide the children!
"Scarface:" 17 instances in the Violence&Gore section.
"E.T.:" 31 instances.
How is "E.T." more violent than "Scarface?" Well, the user that wrote the "Scarface" guide likes to lump instances together, like "In the subsequent gunfight four people are shot and killed with bloody results;" whereas the "E.T" reviewer enumerates each violent instance, like "A woman spills coffee," or "A boy burps loudly."
Maybe I don't get to be one of the wealthy one percent, maybe I'll never have enough cash to live out my dream of me and my supermodel/astronaut girlfriend riding a velociraptor through The Louvre, but until the day I or the Internet dies, I'll always have a website to back me up about the hidden, violent dangers of "E.T." And to let me know if the guy who played Chainsaw in "Summer School" ever made another movie ... did he? Better check IMDB.
Copy Editor Wes Burns is a Sunday columnist. The views expressed in this column are personal views of the writer and don't necessarily reflect the views of the T-R. Contact Wes Burns at 641-753-6611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.