Scandal and showbiz have always had a mutually beneficial partnership, and in 2003 more than a few bold-faced names left a big, stinking mess in their wake: Jen and Ben's nonwedding kept the paparazzi on their toes, Rush Limbaugh's mouth (and a certain painkiller problem) got him in trouble with ESPN and the law, and Paris Hilton...well, do you really need to be reminded? By the time we got around to warbling ''Auld Lang Syne,'' it was all we could do to hope that the coming year would usher in an era of dignified celebrity behavior.
Dream on! If the recent raft of luminary lunacy is any indication, then 2004 will be a real doozy. During the two-week holiday spell that normally finds Hollywood ensconced in far-off locales like Vail and St. Bart's, no fewer than three stars strayed from their publicists' supervision, adding some major blowouts to an already bulging list of celebrity faux pas. To wit: In a Dec. 28 interview on ''60 Minutes,'' a heavily lipsticked Michael Jackson defended himself against charges of child molestation -- while wearing a blue satin shirt with a sparkly embroidered pattern on the front, people! He also claimed that Santa Barbara police assaulted him and threw him into a bathroom with ''doo-doo...thrown all over the walls.'' (The police department later released a seemingly innocuous video of the arrest and the spick-and-span bathroom, along with a statement rebutting all charges.)
Not to be outdone, ''Crocodile Hunter'' Steve Irwin channeled Jackson's infamous baby-dangling incident when he fed a crocodile with his right hand while -- crikey! -- cradling his month-old son in his left arm. Irwin later offered a weak apology to reporters.
About 7,300 miles and one day later, in Las Vegas, trusty party animal Britney Spears walked down the aisle of the Little White Wedding Chapel and right into trivia's dustbin with her since-annulled, two-day marriage to childhood friend Jason Allen Alexander. Most assumed that Spears, no stranger to public displays of idiocy (see last February's Colin Farrell debacle), pulled a Rachel and married her Ross because she was snockered. Her label's publicist denied the allegation, saying Spears ''took a joke too far.'' Au contraire: The jokes were just beginning. And if rumors are true that Spears has been showing friends a videotape of the ceremony, then the nutty nuptials may just wind up the Net's most popular download since Hilton's rompus interruptus.
So this is America in the waking hours of 2004: blithely mocking the orange alert, still struggling to name at least one Democratic presidential nominee, yet watching, rapt, as the stars amp up their bizarro behavior. Perhaps we assign such weight to their kookiness because the front pages of our morning papers continue to be so dreary. Maybe, in the absence of bigger, better scandals like a former football hero's murder trial or a President's sexcapades, we're searching for our next worthy national obsession.