The story is that TMZ stands for "thirty mile zone."
That probably tells you why almost everything on the Web site seems so parochial and limited. The prime gossip site has, for a while now, had its own nightly TV show at 11, opposite all the local newscasts and "The Daily Show."
Now that the writers' strike has plunged "The Daily Show" into the basement freezer next to the frozen peas and Formica chicken breasts, the major news alternative is TMZ's nightly excursion into what a tiny patch of Los Angeles lives for.
Which, I submit to you, just gets weirder and weirder.
The Web site and the show are the brainchildren of Harvey Levin, an attorney by training and TV judicial reporter when he made his bones during the O.J. Simpson trial and almost ruined the whole deal when he ran an erroneous report on a Marcia Clark search. He apologized later.
The site of Levin's rise still obsesses the fellow. On last Monday's TMZ show, he showed us a vintage Simpson tape that he seemed to think burned with Simpson trial significance and I thought was a crashing redundancy. It showed O.J. at the House of Blues at a point where he and Nicole Brown Simpson were supposed to be very much apart, but with O.J., on camera, calling Nicole "my woman."
It seems to me, once you've read the blood-soaked pages of "If I Did It" -- or even read about it -- Levin's little tape is about as significant as an old grocery list from Mr. Rogers.
Then there's the whole Britney Spears mess which, I must confess, I'm having more and more difficulty fathoming.
Please don't get me wrong about this particular reality soap opera. I'd like a nice healthy home environment and lifetime of vehicular safety for those two kids as much as anyone, but I just don't understand why a mosh pit of paparazzi have to be convened every time she shops for yogurt or tests positive for some substance stronger than cappuccino.
The whole tabloid point of her stumbling, crotch-baring, fender-bending odyssey through fame and wealth seems to be that she's really a drug-addled floozy and fraud and deserves none of it -- especially not custody of two healthy and happy kids.
My problem is that other than a passing interest in her children's welfare, I couldn't give a panty raid what she may or may not deserve and I find the whole American obsession increasingly ridiculous.
If I were her, I'd have gotten a driver a long time ago and moved as far away from the "thirty mile zone" as possible. (Minneapolis anyone? El Paso? Cheektowaga?)
The freak show symbiosis, though, of the body-baring starlet and spillage-crazed paparazzi has been the essence of the relationship since the first paparazzi started haunting Rome's Via Veneto more than 50 years ago. (For which see, in dramatic form, the undulations and cavortings of Anita Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain in filmmaker Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita.")
We have long since gotten used to the idea that there may indeed be a peculiar form of star pathology that needs an accompanying crush of photographers as much as -- or more than -- one's own children. Required there, it seems to me, isn't TMZ nightly but "young Hollywood's" very own Dr. Phil explaining it all -- or trying to.
It is true, though, that TMZ goes the extra mile in its vacuuming of dirt that other people miss. When, last week, the entire world of entertainment info-tattle announced that Spears hadn't tested positive for any drug that hadn't already been prescribed by a court-appointed doctor, only TMZ reported that the prescribed medication she is known to use is often used by recovering coke addicts.
And I'll say one more thing for Levin's nightly foray into raw snottiness and the deeper irrelevancies of Z-list celebrities on TMZ on TV: It presents all of its smarminess in an original way.
The whole show is offered to us nightly as a kind of editorial meeting in which each individual producer presents his or her daily piece of life inside the thirty mile zone to be offered for our eternal edification, whether it's what Sharon Stone wore last night or what Lindsay Lohan looked like in her last sighting.
That's an original way to offer us all this drek -- a connection between celeb-rubbish and the smarty-pants who make a living off it. My trouble is that any time they present their stories to Levin at his televised "meeting," I want to ask "what's wrong with you people? Why on earth do you care?"
This, as NPR's Ira Glass might say, is "Our American Life" these days without Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show."