In this time of sheltering in place and passing the hours streaming TV, gadget enthusiast Dick DeBartolo suggests you order a pair of prism glasses.
“I had to find something people could use while they’re stuck inside reading or watching hours and hours of television,” said DeBartolo, who appears regularly on radio and TV as the Gizmo Wizard, or GizWiz. “Then I remembered my prism glasses, which let you read or watch television while you’re in a totally prone position. They’re basically eyeglasses with 45-degree mirrors in them.”
One way to think of DeBartolo is as a cultural icon. With a shaved head and a bushy Fu Manchu mustache, the 74-year-old life-long New Yorker has written for MAD magazine since 1961 and was a staff writer on The Match Game TV show. He likes to call himself MAD’s maddest writer. His friends call him Dicky D.
“We’ve had the best working relationship for more than 20 years now,” said Leo Laporte, who grew up reading MAD. His syndicated weekend radio show, The Tech Guy, airs a GizWiz segment every Saturday. “Dicky D never fails to make me smile with his cockeyed take on the world. He’s not just a legend—he’s my legend.”
DeBartolo also does a monthly gadget segment on ABC’s World News Tonight and his own GizWiz podcast, which ran for 10 years on Laporte’s TWIT podcast network before spinning off as an independent production.
DeBartolo also does a YouTube show called Giz Fiz, on which he watches old hokey black-and-white instructional films while wisecracking over the soundtrack a la Mystery Science Theater 3000. One recent episode had DeBartolo riffing off an educational film for kids on personal hygiene that included an eerie reminder of this perilous moment: kids were urged to cover their noses with a handkerchief when they sneezed.
DeBartolo has not had to venture outside for a while now. His home recording studio occupies one of his two adjacent apartments. He lives in the other. His husband Dennis resides in a separate apartment directly above him. “We’re practicing social distancing,” DeBartolo jokes. “We share meals, a backyard, and a dog.”
The backyard has a working set of toy trains, which is the technology that got DeBartolo’s gizmo obsession started when he was a kid. His apartment is known as Gizneyland and like the theme song to his GizWiz podcast says, there are “rows and rows of USBs, growing, glowing LEDs.”
DeBartolo’s gadget collection
Some of it is museum-worthy tech, like the first Sony Walkman, the first LED book light, the first digital camera (a Casio), and one of the first cell phones that recorded video. Other devices in his collection are more recent but lean toward the wacky, such as magnetic shoe laces, a radio that has lips that move in sync with the spoken word, a High Voltage Junction Box, and a $20 Halloween prank that has blue LEDs that go off with a warning. His studio has seven computers and a mouse shaped like a racing car with buttons on the hood.
An Accidental Giz Wiz
DeBartolo’s career as an on-air gadget hound was something of an accident. In 1962, a year after he sold his first piece to Mad magazine, DeBartolo was hired as a writer on The Match Game, which was produced by Goodson-Todman Productions, the company behind many hit TV game shows of the latter half of the 20th century, including I’ve Got A Secret, What’s My Line, and Family Feud.
In the early 1980s, a woman who worked as an associate producer on What’s My Line remembered what a funny guy DeBartolo was and thought to invite him on to a new show called Saturday Morning Live. DeBartolo suggested they do a segment focused on gadgets. It went well and DeBartolo became a regular on the broadcast.
“Dick was delightful,” said Saturday Morning Live producer Barbara Griff, who is now retired and living in North Carolina. “Everybody loved him. He was so easy to work with.”
After catching him on Saturday Morning Live, the producers of Live With Regis and Kathie Lee invited DeBartolo onto their show. Next, Good Morning, America came knocking and then ABC’s World News Tonight.
While the coronavirus pandemic has caused ABC to cut back on soft news and features for the time being, DeBartolo continues to do his GizWiz podcast four times a month. His co-host is a 30-year-old Texan with red hair named Chad Johnson, a.k.a. OMG Chad. Johnson started his career as a stage manager for Brian Brushwood’s magic act and then went to work at TWIT as a producer for Laporte. Johnson reviews crappy gadgets on the GizWiz podcast.
“Every time I co-host a show with Dicky D, I’m reminded of just how much knowledge and history and cultural impact he has,” Johnson said.
What the Heck Is It?
The GizWiz podcast’s audience is modest. It has between 5,000 and 10,000 downloads an episode and doesn’t run ads. But its fans participate by both contributing content and taking part in a wacky contest. They send in videos of their favorite gadgets, which get incorporated into the podcast. And 222 of them support the GizWiz on Patreon by contributing a total of $417 an episode, enough to pay for the show’s server and cover some of its producer’s salary.
The fan base also sends in entries for the “What the Heck Is It” contest, which is promoted on The Tech Guy radio show as well as on the GizWiz website. Every two months a photograph of a gadget that is not easily recognizable is posted online and the challenge is to either correctly identify the gadget or come up with a funny wrong answer. In true Mad fashion, there are twice as many autographed copies of Mad magazine for the people with the wrong answers as there are for those who send in the correct answers.
What the Heck Is It contest photo
Initially, DeBartolo used promotional photos from the gadget manufacturers for the contest but eventually realized that people were simply using Google image search to figure out what was in the photograph. So now he photographs the gadgets himself at odd angles to thwart his crafty followers. In recent months, the mystery gadgets have included sunglasses that supposedly shield the identities of celebrities from paparazzi, lighted tent stakes, a suction shower caddy, and an alarm trigged by earthquakes. Because DeBartolo is a bit obsessed with kitchen gadgets, the contests have featured a rubber add-on that turns a kitchen faucet into a drinking fountain, a sushi roll maker, a spiral hot dog slicer, and a champagne bottle stopper, which no one could identify.
DeBartolo gets about 30 pitches a day from public relations people who want him to talk up their products. He admits getting annoyed when they suggest he check out a butter dish or a pot cover.
Dick DeBartolo at CES
A regular at the sprawling CES in Las Vegas every January, during the rest of the year you’ll find DeBartolo wandering the aisles at trade shows for pets, bicycles, boats, and toys. He’s particularly fond of a housewares show called The Inspired Home, where he recently came across an LED light bulb you can bounce on the floor without breaking it and a water bottle with Bluetooth and a battery charger.
The GizWiz is something of an authority on boats. He was an editor for Powerboat Magazine for 40 years and recently raved about a quarter-million-dollar electric boat, a sort of water-borne Tesla. He had a houseboat docked at a marina in his Manhattan neighborhood for many years, which had a sizable dance floor and was used for MAD magazine parties. Now he has a smaller vessel, which had a Dropcam sending out live video during Hurricane Sandy. More than 70,000 people watched the Hudson River overflow its banks until power went out at the marina.
A public plaza next to the boat marina is used as a gathering place for the annual GizWiz meet-up, where fans get to rub elbows with Dicky D. Sometimes they get to set foot in the sacred halls of Gizneyland. OMGChad, who is based in Dallas, usually makes a point of flying in to New York for the meet-up. Sadly, it is likely that the pandemic will make this year’s gathering impossible.