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A Remembrance of Television Past

For some reason, this morning I was struck with a crystal clear memory. No, it wasn't triggered by the smell of madeline cookies. I'm not sure what triggered it. It appeared in my mind whole, with the strange familiarity of something you thought and talked about often over a period of time, and then forgot completely, so the memory is rich but has not been colored by later reconsideration. It is, instead, frozen in amber.

By now you expect something evocative, profound, and deep. But, no, this is about TV. Just be grateful it isn't about Gilligan's Island. I have those all the time.

My mom used to watch Phil Donahue's show. She found him annoying and silly, but liked his topics, and his audience (this was when it was in Chicago; she quit watching when it moved to New York). One show we watched--more than once, so it must have occurred right after we got the big Betamax--was an interview with other former talk show hosts. Merv Griffin, David Suskind and Dick Cavett were there for sure. I think Mike Douglas was there. There were four or five of the old talk show hosts, and in a way, a torch was being passed to a new kind of talk show host. But in another, way, no. (More on that in a moment.)

There were some great moments. I think it was Suskind who talked about meeting Egypt's Nasser and refusing to shake his hand. Even better was when Dick Cavett was asked about what it was like to interview Nixon. He waxed eloquent for a full minute--a long time on TV--about how he found Nixon surprisingly warm and open. Then he said, "...but I never interviewed Nixon. You have me confused with David Frost." Watching it a second time (remember, this replay ability was new to me), I loved seeing how the other hosts stayed silent but watched Cavett with astonishment, then collapsed in laughter.

These talk show hosts, to a greater and lesser extent, were giants. True, they were demi-giants to Johnny Carson's god-like giant status. But think about what they were, and what talk shows have fractured into since. These guys did everything, interviewing politicians and pop stars, launching careers of young comics and singers, and performing skits, songs and stand-up routines themselves. Part of the torch was passed on to all of the daytime talk shows now -- Ellen, Oprah, etc. Part was passed to the new, smaller Johnny-wannabees: Dave, Jay, Jimmy, Conan, and that guy who used to be on The Daily Show before it was funny. Other parts have spun into newsmagazines such as 60 Minutes and 20/20.

These guys did everything, though, and it's hard to imagine someday a young talk show host assembling such a collection on one stage. Lettermen, Leno, Springer, Winfrey, all telling wry stories about their adventures. Maybe. But it makes me wistful to think how unlikely it is, or how pointless if will be if it does occur.

Google searches suggest this show was lost. Maybe it's in the Museum of TV and Radio somewhere. Maybe not. It shows the clear line between the pre-Internet television shows, and overly documented ones since (certain episodes of Buffy, say). Things that came before the Internet lack definition, like events before photography.

It makes me personally wistful for that big old Betamax with its remote tethered to the machine with a thick cable. It makes me miss laughing, enjoying and analyzing a show with my mom -- something we still do once in a while, thanks to the telephone and TiVos, but not as often as I'd like, and not for as many more decades as I'd like.

It does make me long for a slower, drier (but funnier), more insightful kind of TV talk that disappeared with the rise of McLaughlin Group rip-offs, O'Reilly, and others.

It makes me wish I hadn't drunk all of that orange liquor at dinner. It makes me wish I had some madeline cookies. Those cookies are good.


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