David Letterman’s Retirement, VE Day, and Cultural Consciousness

Over this past year, there has been some major turnover among television talk show hosts. Some of them are moving on to “other projects,” “other Interests,” or “new challenges” (most notably Jon Stewart and Craig Ferguson) and some are simply switching venues (most notably Stephen Colbert, who is presumably also switching personas).

But David Letterman’s impending retirement is notable because he has been a fixture on American television for more than three decades, he has in many significant ways transformed the late-night talk show, he has had a significant impact on American culture and politics, and he has become one of those seminal figures for several generations of Americans.

Rolling Stone has done a cover-story interview with Letterman to mark his retirement. A synopsis is available online at: http://www.rollingstone.com/tv/news/david-letterman-says-goodbye-inside-rolling-stones-new-issue-20150506. Undoubtedly and deservedly, there will be similar articles in just about every major periodical and newspaper in the country.

Writing for Business Insider, Jethro Nededog has done a shorter piece drawn from a sneak peek at the Rolling Stone interview, and its title very straightforwardly indicates its focus: “David Letterman Says Viral Videos by Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon Drove Him out of Late-Night TV.” Although the article gives a somewhat sensational slant to Letterman’s reasons for retiring, there is no doubt that an entertainer who made his reputation for being cutting-edge would be especially sensitive to the ways in which digital technologies have transformed the popular culture. The article is available at: http://www.businessinsider.com/david-letterman-tonight-show-exit-rolling-stone-interview-2015-5.

Another very interesting article, by Nell Scovell, originally appeared in the print edition of New York magazine. A lengthy excerpt is available on the magazine’s Vulture website. Titled “The lost Laughs of Letterman,” it includes recollections by many of the longtime writers for Letterman’s shows of the most outrageous jokes and skit concepts that they pitched for the shows but that never made it onto the air. Some of the jokes and skits were just incredibly dumb, others were in incredibly poor taste, and still others would have created a furor. The article is available at: http://www.vulture.com/2015/05/23-lost-laughs-of-letterman.html?om_rid=AAAfVY&om_mid=_BVSSFFB9BaPGyB

All of this reminds me of how momentous it seemed when Johnny Carson retired from the Tonight Show. It was an age in which network television had a much more central place in American life, and Johnny Carson was a fixture not just in the popular culture but in the American consciousness. It is not a stretch to say that he had the immediate influence and a public stature comparable to that of someone then and certainly now much more closely associated with historical events such as Walter Cronkite.

But Jay Leno has already retired from a subsequent lengthy run as Carson’s successor on that show, and I wonder how many millennials even know who Johnny Carson was.

When I was first teaching at Wright State, I taught an interdisciplinary honors seminar titled “American Celebrity” in which we focused on what distinguishes notoriety from stardom from iconic cultural status. I initially used a book by the film critic Richard Schickel, Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity in America [http://www.amazon.com/Intimate-Strangers-The-Culture-Celebrity/dp/1566633176]. It is a terrific book, a detailed but succinct history tracing the notion of celebrity from its roots in the late 19th century through the development of professional sports, the film industry, and the radio television networks. So it came as a great surprise to me that my students absolutely hated it—primarily because they did not even have name recognition of 90% of the celebrities whom Schickel mentions.

The next time that I offered the course, I began with a survey. People magazine used to produce an annual book on the 200 most notable celebrities of the previous year. It was 1998, and so I found a copy of the 1989 edition of the book. I scanned the photos of every other celebrity, gave each of the 20 students a sheet a paper with 100 numbered blank spaces on it, and projected the images. I even went through the images twice, to give students who had initially drawn a blank on a familiar face a second opportunity to put a name to it.

I obviously anticipated that this survey would confirm that my students had a very limited knowledge of American popular culture and particularly of cultural figures who prominence predated the students’ adolescence. But the results actually astounded me. The student who identified the largest number of the photos correctly had identified just seven of the 100 celebrities.

All of this brings to mind the scene in Patton in which George C. Scott as the title character recalls the slave who used to stand behind the Roman generals returning in triumph from their conquests: “For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. And a slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning that all glory is fleeting.”

This week we are marking the 70th anniversary of VE Day, a day that every member of my parents’ generation remembered vividly and marked in some meaningful way, even if it was not an “official” holiday. Assuming that one had to be 18 to serve during World War II and served during just the last six months or so of the war in 1945, a person would have had to have been born, at the latest, in 1927 to be a veteran of that war: that is, the youngest surviving veterans of the most devastating war in human history are now at least 88 years old.

I would now be afraid to ask my students to explain what VE Day is. I would be afraid that someone would associate it with V-8 juice or with some effort to eradicate VD or STDs. And if those or something comparable were the responses that I received, I truly would not know whether to laugh or weep.

Perhaps it was always thus, that the elderly see the seminal events of their lives tumbling away from them into history. But, I think that something more is at work here. Alvin Toffler’s seminal book Future Shock has as its premise that it is not simply the amount of change but, instead, the accelerating rate of change that is increasingly defining contemporary life. And Toffler’s book was published well ahead of the advent of desktop PCs and the Internet. We now have an unprecedented store of information literally at our fingertips. And yet, we seem to have less and less of it not just in our heads, but in our cultural consciousness.

That is the real problem: our digital devices can hold things in “memory” for us, but they cannot make us feel the import of memories, whether they are personal or historical. And an intellect without cultural memory is a symptom of a culture without any fundamental cohesion.

The problem is, of course, much more complex and profound than what the Far Right continually bemoans—the loss of some “truly American” cultural identity. In fact, the acceptance of that sort of simplistic ideological nonsense is actually a symptom of the cultural problem, rather than any sort of a solution.


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