Jimmy Fallon steps up to the Tonight Show. David Letterman steps down from the Late Show. Both those trending stories reinforce the fact that I’m stuck in the middle of a midlife crisis.
Fallon’s too old to be my son. Letterman’s too young to be my father. Me, I’m dead center between them age-wise, but one reminds me of my youth and the other reminds me that I’m old.
Fallon will be to my college-age daughters what Letterman was to me — the embodiment of a future that was appealing because it felt effortless, careless, not something to be taken too seriously.
When Letterman went on the air in 1982, I was twenty-one, close to graduation, with a circle of friends planning for careers in media. College radio newspaper magazine types. We didn’t laugh at stuff. Too cool for that. But Letterman made us laugh because he didn’t take any of it seriously. “Sure, I’m hosting a late night talk show,” he’d admit through coded winks, smirks and nods, “but so what?”
His laid-back style was the epitome of don’t sweat it, and we didn’t, unless it involved him. Over him we obsessed — this stand-up comic who pushed a moribund late night talk show over the edge with segments and stunts we couldn’t shut up about. Throwing a watermelon off a five-story building — funny. (I know. So not LOL. But it was the early eighties. Big hair. Bad sense of style — and humor.) Throwing other stuff off the building. A bowling ball. A dollhouse. A six-pack of beer — both regular and light. A grandfather clock. Funny. Time flies. Get it? It was simple and subversive and we couldn’t get enough.
Then there was toast on a stick. Larry Bud Melman, especially funny in a giant suit. The guy who lived under the seats — the one who later became famous enough for us to recognize his name. (Want to really feel old? Chris Elliot’s daughter Abby. Old enough to be a cast member on SNL. Former cast member. That old.)
All those things make me feel old. But what really really makes me feel old is remembering the things we used to do while talking about Letterman.
Tuesday mornings at the college radio station. My four-hour on-air shift. John, my sportscaster buddy, would reenact the best of last night’s show. When that got dull, he’d lurk quietly in the news booth and watch me in the studio. I’d cue up the record on the turntable, open my mic, and then John would let loose. Since he’d rigged my headphones to pick up the newsbooth mic, only I could hear him mocking my ridiculous deejay patter as I delivered it live. ” ‘Linda Lowen in with you this morning.’ Hey, Lowenin! Trying to come up with a new on-air name?” He was Canadian hockey player big, Norwegian shaggy blonde. I had a secret crush on him, so I put up with it. He made me laugh. But not as much as Letterman.
Wednesday afternoons, Hump Day, at the Connection. The stickiest bar in Collegetown was also the cheapest place to get drunk. For two dollars a pitcher, our comic brilliance would be liberated by 64 oz. of beer and all the popcorn popped in rancid oil that we could eat. By the end of Happy Hour we were sure the skits we’d created would get us onto Letterman’s writing team, if only we could decipher our cocktail napkin scribble.
Thursday evenings at the local weekly alternative newspaper. Waiting for my best friend to get off work. Renee did layout and graphic design, and in the last half hour after the editor and publisher had left for the day, I’d hang out with the staff and analyze Letterman’s humor. While we droned on, she would cut apart columns of type printed on photographic paper, flip them over, roll a thin layer of melted wax on the backside, and burnish them onto a large white illustration board marked with blue non-reproducible ink.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you were born after desktop publishing came of age, which means you’re younger than 30. “Kids,” as Ted Mosby might have said in an episode of How I Met Your Mother, “This is how we put together a newspaper.” Before InDesign, before QuarkXPress, before Adobe PageMaker, even before Aldus PageMaker which later merged with Adobe, this is how we put together a newspaper.
I’m old. I’m so old I remember it all. In the things that once were fixtures and are now missing from the landscape, in the names that are just words fitted together that don’t make sense, I see the past clearly, but like ghosts pretending to be human beings trapped there on that TV screen, I can’t touch them. Memory is a series of images that flicker in our synapses, but our hands pass through them when we try to hold on. And so we let go, and if we’re smart, we don’t look back.
Tonight, I’m looking back to tally up the losses.
Pagemaker, gone — both versions. QuarkExpress, gone. HIMYM wrapped up nine seasons earlier this week. Two dollar pitchers, vinyl records and turntables, radio stations letting deejays play their own music — all gone. Larry Bud Melman passed away in 2007. And yesterday, Letterman announced his retirement.
I’m upset, but I don’t have the right to be. Really, when was the last time I watched Letterman on TV? Like the rest of this new media culture, I view YouTube clips and consider myself caught up. The internet is a self-screening device. Only the best of the best goes viral and is worth my time and attention.
We all feel that way, don’t we? We’d rather scan social media to see what everyone else thinks is worth their time and attention than watch any of it in real time and make up our own minds. We used to have so much real time, to watch, to discuss, to share. Now that time is spent online and none of it is real. What is real time?
I’m upset, but I shouldn’t be. While I fear that the old is giving way to the new, that’s not really the case. The old is giving way to the already proven itself on other networks or in other time slots. No one moves into the Late Show time period without having a track record. And it’s still middle-aged white men who possess the best track records.
Thus, possible names tossed around to step into Letterman’s shoes are men roughly my age: Craig Ferguson, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert. Hearing this, I feel better. These guys don’t feel unhip, they’re funny, and to them fifty’s not the end of the road, just the next phase of their lives.
Then I realize I’m being ageist. What’s wrong with old? Look at this season’s Project Runway: Under the Gunn. As Tim Gunn has said on the show, he didn’t get his 15 minutes of fame until he passed the half-century mark. And those 15 minutes have stretched into ten years.
So I guess I have nothing to be upset about. So I’m in my fifties. So David Letterman is retiring. So Jimmy Fallon is reinvigorating the Tonight Show. So I’m stuck in the middle of the two age groups. So are Ferguson, Stewart, Colbert.
Old guys? Maybe not so old guys. Old enough to be my husband. Not my son. Not my father. In other words, they’re just the right age. Nothing wrong with fifty. It’s cool.
And if fifty-something is the new cool, I’m not smokin’. I’m chillin’. Lowenin with you in the middle of midlife. Currently at 53, and expected to go higher, up through the 70s, 80s, and into the 90s if we’re lucky. Thanks for keeping it here with me.