June 26th, 2009


Reflections on Three Deaths

All Death, All The Time

Celebrity deaths always get the attention of the media, but we've just had three in a row in the U.S., each one bigger than the last. Indeed, this third one has created a juggernaut of human emotions and media frenzy, preempting both news and entertainment TV for a second day now.

What fascinates me is that each of these celebrities touches different generations and slices of society. Each had a big hit, and then reinvented themselves more than once, and have been in some sort of decline for some time. Yet all also have many people left with fond memories.

Ed McMahon

As announcer and sidekick to Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show, Ed welcomed a generation to their after-the-news entertainment. Probably helped invent a whole host of maladies brought on by sleep disorders as people stayed up an hour after their bedtimes -- but then they say laughter helps extend life, so perhaps it's a wash. Then long before American Idol and so-called reality television, there was Star Search. And Jerry Lewis' annual Labor Day telethon. And Publisher's Clearinghouse paying the bills.

To some extent, Ed McMahon helps end the generation of the big television show.

Farrah Fawcett

The 70s big smile, big blond hair and star of Charlie's Angels amazingly only did one season on the show. Her 1976 swimsuit poster, which scandalously suggested nipples, is still the all-time best-seller. Teenage and college boys loved Farrah. Young women wanted and got "the hair". Win for everyone. Then 1984's The Burning Bed revealed to the public at large that she could do serious roles. Most recently, Farrah took her terrible ordeal with anal cancer public.

Michael Jackson

The cherub songster of the Jackson Five. Then the singer whose performances included moves which didn't look possible -- the Moonwalk was merely the best known. The singer with one glove. Thriller. Probably the perfect production mind for the early MTV video era. Weird Al practically made a career of song and video parodies of Jackson -- with his approval. Then came isolation in an age of media frenzy. People asking What happened to Michael? even as others still enjoyed his music. Scandals.

I am fascinated not by how big this story is, but by the range of people and ages for whom Michael Jackson played a significant role for them. Amazon.com sold out of everything associated with MJ in their inventory within hours. Crowds gathered at the UCLA Medical Center where he was pronounced dead. And then they gathered at so many other places worldwide. His childhood home in Gary IN. The Motown Museum in Detroit where the Jackson Five recorded their first hits. Paris, Hong Kong, Beijing, Seoul, etc. I haven't seen such a reaction since Princess Diana's death.

Many of the generation who miss Ed McMahon have little use for Michael Jackson -- and I expect vice versa as well.

What To Make Of All This?

The idea that celebrity deaths always comes in threes is a product of the reality that randomness comes in bunches, not evenly spaced. You can almost always find three-in-a-row if you look hard enough. Ed McMahon's star was not big enough not to be overshadowed by Farrah's death after her public cancer airing. Unfortunately, the good thing of cancer awareness in the media is eclipsed by Michael Jackson. Indeed, plenty of comics will be quick to point out that the true beneficiary of Jackson's media blitz is Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC).

For me, personally, it is damned hard to see MICHAEL JACKSON (1958-2009) everywhere -- I, too, am fifty and born in 1958. This will increasingly be a problem, as I and my age peers get older, and we will eventually all die as well. Almost feel like echoing one gentleman outside the Apollo Theatre in Harlem -- who thought MJ was immortal and would live forever...


1 -- MTV2 is actually showing videos, in particular Michael Jackson videos. Haven't seen these in years.

2 -- odd that I thought of the young Michael Jackson in the Jackson Five as a little kid, considering that we were about the same age (he was older by a few days). I guess I'd never thought of myself as a little kid, even when I was a little kid. In some ways I was born old.

3 -- I'd seen somewhere that one of the cable stations may be playing Charlie's Angels first season episodes this weekend.

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