(originally posted on 4/04/2009)
Lately, I've been thinking quite a bit about Lindsay Lohan and Rich Little.
First, Lindsay Lohan. A couple of weeks ago I stumbled across an article about her on The Huffington Post that was actually a link to some gossip site. It seems Ms. Lohan had just had a lover's quarrel with her girlfriend, one Samantha Ronson, and was seen standing outside a nightclub screaming "The bitch left without me!"
OK, that's about as salacious as this post is going to get. Remember, Rich Little's coming up. He's anything but salacious.
To be honest, that Huffington article was just salacious enough that I had to read it twice. I swear I had no idea until right then that Ronson was Lohan's girlfriend. In fact, I had never even heard of Ronson. But here's the real scary part:
I wasn't entirely sure I knew who Lindsay Lohan was!
I mean, I had heard the name before. A couple of years (or perhaps months) back, when Britney Spears and Paris Hilton were getting in all sorts of trouble, Lohan was often lumped in with them, usually as an afterthought. It was often something along the lines of: "Britney and Paris were driving drunk and naked through the streets of LA, swearing at the top of their lungs and making fun of chess nerds. Oh, by the way, Lohan was seen the same night upchucking into an open manhole!"
Like I said, she was an afterthought.
Not anymore. I read the Huffington article/link twice, and there was no mention of either Britney Spears or Paris Hilton, thus forcing me to finally confront a question I had long avoided--who is Lindsay Lohan?
I asked an acquaintance, who promptly answered my question with a question:
"YOU DON'T KNOW WHO LINDSAY LOHAN IS?!"
I answered her question to my question with yet another question:
"Well, why should I?"
Finally, she gave a straight answer.
"BECAUSE SHE'S FAMOUS, THAT'S WHY!"
"Well, if she's famous, how come I'm not exactly sure who she is?"
"Have you tried to find out who she is?"
"Other than this conversation...no."
"WELL, YOU HAVE TO MAKE THE EFFORT!"
You have to make the effort.
So I googled Lindsay Lohan and here's what I found out. She's a model, actress, and pop singer. In the last ten years, she rose to stardom in such Disney remakes as The Parent Trap and Freaky Friday.
How could I not know that? The answer lies with Rich Little.
About a year ago I caught Little on David Letterman. He was the very last guest. Not even that if you define "guest" as one who sits down and talks to Dave. Little just did his stand-up routine, as if he was some unknown getting his big chance on a nationally televised program. It was really kind of a comedown for Little, who was quite famous in his day. Famous mostly for imitating other people quite famous in their day. And my day. By that I mean I recognized every person he imitated. Had I gone into a coma in 1980 and emerged sometime after 2005, I still would have recognized every person he imitated. He did Jimmy Stewart, Richard M. Nixon, Carol Channing, Truman Capote, George Burns, Jack Benny, Paul Lynde, Archie Bunker, Ronald Reagan, Walter Cronkite, and...Howard Cosell. Howard Cosell? Man, I hadn't thought about Howard Cosell in years! He also was quite famous in his day, but unlike old movie or music stars, there was little chance of an old sportscaster being rediscovered by a whole new generation. Unless that whole new generation happened to catch Rich Little on David Letterman.
Whatever the generation of Dave's studio audience that night, Rich Little's routine did get a lot of laughs. As soon as it was over, a surprisingly pleased Letterman (he does have a reputation as a cynic, you know) walked over, shook Little's hand, and asked, "So, what you been doing with yourself?"
I was less concerned with what Rich Little had been doing with himself lately, and more curious as to why he didn't imitate anyone who had become well known after 1980. According to Wikipedia, Little's about 71. So, maybe he's just an old coot stuck in the past. But why that past? And, at any rate, he was 42 at the beginning of the 1980s, and 52 by decade's end, and not even eligible for Social Security by the millennium's end, so I didn't think senility was the answer. And remember, the studio audience, most of whom looked younger than 71, got all of the jokes.
I picked up the remote and started channel surfing.
Cowabunga! I had my answer!
You couldn't channel surf before 1980. Well, you could, but it would have been a pretty small wave. Just the three networks, public broadcasting, and UHF. Then, in the 1980s, came cable, and, in the 1990s, the Internet.
Now, I want you to remember what my acquaintance said: You have to make the effort. Not before 1980. In that three network era, finding out who was famous required no effort at all. You had the luxury of total passivity. The burden lay entirely with the famous person. That's why he or she had to hire publicists, press agents, personal managers, media spokesmen and the like. The non-famous just had to sit back in front of the tube and absorb it all, even if they didn't particularly want to.
Here's an example. I have never seen a single episode of Kojak. Yet, by 1976, when I was 14, I somehow knew that it starred a bald-headed actor named Telly Savalas who sucked lollipops and asked, "Who loves ya, baby?" Now, I didn't seek that information out. But, by some peculiar cathode ray osmosis, I just knew.
And it wasn't just TV stars. The small screen was also informed by the big screen. Or vice-versa. That's how I knew, at a very tender age, that some guy with cotton in his mouth named Marlon Brando played a bad guy named Godfather who wanted to make people offers they couldn't refuse. It's not from sneaking into an R-rated movie at the age of 11 that I knew all that. The film's trailers were on TV, and, more important, everyone from Fred Travelina to Frank Gorshin to, well, Rich Little, imitated the guy (It was a few years later that I found out about the other Marlon Brando, the young guy in a motorcycle jacket or torn T-shirt who coulda' been a contender while screaming for Stella.)
You even knew, again without particularly wanting or needing to, about public figures outside of entertainment. The President, obviously. But how about Henry Kissinger? Why is it exactly that he is, or was, a more famous Secretary of State than either Dean Rusk, who served under LBJ, or Cyrus Vance, who served under Jimmy Carter? Well, I suppose you could say, "Henry Kissinger was the architect of the policy of rapprochement with China blah, blah, blah...", but I think his real claim to fame was his weird accent, mimicked by everyone from Robin Williams to John Belushi to, well, Rich Little.
But that's now all in the past. With hundreds of networks and web sites and whatever it is people Twitter on, the burden has shifted from the Lindsay Lohans of the world to us, the non-famous. We no longer have the luxury of being passive. We have to make the effort.
Hmm. Maybe I should hire a publicist.