February 9, 1964

Fifty years ago today, the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time, and music in America changed forever.

black and white beatles ed sullivan

That day seems so magical to me. Part of the reason I love it is because it happened on February 9. What ever happens on February 9? It’s the dead of winter, and in 1964, the country was still reeling from JFK’s death. Some of the sadness was lifted when that British band took the stage on American TV. In his introduction of the band, Ed Sullivan said it best: “…this city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves The Beatles.”

The Beatles were different, and that gigantic television audience knew it. I think the root of my love for the band is that they were wholly different. They didn’t come along and play better versions of the same kind of music that had been around for years. They played music no one had ever thought was possible. No one had even imagined that kind of music existing. The Beatles created it, and everything was different afterwards.

Looking at February 9, 1964 from my vantage point in 2014, what really fascinates me about the Beatles’ first Ed Sullivan show appearance is that nothing like it could happen today. No one band, person, movie or television show could capture our collective attention anymore. Sixty percent of the American TV audience watched the Beatles’ performance. Today, you wouldn’t get 60 percent of people to tune in for live coverage of an alien invasion.

I was thinking about this earlier in the week after reading a fantastic New York magazine interview with Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels. Discussing the differences between how SNL did comedy in the 70s and how it does comedy now, he noted:

At that point, you had a complete unity generationally—in music, movies, politics, and sports. It’s much more fragmented now, so half the people watching Drake’s show, maybe 60 to 70 percent, didn’t know him. Even news is fragmented now. There used to be much more cohesion—everyone saw the helicopter take the people out of Saigon. I don’t know whether people know what’s going on in Fallujah right now.

We don’t have the same cultural touchstones anymore, but I don’t necessarily bemoan that. We have a wealth of amazing media options. I’ll watch my obscure TV show, you watch yours. Everyone’s happy. But with our fragmented media world, nothing will bring us together in the same way. You have to wonder if a band like the Beatles would break through with the same force in 2014, but it’s hard to put their music in today’s context because today’s music wouldn’t be here without them.

I’m kicking myself for not taking advantage of more NYC-based Beatles events leading up to this 50th anniversary, but I am definitely going to visit the Beatles exhibit at the New York Public Library before it closes in May. The Beatles popped up all over the place on TV this past week, though, including a segment on NBC Nightly News (it doesn’t get more perfect than Brian Williams talking about the Beatles) and David Letterman’s awesome week-long tribute to the band. Letterman’s show, of course, tapes in the Ed Sullivan Theater, where the Beatles actually played on February 9, 1964. When Paul McCartney visited his show in 2009, he talked at length about the Beatles’ first Ed Sullivan appearance:

This week, Letterman had all his music guests play Beatles songs. Lenny Kravitz’s “Get Back” was pretty great:

Fifty years later, the Beatles are still a cultural force, and their first Ed Sullivan appearance is still a television milestone. February 9, 1964 was quite the day.

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Laughing

My weekends, I have come to realize, are defined by whatever place/person/song/TV show/movie I spend most of that weekend obsessing about. This year, I’ve had Royal Tenenbaums weekends, Kevin Spacey weekends, Boston weekends, West Wing weekends…I spend hours invested in the topic at hand, and realize with a weird sadness on Sunday night that I won’t get to spend as much time with it on Monday as I did the previous two days.

This weekend has been John Mulaney weekend.

I first heard of John Mulaney a few months ago when I saw a bit about him in New York magazine. I cannot remember the title of the story (it was something along the lines of “The Best Comedians in New York Today”) but it briefly described him as a former SNL writer and creator of Bill Hader’s “Stefon” character with a sitcom pilot in the works. For each comic featured, the story named a “representative joke.” Mulaney’s was:

Nothing that I know can help you with your car, ever. Unless you’re like, ‘Hey I’ve got a flat tire, does anyone here know a lot about the “Cosby Show”?’

That. Is. My. Life. More with 30 Rock or The West Wing, but having nothing but television quotes at your disposal, even in troubling life situations? I can relate. And even though the joke struck me and I memorized it for future reference, all I did after reading it was watch a few of Mulaney’s stand-up videos and move on with my life. I had not entered obsession phase.

Then – backstory: my friend Miranda, who lived across the hall from me for two years at U of O, is visiting New York this week. I am SO HAPPY she’s here because of all my closest friends at school, she’s the only one I haven’t seen since I’ve lived in New York – Miranda brought up one of his jokes on Saturday during a conversation about delayed flights. It was about a bad experience John Mulaney had with Delta airlines and I vaguely remembered the joke from my own YouTube trollings a few months prior. I told her I’d heard that before, and Miranda proceeded to tell me that his stand-up was the funniest thing ever and we should watch it immediately when we got back to my apartment.

So we did.

Please take a 40-minute break from reading to watch this – his latest stand-up release, New in Town:

It felt good to laugh really hard. The routine covered a lot of material about growing up and living in New York City, and I liked that he made the hard parts of those experiences something to laugh about – not something to rant about or wallow in self-pity about or think too seriously about. Weird stuff happens. May as well laugh about it. (Though the “When people order fries, they act like it’s a little adventure” bit hit a little too close to home).

Plus, it was laden with obscure pop-culture references. I don’t watch Law and Order: SVU and thus had no major connection to Mulaney’s jokes about it, but I love that he loves it so much and had watched it enough to make hilarious observations. I love when people let others into the dark little corners of their obscure obsessions and shine a light that lets you see how wonderful those obsessions are (and even if they aren’t wonderful to you, you get to appreciate how much they mean to the other person).

Since I had SNL on the brain, I was excited to see Lorne Michaels wrote a short piece for the October issue of Vanity Fair on television and the 1970s. It was a very personal story of Michaels’ start in New York, but he told it in the context of the decade’s dichotomous television landscape: Past and present were airing at the same time. Networks execs ruled the airwaves, but the young writers they employed knew change was afoot…or at least, they were ready to start making the change. You can read most of the piece online, but some of my favorite parts (like the second one below) came only in the print article.

A couple of favorite lines:

Michaels talking about his morning routine when he first moved to New York City:

I found a sublet on 57th and Seventh, in a building called the Osborne, which had a Chock full o’Nuts right on the corner. I began my day with a cup of coffee, The New York Times, and two sugar doughnuts. They were whole-wheat sugar donuts. I had learned about nutrition in California.

Michaels talking about the performers and artists he worked with in New York, and how their work reflected the decade’s culture:

Pretty soon we began to feel as if we were on to something new. After all, we were the baby boom – we knew television the way French kids knew wine. TV for us had been the miracle that brought us the world, and now we were determined to reflect the world we were living in on TV.

It was our turn. The 1970s, I realize now, were a time when things were both coming undone and being put back together in a different way. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that all of life is re-invention. Sometimes past and future can share the same time period. New just shows up sometimes.

“New just shows up sometimes.” I love that line. It’s a reminder to stay on your toes. As someone with an affinity for the 70s, I found the whole piece charming and funny; criticism on the decade in TV was fascinating.

I guess the moral of this post is that I hope you laughed this weekend. And watched New in Town.