I don't often agree with Ted Rall, but I keep up with his cartoons because of moments like this.
I used to have a talk on this very subject that I would deliver to Rotary Clubs and other similar gatherings of potential sponsors for my newspapers-in-education programs, and I'd use the Beatles' appearance on Ed Sullivan as the lead-off.
Without mentioning Sullivan or TV, I'd just rattle off the other guests and ask what was missing, and someone would know. It was that large a shared moment, and you didn't have to remember who was on that particular night to recognize that a magician, Frank Gorshin, some acrobats, a comedy team and the cast of “Oliver!” could only be joined on Sullivan's stage.
And Sullivan had become synonymous in the public mind with the start of Beatlemania in the US: The show that night set audience records.
Unlike "Seinfeld's" legendary "show about nothing," Ed Sullivan's show was about everything.
We shared a common culture then. We didn't all like the same things, but we were aware of what was out there because, as Ted notes, there weren't a lot of choices.
The Ed Sullivan Show was a "variety show": We'd sit down together and Ed would provide a variety of music, acrobats, comedians and other entertainers. You weren't supposed to like each one equally. But you watched them anyway, waiting for the stuff you did like to come on.
Accordingly, as Ted notes, even if you hated the Beatles, you knew who they were.
Similarly, kids like us knew most of the tunes from Broadway shows, because Ed had them on. And we were exposed to things we were surprised to find that we liked, particularly Borscht Belt comics like Myron Cohen, Shelly Berman and Jackie Vernon. And, in an age before every drama major bought a jar of whiteface and went around annoying people on the street, Marcel Marceau was wonderful.
It wasn't just Sullivan, though that's the best example.
Even Top 40 radio -- though aimed at a teen audience -- wasn't segmented enough that every song on the charts was rock and roll, and we accepted the occasional Singing Nun or Pathetically Insecure Vicki Carr or Incredibly Annoying Italian Mouse.
We even thought that last one was kind of funny, the first 8,000 times it came on.
However, we don't live in that world anymore, and -- I would tell my potential sponsors -- the result is that a 15-year-old in America today knows more about 15-year-olds in Japan or Australia than he does about the 30-year-old guy who lives across the street.
That was, I said, why newspapers, which are based on geography and not on demographics, are important: To keep that sense of community engagement, that sense that, although not everything that happens in town matters to me personally, it matters to someone in my community.
I stopped making that speech about the time I looked out over a crowd of Rotarians -- Rotarians, for god's sake -- and realized that most of them were not old enough to remember Ed Sullivan and that I was talking to myself.
Ted doesn't draw much of a conclusion from all of this, so let me do it: I think it very likely that the fragmentation of culture may explain why we have become so intolerant of each other.
One part of that talk was about the old stereotype of the family gathered around the hearth together in the evening, and I would point out that, sentiment aside, it wasn't that the family liked each other so much that they couldn't bear to be apart.
No, it was because they didn't have electricity or central heat. That hearth was the source of light and heat, and you were perfectly free to go off by yourself if you didn't mind freezing, but candles cost money and you weren't going to be given one just because you were feeling antisocial.
Today, there's no reason to hang together and so, as Franklin warned, we are all going to hang separately.
Each pulling furiously on the other's ropes.