Station Break with Paul Farhi: Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Billy Mays.
Tuesday, June 30, 2009; 1:00 PM
Washington Post staff writer Paul Farhi was online Tuesday, June 30, at 1 p.m. ET to talk about the latest news and topical issues in the pop culture world of TV, radio, movies and trends.
Today's Topic: It's been a bad week or so for celebrities. Michael Jackson. Farrah Fawcett. Ed McMahon. And now Billy "Oxyclean" Mays. Join Farhi live from Los Angeles to talk about the Michael Jackson story and all the rest.
Paul Farhi: Greetings, all, from sunny, not-terribly-smoggy Los Angeles...Have been here since Friday to run with the rest of the media jackals after the Michael Jackson story, which I am sure will be a gift that keeps on giving long after I've returned to civilization. It's a crazy, nutty, wonderfully tabloid-y story. I would like to say I am "honored" to be assigned to it, but "honored" isn't exactly the right adjective (sometimes it feels like "stuck")...
Anyway, as billboarded, a huge week or more for celebrity death. Michael, Farrah, Ed, Billy Mays. Why do we care? I guess because we KNOW these people on some level, and their passing marks our own stage in life. They're a reference point, a touchstone. We don't know each other, but we know a few hundred lucky (or for some, accursed) "celebrities." In some sense, I guess, they're like relatives we all have. Or don't have now.
Anyway, enough of me. Let's go to the phones...
Pacific Palisades, Calif.: And Gail Storm for those of us who enjoyed the fifties!
washingtonpost.com: Actress Delighted on '50s TV Sitcoms (Post, June 30)
Paul Farhi: Ah. Lest we forget. Thanks.
Queenstown, Md.: Less a question than a comment. I didn't like any of Michael Jackson's music and found it bizarre that millions of Americans adored him in the 80s. America is truly decadent when Jackson's slop can be so popular while Sinatra, Cash, Cole, Crosby, Miller, the Dorseys and Ellington are almost forgotten.
Paul Farhi: Yes, that is a comment. But, no, Sinatra, etc. aren't really forgotten, at least by an older generation (and some younger types, too). But as I wrote (on Sunday? Monday? I've completely lost track of time...), a younger generation has a distinctly different (i.e., unsavory) reaction to Jackson's death than people of my generation do. And, in time, Jackson will fade the way Sinatra, Cash, etc. have.
I heard about Michael Jackson's death first from my 16-year- old daughter who had heard about it on three different radio stations: 99.5, 101.1 and 107.3. All of these radio stations were reporting his death before CNN, MSNBC or any other MSM was confirming it, even before CNN had confirmed he was in a coma! Were they rushing too fast with the story or were they just not hamstrung by having to fact check it first before reporting what TMZ and others were saying?
Signed, Your daughter's former soccer coach
Paul Farhi: Hello, my DFSC! There's a very simple explanation for this: The radio stations were picking up AP bulletins about Jackson's death. I don't know why the TV channels weren't reporting those bulletins just as quickly (or even if your perception of them being behind is even accurate), but if so, my guess would be that they were waiting for video of some kind to go with the report. That takes a few minutes extra (though again I doubt they'd delay just reading the bulletin without pictures).
WJFK Listener: So is it true that WJFK will go all sports on 7/20?
Paul Farhi: Yes. True.
Chantilly, Va.: And how could you forget Fred Travalena???
Paul Farhi: Fred Travalena, too??!! Oh, I missed that one. (For the unfamiliar: Travelena was a very fine celeb impressionist/impersonator. Very popular on TV in the late '60s and '70s). RIP, Fred...
Cardiac Arrest and age 50: Talk to your relatives and co-workers. Heart attack and cardiac arrest happens more frequently than most people realize.
Paul Farhi: Yes. Which is why I am somewhat suspicious of the drugs-stopped-Jackson's-heart stories. I don't doubt for a minute that Jackson may have been on many things, and that this contributed to his death, but sometimes it's just your time. We won't know for sure, or at least officially, until the L.A. coroner's toxicology reports come back in a few weeks.
Silver Spring: Sorry to be behind the times here: When WJFK goes all sports where will Mike O'Meara be?
Paul Farhi: Unclear. I think CBS/WJFK has been trying to find a role for him, but that's still under discussion.
Atlanta: It was terrible watching the CNN guy interview Joe Jackson on the red carpet Sunday night. He was asked how difficult was the death of YOUR SON? And all he could do is talk about his new projects, tell him to talk to his lawyer, etc. I felt/feel so horrible for Michael Jackson. The torment he grew up with and then, when the family figured out HE was their cash cow, it was do anything to ensure the gift keeps on giving. It's terribly tragic. And no better now, with what seems like the family wanting to take custody of the kids (who raised Michael to be who he was, in the first place) - seemingly doing that so as to get the estate. Of course, I only know what I see, but it doesn't seem so appetizing.
Paul Farhi: You know, I covered some of Jackson's criminal trial in 2005, and the thing that struck me is how unknowable so much of his life and behavior is/was. Just when you believe one thing, something contradicts it. Think of the most bizarre person you ever knew, and then double it--that was my impression of him. So, I'm willing to admit I don't really know about Joe Jackson's motivations, feelings and desires. He was part of the whole strange world of Michael Jackson.
Maryland: Paul, saying that Michael Jackson "broke the color barrier" on MTV is technically accurate but misses the context. MTV's original format was similar to AOR radio, which has faced its own criticism over the years for not playing black artists. One could argue that the divide that MTV reflected is more stylistic than racial -- I would expect to hear Living Colour and Lenny Kravitz on DC101 but not WPGC, and I would expect to hear Eminem on the latter but not the former. Still, MTV's claim that it was a rock channel would have sounded more genuine if it had played the Eddie Van Halen-fueled "Beat It" without any hardball tactics from Jackson's label. MJ's music spanned many genres -- do you know if tracks like "Dirty Diana" and "Black and White" [were] a deliberate attempt to get AOR airplay or a more general challenge to notions about "white music" and "black music"?
Paul Farhi: This is actually a very useful point. MTV debuted in, what, 1979? It started playing the "Thriller" video in 1982--by which time the album was so gigantic (and the video was so well produced) that it couldn't keep it off the air. But, yes, MTV wasn't about anything other than album-rock acts in those days.
Farrah and Groucho: I would call Farrah a victim of the Groucho syndrome - the Marx brother's death went largely unnoticed as it closely followed the passing of Elvis.
That sounds like a plot for a dark Hollywood comedy. Imagine celebrities competing for the biggest postmortem media blitz, maybe with two longtime rivals each plotting his own demise to beat the other to the headlines.
Paul Farhi: That's a brilliant idea!....Personal story: I was writing up a Farrah "appreciation" last Thursday, when the Jackson news broke. I knew immediately that my story had just been rendered almost pointless.
Washington, D.C.: Hey Paul,
An argument could be made that the biggest female icon of the 1970s died on the same day as the biggest male icon of the 1980s. Agreed?
Also, has there ever been a bigger celebrity death trifecta than Ed-Farrah-MJ?
Paul Farhi: Offhand, I'd have to agree. Who else from the '70s? Hmmm....can't think of anyone else. And, no question, about MJ from the '80s. My question: Who's biggest in the '90s? Might be hard for any celebrity to beat Princess Diana,
As for trifectas, that can be fairly arbitrary. Depends on how elastic your time frame is. Me, I'd go with Julius Caesar, Hannibal and Cleopatra. Now those were BIG!
Herndon, Va.: Ed, Farrah and Michael. I'm 44 years old. A significant portion of my childhood died last week. I grew up watching The Tonight Show. The end of an episode of Charlie's Angels signaled my bedtime; we won't even talk about the damage to the ozone I did trying to hairspray those Farrah 'wings' into place. When I was a little girl my sister and I would argue over who was going to marry Michael when we grew up. When I got to college I watched the premiere of the 'Thriller' video in the campus bar.
Growing older sucks.
Though I did make myself laugh yesterday wondering if John Lennon and George Harrison were having a talk with Michael about buying those Beatles songs.
Paul Farhi: Haha--great image! I bet, at 44, you're in the perfect demographic sweet spot for Michael, Farrah, Ed appreciation. I'm a little bit older, and they all cross my developing consciousness, but maybe you had to be just a tad younger to really go ga-ga over, well, Jackson and Farrah (did anyone go ga-ga over Ed?)
'90s death: Globally, I think no one's death was more profound than Princess Di's, but in the U.S. JFK Jr's death was a pretty big deal.
Paul Farhi: Yes. Very much up there. I think it takes a combination of things to create one of these celebrity-death media groundswells. Fame, obviously. But also youth (or relative youth), and/or beauty (Farrah, JFK, Jr.) and/or unexpected, hence shocking death (Diana, Jackson, JFK Jr.).
The Airless Cubicle: Paul, I hope that you have time to enjoy Los Angeles around the mega show that is the Death of Michael Jackson.
Shakespeare had Marc Anthony say of Julius Caesar: "The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones." This never seems to be the way with celebrities, does it? Their flaws fade away, to be stirred up in a revisionist biography in fifteen or twenty years. Everyone remembers the part of the personality that we all loved: the bright, cheerful, shiny part that makes us forget our troubles for a few minutes or hours.
Michael Jackson was a person whose hour came with the right technology. He was not much of a lyricist, and his voice range was tenor to helium balloon, but he could dance and the arrangements he made with Quincy Jones made the video an art form. Almost every night this week I've been watching Jackson's videos in as much admiration as I had for Olga Korbut on the uneven bars in the Olympics or Rene Fleming singing "Song of the Moon." There was humor, brilliance, and technical perfection.
But I looked again and I saw portents. In the full version of "Black and White", for example, Michael becomes a black panther and slinks out of the studio to "dance" to silence in the street. The edited video made one great point. The unedited video ruined it.
Jackson's problem was that I pray I never be acquainted with: no one said 'no' to him and enforced it since his father whipped with with an electric cord - and that is NOT the way to gain the affection of a child.
Farah Fawcett always seemed to be empty-headed to me, but that's not because of her role in "Charlie's Angels" but a rather vacuous commercial she made for her brand of shampoo in it. "It's got herbs in it..." But she was happier in her private life, I surmise, and we will be the richer for seeing her.
How impressive was Billy Mays? I have several containers of Oxy-Clean in my laundry room. But wait! There's more!
Gail Storm also echoes on the verges of my memory. As a boy growing up in Tulsa, I remember watching both "Margie" and "The Gail Storm Show" on my neighbor's black-and-white television. I don't remember much more than Margie's brother feeding land crabs Fig Newtons, and the signal flags hoisted at the beginning of the show, but she should not be forgotten.
Few of us ever reach the level of fame that even Gail Storm or Billy Mays had. Fame isn't a birthright, unless you are born to the British monarchy in the 21st Century. You have to work for it, and you have to pay dues in hours of work, rehearsals, lost time with family and friends, the emotional stain of rejection, and then one day it comes together... and you'd better be together when it comes, or else it will destroy you. Ask Susan Boyle.
Paul Farhi: Thanks, as always, Airless...You know, growing up, I always thought being famous would be cool. Now I'm sure it's a horrible thing, a burden, something that twists you.
Even the Heartland isn't immune to the insanity: DES MOINES, Iowa -- Iowa State Fair officials said Tuesday they plan to honor Michael Jackson at this year's fair with a butter sculpture of the pop icon.
Paul Farhi: Oh, yeah. Your image in butter at the Ia State Fair--is there a bigger honor than that?
The weird thing about Farrah: is that she made most of her money off the Wella Balsam ads. She was only on C's Angels 1 season and all her movies were "made for TV."
Paul Farhi: But she made some very good "made for TV movies" (if that's not a contradiction in terms). "Burning Bed" and "Extremities" (actually a theatrical release, I think) really showed she had some acting chops, and wasn't just a purty little thing. In any case, you can't watch those flicks and think she's just a poster girl/shampoo model.
Jefferson City, Mo.: Um MTV, 1979? How 'bout August 1, 1981?
And while it's true that MTV resisted playing black artists for a long time, it's also true that in it's first year of existence, the only bands that had videos were all those craptacular British New Wave acts. MTV had a lot of time to kill and precious few videos available to rotate.
Ugh, I'm defending MTV. I need to take a shower.
Paul Farhi: Well, that makes the point stronger, doesn't it. "Thriller" comes out a year or so after MTV gets going and it gets heavy rotation. Hard to say that a new cable channel playing crummy Brit videos for a few months before it puts a major black artist on has a "color barrier." It was just like a radio station that plays only R&R, or AOR, or hip-hop or whatever. Jackson really crossed the format barrier more than anything.
But she was happier in her private life,: Was she? I always thought she a lot of extreme highs and lows, a rocky life.
Paul Farhi: As I was trying to say before, it's almost hard to know with celebrities. They are surrounded by protectors, enablers, leeches and god knows who. What "seems" to be the case may not be because someone (or several people) have a vested interest in proffering their own reality.
Woodbridge: Hey, I believe Milton Berle, Dudley Moore and Billy Wilder all died on the same day a few years ago.
Paul Farhi: Wow. Strong pull! (If true)....
Long Island, N.Y.: Paul
I mentioned this yesterday in Howard Kurtz's chat - the thing that has annoyed me about the coverage of Jackson's death was the appearance to make it bigger than it is.
It went as far as a host on Sirius Hits 1 to compare the news of his death to the way people remember where they were when they heard JFK was shot. That's just an insane comparison.
Paul Farhi: Agreed--insane. But it did seem very much like the day Elvis died. Or maybe John Lennon. I remember both of those.
Washington, D.C.: Famed New York subway graffiti artist Iz The Wiz died on June 29. Iz The Wiz was one of the most prolific graffiti artists in the New York subway system during the late 70s and early 1980s.
Paul Farhi: Now we're reaching...
Ballston, Va.: I don't mean to needle, but I've enjoyed the new Washington Times Radio show on WTNT the past two days. I was a fan of Washington Post Radio, and I even like the Wall Street Journal Report that used to air mornings on WTNT and now airs overnights, ending at 6 a.m. last time I checked. I guess I'm just a newspaper-radio junkie. Crowd of one, eh?
Paul Farhi: Yes. No slight on the WashTimes radio show (which I haven't heard) but they are starting with a lot more going against them than WashPost Radio had. We had a much better station, and many more journalistic resources to pull from. Maybe a great radio program doesn't require extensive "journalistic resources" but the Times is starting from further back than we were.
Rock Hill, S.C.: Farrah Fawcett was also in "Dr. T and the Women" and the movie with Chevy Chase.
Paul Farhi: Also, "Logan's Run."
Washington, D.C.: Hey Paul, Wasn't MJ in tons of debt? How will the Jackson family deal with that? Were they dependent on him financially? Will his death boost sales of his songs, etc.?
Paul Farhi: This is one of the murkiest aspects of the many murky aspects of Jackson's story. Yes, he was in tons of debt, but what's less clear is what his assets are worth. It's hard to know because a) they haven't all been identified; and b) placing a market value on them is merely theoretical at this point.
Arlington, Va.: C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley both died on November 22, 1963, the same day as John F. Kennedy.
Paul Farhi: Even strong pull! That's astonishing (again, if true). And I'm guessing neither C.S. nor Aldous ever got their due because of the other monumental news that day.
Four Corners, Md.: I'm 32 and remember asking for the Thriller album for my 5th birthday. My uncle gave it to me - I knew all the songs but probably didn't understand them.
I have to agree with the previous poster who said growing up sucks. All three of the big ones last week were there in my entertainment subconscious. Sure, they'd faded to background music. But they were THERE. Now they're gone. And, gosh, it's quiet.
What reminds me, though, that it's just the cycle of life is that when I was online reading about Billy Mays, my 5-year-old came up and said "Hey, it's the Oxyclean guy." Thank goodness she can't read yet!
RIP to all of them. Don't know, yet, how I'll remember MJ, but sure am glad he's finally at peace.
Paul Farhi: I want to put in a good word for growing older here, since I seem to be one of the many billions of people on the planet who are doing it. Let's see--seeing your children mature, getting smarter/wiser, appreciating beauty more, savoring longterm relationships, building a life and maybe making a few dollars....Okay. Yeah, other than that, it sucks.
Richmond, Va.: Julius Caesar, Hannibal and Cleopatra as a death trifecta--Good Grief!--They died over span of time equal to 153 years--Hannibal in 183 BC, Julius Caesar in 44 BC, and Cleopatra in 30 BC. Here's a more perfect ancient history death trifecta--that at least has some religious meaning--Jesus Christ and the two thieves crucified with him sometime around 30 AD!
Paul Farhi: Yeah, Jesus' death does seem to have been pretty big time. And with the really, really big news of that day, I'm sure those thieves really didn't get the publicity they deserved, either.
Logan's Run: I loved Logan's Run! I wonder if I'd feel the same if I watched it now.
Paul Farhi: I loved the movie's premise--a futuristic society based on youth, in which anyone over 30 was killed by the state. Feels like the newspaper business these days.
June 25...: ...was the anniversary of my father's death. Sorry, but Farrah's or MJ's (or almost anyone else's) will pale by comparison.
Paul Farhi: As it should.
Death in 2s?: I remember Sammy Davis, Jr. and Jim Henson died the same day. I can still picture the vertically split dual tributes on the cover of my local paper's Style section. I wonder if there was a third around then?
Paul Farhi: Another excellent memory!
Alexandria: Jim Henson and Sammy Davis Jr died on the day.
Not a trifecta but I still remember being tremendously sad.
Paul Farhi: As I said...
Washington, D.C.: Was it ironic that it took MJ's death for MTV & VH1 (and its other channels) to go back to its roots and PLAY videos instead of all their reality shows?
Paul Farhi: Naw. MTV abandoned videos long ago. They did so because it wasn't "appointment" TV and they couldn't rely on attracting an audience at any given time. Plus, I think the novelty of music videos had worn off. So many of them were just dreadful, pretentious garbage.
Trifecta: For the big trifecta - I have to submit Buddy Holly, Richie Vallens and the Big Bopper.....
Paul Farhi: Well, sure. But that's different. According to rules published by the International Celebrity Death Trifecta Commission, the celebrities must die *independent* of each other.
Redskins Report: Have you heard if George Michael found a new home for Redskins Report?
Paul Farhi: I haven't. And with training camp upon us, George had better make a deal soon.
Out West: For those of you who think that all the press over MJ's death is ridiculous, it was reported that people in SRI LANKA were applying for visas to come to the U.S. to pay their respects. Outside the US, MJ ostensibly represented the U.S. to the world for much of the '80s and '90s. So get over it!
Paul Farhi: Yep. Jackson was one of the few human beings known around the world. He was, in fact, more popular outside the U.S., if you just go by album sales (of course, domestic sales were the plurality of his global total).
RE: Logan's Run: Don't do it - don't watch it again. I made that mistake. Truth be told, Farrah's role was one of the -least- cringe-worthy.
Worse, I had my son watch it ("It's one of mom's favorite movies"). He now knows my taste is worthless.
Paul Farhi: Thank you! Just remembering it now made me want to go back and watch it. Must. Resist. Temptation....I'm seeing very cheesy sets, crummy acting, washed-out color. Oh, gawd...
Columbia, Md.: Paul, could you explain WJFK's signal coverage? I've lived in DC all my life and really have never gotten WJFK very well on any radio. I wanted to listen to Don and Mike when I found them again in the 90's (listened to them on 104.1 WAVA) but the signal was week even in NW DC, not to mention the MD suburbs. I tried in my car last week when I heard about the sports change but no luck up here in Columbia. I would love to not listen to Mr. Snyder's constant sales but it looks like I'm stuck for sports talk.
Paul Farhi: Yeah, unfortunately, WJFK doesn't come in very clearly up your way (I usually lose it driving up I-95 around Burtonsville). It's much stronger west of D.C., owing to its Fairfax location). 980 AM does have wide coverage, but powers down after dark...
Mr. To, NY: Will Kornheiser return to the airwaves at WJFK? What's the latest? Will you be his first guest?
Paul Farhi: Haha! No and no.
Washington, D.C.: Regarding the late TV MJ coverage. I think it was the news networks needing the sources to make the call. It reminded me bit of the election coverage in that CNN was the most reluctant outlet to call his death and they were also the last cable news network to call the election. I'm not sure what has made them so cautious, but I'm starting to get out of the habit of watching CNN for breaking news. I'm about to use TMZ as my primary source, and that scares me a lot.
Paul Farhi: Well, being accurate would seem to be a better idea than being first. If CNN paused to check the initial reports, that's called being responsible. We're far too obsessed with being first. Who cares? Just get it right.
Get Ready for Logan's Run 2010: It's being remade!
Paul Farhi: Just a prediction: The remake will be far slicker and bigger than the original. It will also be charmless and worse.
Falls Church radio lover: I need more details on the WJFK flip, please
Paul Farhi: Coming July 20. I would recommend Googling my story from early June ("Farhi + WJFK + Snyder + WTEM" ought to get you there).
Washington, D.C.: Paul, are you as torn about the Jackson adulation as I am? On the one hand, I am completely fascinated since he was young and this was unexpected. I watched TV, watched his videos on YouTube and read stories online about the newest developments. I also sang along to those songs and remembered how good he used to be. On the other hand, I felt terrible thinking about what will happen to his children and heard more about the allegations against him from the trial that I never heard about before. They make a very strong case that the jury's verdict was wrong. I just don't really know how I should feel. How about you?
Paul Farhi: I think he was a deeply disturbed and troubled person (duh!). As for the trial, he was cleared of all counts. I'll leave it at that...
Not a trifecta, but...: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on July 4th, 1826.
Paul Farhi: Yes! I vaguely remembered that one. Pretty amazing historical double.
I never bought an MJ album: But I don't dispute his genius. He is like Elvis in many ways and will be long remembered forever like Elvis. Both were pivotal in changing pop music AND crossing racial barriers.
Paul Farhi: Agreed.
D.C.: Can the court appoint a third party trustee to handle Michael Jackson's estate to protect the interests of his children? I worry that any leftover money would be used to fund Joe Jackson's business interests to the detriment of his grandchildren.
Paul Farhi: I don't know the legal particulars of this, but I think that is the likely outcome. There are going to be so many creditors, so many claims on his assets, and so much confusion that they're going to need a third party (or a fourth and fifth) to sort it all out.
Harrisburg, Pa.: The morbidity of these deathwatches is pretty amazing, as is the re-setting of the clock (Carradine died a couple of weeks ago- does that count as 'first of three'? Does that mean there's one more to go, or two to satisfy the Rule of Three?). In other news, the US is pulling out of Iraq (but not before four soldiers were killed yesterday), N.Korea is still crazier than a loon, and healthcare is still sort-of being debated by wonks (not that you'd know from the coverage devoted to the death stories). I'm sorry to sound like a crank, and I'm sorry this is coming off as a Chayefsky-like polemic, but how pathetic have we become that the world of Celebritology has replaced what matters? Has "If it bleeds, it leads" morphed into "News you can lose" to become this... what? "Reality"? Andy Millman's Big Brother rant at the end of "Extras" seems to encapsulate the whole thing.
Paul Farhi: But it hasn't "replaced" what matters. It's just a momentary substitute. The world always gets back to its basic grimness because that's the way of the world. In the meantime, we can handle other kinds of stories, too.
Sheldon - Calgary, AB, Canada: I'd just like to point out that, lost in the recent meteor shower of celebrity deaths, Sky Saxon of what might be the first true garage band, The Seeds, died the same day as Fawcett and Jackson.
Although his influence may not be as obvious, whenever a garage band makes good, Saxon's legacy endures.
Paul Farhi: Yes! Good one. "Pushin' Too Hard" is/was a great grungy '60s tune. Kids, check it out...
NWDC: I know it's very easy to snark about Michael Jackson. It's obvious that he had mental health issues along with immense talent. I find myself thinking just as much about his mental anguish as his fantastic musical and dance talent. Have you ever known of reports regarding him seeking psychiatric help or therapy for his state of mind? I hope he is resting peacefully in death. Condolences to his family and real friends.
Paul Farhi: You know, strangely enough, I don't recall a story like that. Jackson had a fair number of "spiritual advisers" of one kind or another, but I just don't remember the name of a psychiatrist coming up.
Paul Farhi: Folks, I appreciate the discussion, despite the grim subject matter, but now I've got to get back to whatever it is I'm supposed to be doing out here. I'll be back in the saddle next week. By then, we'll have something lighter and brighter to talk about, like North Korea. Until then. And as always, regards to all...Paul
Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.