Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dick Clark, RIP

When word broke yesterday that Dick Clark, the TV impresario whose perpetual youth and perpetual good cheer long ago landed him the sobriquet "The World's Oldest Teenager," had passed away at the age of 82, perhaps the most apt summation of most people's reactions came via someone on my Facebook wall saying simply, "I didn't even know this was possible."

And it's true. For so many years and for so many people, Dick Clark was simply an immutable part of the TV landscape. A force of nature. While his tenure guiding TV's music showcase American Bandstand was something I was only exposed to via archival footage, his annual New Year's Rockin' Eve celebration has been a cultural touchstone for several generations, and Clark was a constant presence in my life via TV specials, game shows, weekly series, and even cartoon shows.

For myself and many others, the first realization that yes, Dick Clark is human, came with the news in 2004 that the tireless entertainer had been sidelined by a stroke. That realization was made vivid by his subsequent return to television on the annual New Year's Rockin' Eve broadcasts that he had long since become synonymous with. Although Ryan Seacrest took over the minute-by-minute countdown duties following Clark's stroke, Clark's presence was still felt as he tried his best to soldier on through the specials, still making his presence felt even in a reduced role.

It was hard. For him to do, and for us to watch -- as heartening as it was heartbreaking. In fact, I can remember quite a few people opining after his return to television that perhaps it would be best if Clark sat out New Year's Rockin' from here on out rather than struggle to slowly pull his sentences together. Certainly, that was a conversation I had with several of my students, as they asked what was he trying to prove by continuing to do the show? Was he so desperate for the validation that comes from being on a TV screen? And yet, I don't think it had anything to do with his ego or desire for fame.

At that point, his place in the TV firmament as a certifiable icon was assured. I think for Clark it was about continuing to do something that mattered to him, to prove to himself that he still mattered. There's something very immediate about that need, and yet seeing someone work their way through it on camera in real time hit a lot of people in an uncomfortable place. For me, Dick Clark's passing is yet another marker of the journey that we are all on, and a reminder that none of us is going to be a teenager forever.

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