Thursday, June 12, 2008

"The TV Set" - My Heart Belongs to Daddy



This week's The TV Set column:

Fathers and television go together like MTV and binge-drinking Real Worlders, Brett Michaels and wigs, the Bravo network and homosexual reality show contestants. With the gift-giving burden of Father’s Day tightening around the necks of people with fathers everywhere like yet another cheaply made “World’s Greatest Dad” necktie—I give you, an homage with one caveat; not everyone mentioned, necessarily played a dad on television, they may just have that father figure feel or be capable of growing a really intimidating mustache and/or beard.

If you find yourself stroking your inadequately bald chin, wondering aloud who could possibly fall into that latter category, I submit for your consideration, David Letterman. The mass of hair on Dave’s face after the writers’ strike was of Papa Hemingway, Old Man and The Sea proportions. It was formidable. It said, “If you doubted that I’m this generation’s late night pater familias, check out what hair does on my face when left unchecked. In your eye, Leno!”

And yes, I know, that dastardly Nielsens-friendly Leno consistently rules the ratings roost—why, America, why?--but it is Dave that rules our hearts. How else to explain the outpouring of fan and celeb emotion alike when he unexpectedly had to undergo heart bypass surgery? It was event television when he returned. The realization hit that Letterman was our Carson. More than anyone I’ve grown up watching, Dave is the embodiment of Norman Rockwell’s “Dad”--Midwestern, slightly gruff, a little aloof, and goofily gap-toothed. Then too there is the classy Brooks Brothers masculinity mixed with a contrarian irreverence when faced with prim propriety and the comfortingly old school “for heaven’s sake” essence of the man when posited opposite a modern celebrity train wreck named Hilton.

Dave leads like good dads do, offering a blueprint to the younger late night dudes, paving a path where there is none. That was what he did when he took those first awkward steps back to the air a week after September 11th struck, leaving all of us wondering if it would ever be okay to laugh again. He was clearly shaken but sure of what he had to say, letting us know he too was engulfed in the grief, and the anger, and the shock of those nightmarish first “post-9/11” days. He was at his fatherly best, reminding us at a time when everything about America felt sacred, that there were still some things we could make fun of to distract us from our collective national pain—like Regis.

The other great TV dad of my life won’t shock you. I was a middle class black kid from New York. The existence of The Huxtables was proof that someone knew we were out there. Me and mine weren’t such an anomaly after all. “The Cosby Show” is like the home movies my family never had, my parents never being technologically forward enough to bother acquiring a gadget more advanced to capture our precious moments than a Polaroid camera. So, when I watch “The Cosby Show” today, it’s a chance to revisit the childhood my father made possible for me. This is the sort of patriarch I have first hand knowledge of—physically affectionate, emotionally available, silly, and professorial.

Watching Cliff love not only his kids, but his wife so easily, so unabashedly and with such deference is a model that I wish all little girls could have been exposed to. Actually, as I write, an epiphany. Cliff Huxtable and my actual father are in large part to blame for what—sadly—would be described these days as my high or unattainable standards when it comes to men. And all the time, I thought the cause of my romantic dysfunction rested solely with my mother and Oprah. Imagine that. It’s probably best we keep this little revelation to ourselves.

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