On June 20th, 1948, everyone hoped they were at the start of something big... but no one had any idea it would last for twenty one years straight. Unfortunately nobody bothered to save a copy, but it probably looked something like this.
Of course, that's Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin with a parody of the man himself, but they were the very first guests so isn't that fair? For the post-war generation, the real Ed Sullivan served as a guide to, well, a little of everything. Getting your act on his show was a gateway to stardom, and even the animal acts got their share of fame. Maybe he wasn't so edgy as today's tv heroes, but you'd have a hard time finding some corner of media that doesn't owe Ed Sullivan a debt. So after the jump, we're celebrating his TV birthday with our really big look at the really big history of a really big star, Mr. Ed Sullivan.
It would be stupid to say that Ed Sullivan wasn't aware of his distinctive, easy-to-parody speaking style. And sure, early on, that style took lots of fire and insults from critics. But Ed Sullivan was also a man who'd started as a boxer, and later worked as a gossip columnist, so he knew a bit about tactics and the way people liked to see the underdog come out on top. Maybe it was all part of his plan, then, to wind up a sort of Rod Serling figure, just slipping out, reminding us he was there, then stepping aside to let something good happen. Or maybe it was just a lucky accident. Whatever the reason, this plan led Ed to meet and help shape the careers of so many, many, many entertainers.
George Carlin got noticed there, and so did Carol Burnett, and even the bizarre Senor Wences, became household names because they appeared on Ed Sullivan. Maybe in some cases, these comedians would do later work with more of an edge to it, and maybe that would be the stuff they're remembered for, but... well, almost anyone can get f-bomb laughs now and then. But not every bleeding-edge swear comic is talented enough to craft two decent minutes from simple jokes about bad breath and lighting a cigarette.
We do want to be fair, so we're gonna go ahead and say it: Ed Sullivan could also be a huge jerk. Bo Diddley was insulted and banned for life for doing an extra song, and when Ed and Buddy Holly had a falling out, the show's tech guys were told to turn down Holly's guitar. But it's a bit refreshing how these fights never really seemed to be about race or religion or personal beliefs. Ed apparently just wanted to be the absolute boss of his own show, and took no guff from any guest. In the big list of show biz sins, he's hardly carrying the worst one, right?
Ed Sullivan's show was also a place where a great many Americans heard new music for the very first time. We'd hate ourselves if we called it "the iTunes store of the 50s and 60s" but there's no other present-day comparison for the sort of influence his show had with the American public. Once Ed had featured Elvis and The Beatles, he became to then-modern rock what Conan O'Brien is to now-modern rock: a really good career decision. And it's worth mentioning that Ed Sullivan was showing James Brown and Ike and Tina Turner on the same stage that once featured performances of Camelot and an Italian mouse. We're not saying he was Martin Luther King Jr. or anything, but considering the climate at that time, it probably wasn't a path he had to take, and it was very fair of him to support artists who some viewers might rather have forgotten about.
Today, if you see ballet or a magician's act, you've probably turned over to PBS. And if you see foot jugglers or plate spinning, you're probably watching them get voted off America's Got Talent. But there was a time when you'd be enjoying them as a lead in to some of the most famous actors, musicians and celebrities that the world had to offer. Maybe that's why people just couldn't stop watching, and why Ed Sullivan got so much media attention from his peers. If you think it's kind of obnoxious the way Huffington Post never shuts up about The Daily Show, man, that's NOTHING compared to Ed Sullivan shoutouts from back in the day.
Of course, in the media, those shoutouts have taken many different forms. In old cartoons he was the sign of success. To many Boomers, he became a (NSFW due to profanity) representation of "The Man" even if the reality wasn't quite as dramatic as Oliver Stone remembered. It could have been that culture change which finally led to Sullivan's declining ratings, and his cancellation in 1971, after 21 years of helping set popular cultural trends. Naturally, though, the industry wasn't quite ready to let their moneymaker go.
Just how "Heroes" led to "The Cape" and "Deal Or No Deal" led to "Minute To Win It", and The Beatles led to Oasis, all those producers who grew up on Ed weren't ready to let the formula go. Got some stars? Throw out a variety hour! Even years later, playing off Ed's ghost was a fast way to impress the industry, and the well established David Letterman made sure to pay tribute to Ed's memory on his very first CBS show in Ed's old theater. Probably right now, almost sixty years after Toast of the Town first aired, Joss Whedon could get Firefly back on the air by adding a plate spinner and pitching it as "Ed Sullivan... but in THE FUTURE!" Who cares if it's already been done?
The 1970s saw Ed Sullivan fade away, as we all know, the king's crown passed to Johnny Carson and late night television, and today the standard is for all the interesting stuff to happen after ten pm. But for a long time, what mattered in America was on Sunday nights, just after sunset and just before the kids had to go to bed. Maybe now, tributes to Ed Sullivan are limited to novelty performances but trust us, the influence of Ed Sullivan is all over TV today. And we think that's why he's worth remembering every now and then, and especially today.