Tom Davis and Nelson Lyon

Cancer claimed two former SNL writers this week.  Nelson Lyon, a writer for the 1981-82 season, died Tuesday of liver cancer at the age of 73.  Two days later, Tom Davis, one of the show's original writers and a returning contributor to the show following Lorne Michaels' re-arrival, succumbed to throat and neck cancer at 59.

Davis was a prominent figure in the show's history: he was responsible for many of the well-known sketches such as Coneheads, Final Days, and got more than a few complaints with his and Al Franken's Stunt Baby, X-Police, and First He Cries.  He appeared on camera fairly often through his tenure on the show, usually in tandem with Franken, and at one point landing "featured player" status with the other tenured writers for 1979-80; he also provided countless voiceovers for sketches.  He left with the original writers in 1980, then returned along with Lorne Michaels and Al Franken five years later.  Franken and Davis produced the poorly-received 1985-86 season (with Michaels as executive producer).  When Michaels took a more direct involvement with the show the following season, Davis was gone, but not for long: he rejoined the writing staff in January 1987 and stayed through the 1993-94 season.  Since then, he contributed sketches on 12 shows between 1997 and 2004, including "Leather Man" with Jimmy Fallon and Horatio Sanz.

Lyon was more of a shadowy, underground figure; a collaborator of Michael O'Donoghue's, and probably known more for his sex comedy "The Telephone Book" and his association with John Belushi during his final days.  Lyon contributed to O'Donoghue's "At Home With The Psychos" (with Terry Southern and Rosie Shuster) and penned "The Mild One", an existential biker sketch featuring Bruce Dern.  He had a handful of on-camera appearances as well, as a prisoner, a bodyguard and Josef Stalin.  Lyon's impact on SNL may be less apparent than Davis', but as the basis for O'Donoghue's "Mr. Mike" and a key part of the unique tone of the 1981-82 SNL, it should not be underestimated.

On Michael Jackson

I'd like to add my voice to the din reacting to the death of Michael Jackson.  I don't get CNN at home but I did manage to catch a few minutes of the incessant coverage.  I have a feeling they will be covering a sensationalistic event like this nonstop, while in the "other news we don't give a shit about" ticker, we'll see something about bin Laden's body or the cure for AIDS being found.   It's just a fact of life in today's world.

Farrah Fawcett died the same day, but her impending death had been something that was obvious and expected.  Whatever state Jackson was in the past few years, the story came suddenly and out of the blue.  The resulting outpour of grief has been compared to what happened with Elvis Presley and John Lennon.  Lennon was a much more brutal loss considering the sheer awfulness of the circumstances, but Elvis, like Jackson, was this larger than life figure whose biggest successes were behind him and in later years was a mess, a clear shadow of his youthful self until his body gave out on a random hot muggy day.  Others have noted the eerie parallels between the two Kings: I wonder if there's going to be a cottage industry of Michael Jackson impersonators and alleged sightings.

A lot of the discussion of Michael Jackson has to include his bizarre behavior in the second half of his life, particularly the accusations of child molestation.  If he did actually do what a lot of people say he did, there is no excuse.  I'll have to admit that the two similar scandals ten years apart doesn't really work out in his favour, but I can't ultimately judge Michael Jackson in the same light as someone like Gary Glitter.  There was a bit of a naivite to Michael Jackson: he didn't really seem to fully comprehend how some of his actions looked to society.  He was pitiful at times.  There were a lot of things in his life that would have contributed to the collapse of his mental state.  In a way the Michael Jackson of Off The Wall and Thriller had already died around 1984.  Not that his later scandals have completely eclipsed his early triumphs, though: I doubt OJ Simpson is going to get the same reaction if he were suddenly to drop dead.

That said, the first thing I thought of when I heard the news was "I wonder what kind of hilariously inappropriate joke Andrew's going to come up with".  After David Carradine was found dead, my friend posted that he never knew David Carradine was an INXS/Michael Hutchence fan.  I've heard some good ones in the last few days, mainly focusing on his penchant for being surrounded by young boys.  I was then reminded of all the other jokes about him over the past 16 years and whether we can watch them in the same light again, knowing the conclusion to the story.  Stuff like Norm MacDonald's "Michael Jackson may be a child molester, but he's no song stealer" bit, or the many Clutch Cargo bits on Conan. 

I don't own any Michael Jackson music.  Yet for all his eccentricity, his massive, massive contributions to entertainment can't be ignored.  He was the biggest thing going in the eighties and so many people are familiar with the songs, the videos, the moonwalk, that his death has created a void.  That the 25th anniversary edition of an album most everyone had already, by someone who was written off as a wacko at best, sexual predator at worst, still ended up being the best selling catalog album of 2008 speaks volumes.  The music industry is so fractured now that someone being as big a figure as Michael Jackson in terms of talent and popularity is just not going to happen.  That Jackson died so suddenly only sealed his legend.

When other legendary music figures die, will the reaction be as huge as with Michael Jackson?  There are still people with greater contributions to the world of music, and there are still big stars, but the chances of a big jolt like this grow smaller as they grow older.  A friend of mine believes that whenever Bob Dylan passes, though his contribution to culture was incalculable  it will be almost anti-climactic because he has become myth ages ago.  But like Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson's notoriety was so far-reaching and ubiquitous, transcendent of a lot of barriers.  The music industry has changed so much that a universal figure like that isn't possible anymore. 

In the end, though, it's just another dead famous person, and despite the media coverage indicating otherwise, there are other things in the world to do.  There are other easy targets for jokes, and there is music I prefer listening to over his anyway.