By Edward KleinCrown
In the fall of 1979, I headed off to college with mixed feelings and new stuff: a Brother typewriter, a hot pot, and a portable black-and-white television. On the typewriter I wrote a “psychological evaluation” of the main character of Manchild in the Promised Land, with the hot pot I made cream-of-chicken Cup-O-Soup, and on the television I watched the Today show.
Going away to college was overwhelming and depressing, principally because I was a homebody who had never before experienced institutional living and who despised it on contact. I had requested to live on a co-ed floor, and consequently the lounge was always trashed, the music was always loud, and the RA, who was supposed to provide some sort of governance, was a notorious pothead who could barely be pried away from his bong to lead a midnight fire drill, let alone to fill out a maintenance request form when one of the bon vivants vomited in the hallway or jammed the elevators. The force that kept me from turning tail and enrolling in community college was the Today show—or more precisely, Dorothy Meaney, my roommate.
“Great!” she said when I unpacked the TV set. “I just love Jane Pauley.” And soon, so did I. I loved Jane and Tom Brokaw, and I developed a particular fondness for quiet John Palmer, who read the news. With time, it became possible to love Willard Scott, and eventually—out of loyalty to Dorothy—I came to terms with Gene Shalit, although even at 17 I understood that his was not a cultivated taste. Before long, I had rented us a mini-fridge, and we began skipping the dining-hall breakfasts so that we could have cold cereal and Taster’s Choice in our room and enjoy the Today show uninterrupted. Homesick, each morning I would wake up with an anxious feeling, and each morning—with the first, triumphant bars of the old theme song—the anxiety would begin to fade.
The Today show didn’t remind me of my own home, but it was about “home,” and that was almost as good—in some respects, even better. Morning after morning, in the studio that seemed to me like a cheery New York apartment, with its living-room furniture and kitchen, and following a format (news, weather, segment, segment, repeat) as inflexible and calming as a morning in elementary school, Jane and Tom learned how to cook things, how to budget for a family of four, how to choose a vacuum cleaner. They sipped mugs of coffee, they complained in a good-natured way about the early hour, and ever so rarely they—Jane more than Tom—let slip something about their personal lives. They evinced a fondness for each other that was too unalloyed to be marital, too sexless to be romantic, and too intimate to be purely professional. Steadfast, uncomplicated in their allegiances, they were foursquare on the side of the American experience as it revealed itself in corn-husking competitions and Fourth of July parades and Thanksgiving preparations. They were educated without being intellectual, possessed a narrow range of well-modulated emotions, and day by day transmitted—through the mystery of telecommunications—a secret message intended just for me: defy your parents and major in education instead of English. They understood and were not ashamed of the part of me that embarrassed my parents: my squareness.
In return, I watched them faithfully—although watch, I realize, is the wrong verb where this phenomenally successful program is concerned; anyone who fails to grasp this fact will never understand why the Today show will survive the death of nightly news, the death of the newspaper, and even the collapse of television as a major player in the media world. The Today show, like life itself, unfolds while you’re doing other things. If my adult life were to be presented as one long series of mornings, you would see me growing older in a series of vignettes: puttering around the dorm room with Dorothy, tugging on panty hose for my first real job, making breakfast for an overnight guest, gazing out the windows of a hundred hotel rooms, bouncing a cranky baby on my hip, sitting on the edge of the bed and reading over the eulogy I would deliver at my mother’s funeral, handing lunch boxes to waiting children, fielding telephone calls about overdue page proofs and missing permission slips—and always, always, off to the side, there would be a television, and on it, keeping me company, distracting me from myself, making me feel that my somewhat disorganized private life was taking place within the reassuring structure of something larger and better, would be the Today show.