Like Alistair Cooke a generation before him, Sir David Frost was one of Britain’s most delightful gifts to the United States.
Refreshingly erudite and dignified, as was Cooke, but with a devilishly sly air about him, Frost treaded the line that crossed the youthful enthusiasm of the 1960s into the jaded 1970s with humor and savoir-faire.
Just as grunge rockers can cite Neil Young as their musical grandfather, devotees of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert should cite Frost as their comical grandfather.
Long before “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” Frost hosted a program titled “That Was the Week That Was,” first in Britain and briefly in the U.S.
“TW3,” as its fans called it, satirized the news of the week with snappy skits and one-liners, jumping from bit to bit with what would have been considered warp speed for the television of its era.
It was the first TV program I ever watched that manipulated the old stand-up comic’s technique of spitting out the lines so fast that the audience barely had time to recover from one joke before they were laughing at the next.
The critical difference was that the technique was used not with stale mother-in-law jokes. Instead, it was applied to political, economic and cultural idiocies of the day that were changing as fast as the world was changing.
In his way, Frost, always clad in a suit and tie, was as much of a contrarian as the cast of “The Goon Show,” a loony, wacky radio program that featured Peter Sellers, among others, and Monty Python. In fact, Frost’s first wife was Sellers’ widow.
In addition to Stewart and Colbert’s programs, “TW3” definitely begat “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” complete with news of the future, the joke wall, sock it to me time, and all the rest, with a little influence from the late Ernie Kovacs thrown in.
How ironic it is that one of the most iconic moments was the night President Richard Nixon said, “Sock it to me?”
At the intersection of the most acerbic biting satire and the most probing journalism, you will find Frost.
It was he, after all, who acquired a coup that other journalists had been frothing at the mouth to get — an interview with the disgraced, post-Watergate Nixon, who resigned from office.
It was in that series of interviews that Nixon, after asked by Frost about the abuse of executive privilege, said, “Well, when the president does it that means that is not illegal.”
Prodding Nixon for a mea culpa, Frost finally told him on the final day of the questioning, “Unless you say it, you’re going to be haunted for the rest of your life.”
Finally, Nixon apologized, saying he had put “the American people through two years of needless agony.”
Renaissance men and women, people of great intelligence who could entertain and influence were rare in the 20th century, and they’re becoming even rarer in the 21st century.
I can think of Alistair Cooke, Katharine Hepburn, Eleanor Roosevelt and Steve Allen.
And, of course, Frost.