Of all the accomplishments Dick Clark has racked up in a career spanning more than half a century, the greatest may be his ongoing ability to shape and reflect the youth trends of generations that couldn't be more at odds with one another. From the rock 'n' roll he championed in the early days of American Bandstand (on which he appeared from 1956 to 1987) through disco, hard rock, hip-hop, and countless points between, Clark has long been on hand to celebrate the popular styles of the time. On Nov. 16, Clark's 31st annual American Music Awards will return for a three-hour broadcast on ABC, but the AMAs represent just one of many venerated brand names bearing the entertainer's stamp. From TV's Bloopers & Practical Jokes and Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin Eve specials to an assortment of American Bandstand spin-offs and a line of airport restaurants, Clark's offshoots have touched on virtually every corner of the entertainment business. Still seemingly ageless at 73, Clark recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the entertainment business, the influence of American Bandstand, the decline of game shows, and the East Coast bias of televised New Year's celebrations.
The Onion: How much do you worry about differentiating the American Music Awards from other awards shows?
Dick Clark: Well, we've had that problem for 31 years, so it's not a new issue. The show is strictly a popularity poll, the first one of its kind, and it seems to work reasonably well. It's tapping into the resources of people who buy records and listen to the radio, and asking them what they think, rather than turning to a blue-ribbon panel.
O: As far as the broadcast goes, do you ever feel a temptation to be outrageous, when other shows have lesbian kisses and snake-dancing?
DC: Well, those are narrowcasts. We are in the broadcast business. The closest we've come has been to book, I don't know, Axl Rose and his friends and… I'm trying to think of some other bizarre thing. Pretty much, we're appealing to a broader audience of 18- to 49-year-olds.
O: So the show is more generalized.
DC: Well, if you move back 10 to 15 years ago, we were the bizarre upstart that dragged the Grammys into the 20th century. Now, they've come aboard, and we've got MTV in there, and some other people, but they're all shooting bullets rather than shotgun blasts. And we're in the shotgun business.
O: You filed a lawsuit against the Grammys last year, alleging that they were blocking performers from appearing on the AMAs.
DC: That was withdrawn the minute [National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences president] Mike Greene resigned.
O: So there's no "blacklist" keeping acts off the AMAs at this point?
DC: Nah. We don't have a problem with… No. I don't want to dredge that dead horse up again. Once Mike decided to hang it up, our problem was solved.
O: For more than 30 years, you hosted American Bandstand, which both shaped and reflected American youth culture. How do you stay current when each generation is bound to rebel against the one before it?
DC: As a storekeeper, you've got to learn what you're going to put on the shelves. That's always been my role, even when I was in my 20s. I was a storekeeper. It didn't reflect my personal tastes or my personal preferences. You just look at the audience, listen to what they want, and put it up there and see if they come in and buy it.
O: How do you know what they want?
DC: Listen to the radio, attend concerts, read the trades… It's like asking a doctor, how does he stay current with the latest medications?
O: Right. But at the same time, American Bandstand certainly made some careers and blazed trails. A lot of the time, the radio was reacting to what was on American Bandstand.
DC: That's very true. It had a gigantic impact in its heyday.
O: You referred to yourself as a storekeeper, and obviously over the course of 50 years, you're not going to enjoy every youth trend that comes along. Have there been trends where you feel like you're getting your hands dirty by even involving yourself?
DC: In all honesty, no. Because I was roundly criticized for being in and around rock 'n' roll music at its inception. It was the devil's music, it would make your teeth fall out and your hair turn blue, whatever the hell. You get through that. This is not to say that I'm the most current human being on the face of the earth–hell's bells, I'm in my 70s. But it doesn't affect the way you operate.
O: What do you think of, for example, hip-hop?
DC: Hip-hop is probably the most surprising influence of the last 10 years–the fact that rap, evolving into hip-hop, has stayed around so long. It's humongous, and it's in every area of the world. I was in Italy recently and listening to a rap artist there. That's peculiar. Hip-hop is a little more musical, and that's encouraging. But it's gigantic.
O: How do you know when something is in or out?
DC: I guess by the amount of air time it gets, but it's not just air time at this point. It's the number of pages written about it, how the concert grosses work. There are a lot of indicators nowadays.
O: You integrated American Bandstand in, what, 1957?
DC: In '57 or '58, we began to invite black kids in to dance. We always had black entertainers, from the day it started in 1952, but it was segregated until the late '50s.
O: What was the reaction when you integrated?
DC: None whatsoever. It was singularly the most amazing thing in my life, because I'd go out on what we called the Caravan Of Stars, tours with rock 'n' rollers where we'd play before segregated audiences. And then, bang, there we were on television. They were socializing on the dance floor, and black entertainers were performing, and there wasn't a ripple. I remember the first day I spoke to a black kid on the air. I ran to the office as the show ended to see what the Southern reaction was, and there wasn't any. I was anticipating a problem that just didn't happen.
O: Do you think that happens too much in entertainment–where people anticipate a backlash, so they step more carefully?
DC: Oh, I think it's inevitable. We do it in every form of life, especially in the entertainment business, where it's covered in so many media, where rumors spread and wildfires pop up and don't turn into anything.
O: I've got a bone to pick with Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve.
DC: Go ahead and pick.
O: Why does it always ignore everyone outside the Eastern time zone?
DC: Because that's where the action is, in Times Square. When they drop the orange in Florida, no one gives a hoot.
O: But if you live in, say, the Midwest, it's not terribly exciting to celebrate the arrival of 11 p.m.
DC: Unfortunately, you ain't gonna be able to do anything about that. New Year's in Times Square is the imprimatur, it's the trademark, it's the thing, and whether it airs an hour later, two hours later… It's the place you want to be.
O: There's never been a movement to have a live celebration in each time zone?
DC: Oh, some of the affiliates drop off and have local coverage for a few minutes, but the fact that we get an audience that's larger than Fox, NBC, CBS, and MTV combined sort of negates changing the formula.
O: As a TV producer, how do you choose projects?
DC: We do whatever we get lucky enough to sell. [Laughs.]
O: What are you working on now, besides the AMAs?
DC: Well, let's see… In the next few weeks, we've got the DVD Awards, New Year's is coming up, the Golden Globes are coming up. We're working on what hopefully will be a syndicated version of American Bandstand for 2004, if the contract ever gets signed. There are like 40 things on my list, all of which are in various stages of being born.
O: Would you host a syndicated American Bandstand?
DC: No, no. We've got a 27-year-old guy.
O: Well, there's something about Dick Clark–and you'd know this better than anybody–where you're considered somewhat ageless.
DC: Well, that's the myth that's been perpetrated, which I don't fight. But when I get up in the morning and shave, I look in the mirror and say, "Oh my God." [Laughs.]
O: Well, what are your secrets for staying young? Is it all myth?
DC: The first rule is to select your parents carefully. Just be lucky. I've tended to take a little bit better care of my diet and exercise as I've gotten older, but for the most part… My father died at 93 and my mother was close to 80.
O: What would you say are your career's biggest successes and failures?
DC: The biggest success has been to survive this long in the snake pit and shark pool. The biggest failure… God, I've had too many to count, but you don't spend too much time dwelling on those, or you become a discouraged individual.
O: You hosted The $10,000 Pyramid, and later $25,000 Pyramid, for ages. Where have all the great game shows gone?
DC: I don't know. They appeal to the old, unfortunately, and for that reason, they're hard to find. Very few new ones are being developed–the last thing we did was Greed. Most of the Game Show Network, as hard as they're trying, appeals to a rather mature audience, though they're working on pushing the demo down. It's tough.
O: It's interesting how quickly game shows became nostalgia pieces for so many people. Other than The Price Is Right, which isn't going to be around that much longer, there's not a lot to choose from.
DC: When Bob Barker decides to hang it up, it's not impossible for someone else to come along. He is The Man, no doubt about it, and they've tried to do it with other people in other forms that have failed. But if the necessity arose, I would imagine there would be somebody adept enough to do it. Nobody quite as good as Bob, though.
O: Speaking of game shows, what is your relationship with [former Gong Show host] Chuck Barris?
DC: He's probably my oldest friend.
O: Now, he was originally hired to guard you? That's what he said when we interviewed him.
DC: He was there to make sure I didn't take money for playing records. That was the beginning of the Standards & Practices department at ABC. He went out, bought a suit, and commuted to New York from Philadelphia every day to take copious notes and make sure I was behaving.
O: It seems like payola nowadays is almost more widespread, and yet no one makes that big a deal about it.
DC: Well, it's more disguised now. In the horizontal and vertical integration of our business, it's gotten lost in the shuffle a little bit. Every now and again, it rises as "pay-per-play" or some other finagle. I don't imagine that it's ever going to disappear completely from the scene. It's been around since the sheet-music days, when guys would bribe singers in the 5- and 10-cent store to sing their sheet music. Eventually, that evolved into paying off bandleaders to feature their music on late-night radio broadcasts. It's the nature of the beast.
O: You still have restaurants, right?
DC: We have four or five in airports, and one in Kansas City, and it's going along as a franchise arrangement right now.
O: What was your role in creating those?
DC: I don't know, probably just my love of travel and the tremendous archive of old stuff I've got. I've got 4,000 pieces of memorabilia in storage. There's no real sound business reason for it. Everybody wants to be in the restaurant business.
O: How often do you get to act on TV, playing someone other than Dick Clark?
DC: Rarely. That all sort of went away in the late '60s. When I became more identifiable with Dick Clark himself, it was a little hard to get lost in acting roles. So I threw in the towel and said to hell with it.
O: How different is your public persona from your private one?
DC: We're pretty close. It was 100 percent accurate when I first started, but as I matured and got more sophisticated and jaded, my private life became a little different from my public persona.
O: How jaded is Dick Clark?
DC: Pretty jaded. [Laughs.] It doesn't need amplification, but yeah, I've been there and done that a lot.
O: Your public persona is so cheerful, but you've been in show business for more than 50 years, so something has to give.
DC: You know, for whatever's left of it, I love the public side of it. I was walking through an airport the other day, and was stopped to do autographs. I thought, "Man, oh man, I wonder how many times I've done this." But it's part of the job. I've signed almost 900,000 autographs.
O: How did you arrive at that number?
DC: Years ago, we sat down and did an estimate of the number of times, and it was over 800,000. So I must have added another hundred by now.