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Monday, January 24, 2005

Johnny Carson, RIP

Memorial of St. Francis de Sales

"SIS-BOOM-BAH!"

[tears envelope and removes paper]

"What is the sound an exploding sheep makes?"

- Carnac the Magnificent


I am a member of that last generation to come of age before Johnny Carson left the scene with his retirement from the Tonight Show in 1992. Mr. Carson was a master of being mildly amusing. Don't get me wrong; his monologues, impressions, interviews, and skits had plenty of very funny moments. But it was the fact that he was consistently amusing and polite and charming that has many of us feeling a bit sad and nostalgic today.

Part of it is also that he made it look easy, something about which we were reminded after a week of a guest host. How often did we enjoy Bill Cosby on Monday, only to be completely fed up with him by Friday? Or Garry Shandling? Or Joan Rivers? Or David Letterman? Or Jay Leno, his mildly amusing successor? Without question, Johnny Carson set the standard. I think David Letterman nailed it when he said that the rest are just pretenders.

Mr. Carson does not leave a legacy that endures in great words or monuments. Just the occasional smile and soft chuckle of a fleeting memory. But we must consider whether it would have been as easy to crawl out of the late '70's without Johnny Carson. Could we have as easily embraced another affable fellow as he moved into the White House in 1981 if we didn't already trust one in our homes every night? I have also often thought that Dan Quayle's rejoinder to Lloyd Bentsen's crack about being "no Jack Kennedy" should have been Carnac-like:
"May the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits."
That might have brought the house down and saved the then future Vice President a bit of grief. Finally, perhaps it is just me, but it seems a bit too coincidental that public discourse took a turn to the shrill when Mr. Carson retired. May he rest in peace.

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