Monday, January 24, 2005

R.I.P. Johnny Carson

On Saturday, the day before Johnny passed away, I opened a piece of junk mail as Karnak the Magnificent for what must be the thousandth time.

Macintosh, a Ford Pinto, and Dolly Parton.”
Name an apple, a lemon, and a pear.”

I know. The gag works better aloud.

I started watching late night TV near the end of Johnny’s reign, and initially I had a punk kid’s attitude toward him. I was firmly in David Letterman’s camp. But then so was Johnny; his company produced Dave’s 12:30 show on NBC. (It also made THE BIG CHILL.)

In a 1991 episode of THE SIMPSONS, Bart and Lisa are watching THE TONIGHT SHOW. Johnny (voiced by Harry Shearer) jokes that Milli Vanilli was arrested for impersonating a McNugget. Bart turns to Lisa and says, “It’s still fun to be up late.” Two years later, Johnny appeared as himself on the episode ‘Krusty Gets Kancelled,’ which ends with Bart calling Johnny the greatest entertainer on television. My appreciation of him underwent a similar transformation.

By the end of his run, I came to hugely admire his pinpoint timing, his skill at reading an audience, his ability to salvage a flopped joke or a soft interview. After his retirement, I admired him even more. It takes guts to go out on top and stay out. That sense of restraint seems positively quaint in the reality TV era. To find out that in the last months of his life he was quietly contributing jokes to Letterman’s monologues only adds to his image.

Johnny started on television in a time when the pop culture universe wasn’t so fragmented. No doubt that contributed to Johnny’s status in TV history, heights to which no performer will ever ascend again. But it was his talent and personality, a kind of forceful modesty, that made the climb possible. He was truly one of the greats.

Book: Nobody Runs Forever, by Richard Stark (2004)

Nobody gets me back in the crime fiction swing like Stark, aka Donald E. Westlake. His series about Parker, an icy professional thief, has been around for almost 40 years. This latest entry is as sharp and lean as fans have come to expect.

The books hew to a rigorous structure. They’re broken into four parts, with three told from Parker’s point of view and the other by characters whose actions will affect Parker’s heist. (Here, it’s a complicated armored car robbery.) The format doesn’t prevent Stark from subtly acknowledging Parker’s age in this outing, which only adds to its impact.

Miscellaneous: Link

Get yer Razzies while they’re hot!