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Bruce Newman's Sundance Journal

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Into the Long Good Night

I was sitting across the aisle from Chicago Sun Times critic Roger Ebert at the press screening of "Inside Deep Throat" late Sunday night, and he made the point that Johnny Carson--who died that morning of emphysema--was among the last people to smoke on television. It was one of the few things at which Johnny was ever last.

Shortly after the lights went down in the theater, Carson flickered to life on the screen, making a joke about "Deep Throat" and the justices of the Supreme Court, circa 1972. During Carson's 30-year reign as the prince of latenight--he always seemed to me too boyish to be king, which was why it came as a shock when the news bulletins revealed he was 79--Johnny let us know when something had become part of the national conversation by making a joke about it. He stood at the center of the American mainstream, and bathed in radiant light.

After I went away to college and began making my own hours, I rarely missed "The Tonight Show," even though I came to know Johnny's moves so well that I could sometimes finish the bits myself: blurting out what was in Carnac's envelope, or guessing which young comics he would invite over to sit with him. (This was known among comedians as "getting panel," and if you could ask stars like Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling and David Letterman to pick the single greatest moment of their lives, even now I think they would tell you it was being beckoned to the couch by Johnny.) For a period of time, there was almost no one in this country who didn't know what they were supposed to do when they got to the Slauson Cutoff--cut off your slauson!--even if most of them had never seen the obscure Los Angeles traffic artery on which the recurring joke was based.

Carson's was the sort of soothing predictability that people hope to find when they go to church, and for many of us, what he delivered nightly was a benediction of accessible sophistication and wit. When he left the stage, he took all of that with him. And now we know it's never coming back.

Good night, sweet prince.


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