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Goodbye, Johnny

A look at the influence one humorist has had on late-night television

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WHEN Johnny Carson retires from "The Tonight Show" this week and leaves us to Leno, Letterman, and the rest, what we watchers of late-night talk shows will experience is essentially a change in style - from classical to postmodern.

Mr. Carson's show was classical in that it offered a transparent window on his guests' various talents. David Letterman's show is postmodern in that the medium is partially opaque. Carson's cameras stay invisible, politely focused on the set and the guests. Letterman jostles "our" camera at some point in nearly every opening monologue. He throws pencils at us. Why? To acknowledge the artifice, to be un-phony by displaying the phoniness.

Carson always gave a genuine comic monologue. Set-up and punch, set-up and punch, weaving together today's headlines with items of sheer mirth.

Exit the mirth of a nation, enter the derision. After Johnny's classical period, talk show decadence now has its day. Letterman's halfhearted pretense at a monologue is itself a kind of joke. Even supposedly hip cynicism grows depressing after a while. Yet Johnny's show seemed to exult, perhaps more innocently than is now the fashion, in the value of life. That's probably what we'll miss the most.

Johnny's classicism may seem old-fashioned next to his successor at NBC, Jay Leno, whose snack-food ads run on MTV. But Leno is less hip than Letterman. In terms of style, that is, there's a continuum: Johnny was the classic, Leno and Arsenio Hall are modern, and Dennis Miller and Letterman are postmodern. The scale refers to the relative transparency of the medium itself.

Miller, for instance, is the only one now making a regular prop out of the studio monitor's applause sign. There and elsewhere in his new show, Miller thus adds a new kind of humor, that of text appearing on the screen, which is obviously an up-to-date style of our times. Letterman's "Top Ten List," when you think of it, is a kind of computer-screen scroll unfurling its punchlines. But let's not mistake the postmoderns' use of superimposed text as some fresh wave of intellectualism sweeping the tube: On all of these late-night shows (including "Saturday Night Live"), the hosts are still careful to read to us the text that appears on our screen.

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