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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 18, 2002

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Don't Be Such a Stranger

They were such a part of our lives for so long that they almost felt like part of the family.

Then they went away, and I miss them. What's stopping them from making a visit now and then?

I'm not referring to celebrities who died. Janis Joplin, Art Linkletter, Bing Crosby, Charles Schulz, Isaac Asimov, Spencer Tracy, Chris Farley -- that list is way too long, and besides, they're not coming back no matter what I say.

Nor am I talking about celebrities who are simply too old or ill. We don't really want to see Bob Hope or Ronald Reagan make public appearances right now, I suspect -- far better to remember them as they were in their prime.

I'm also not talking about people who were once wonderful and have since been replaced by obnoxious caricatures of themselves. Sure, I'd like to hear from the young, eager, brilliant Barbra Streisand rather than the vain, terrified person now performing under that name.

Remember how funny Roseanne Barr and Drew Carey once were? Remember when Ted Koppel wasn't pompous? But nothing we do now will bring them back to what they used to be.

I'm talking about people who got tired of talking to us or performing for us long before we -- or at least I -- got tired of them. They're still alive, still healthy, and still hiding.

Johnny Carson. During all the talk of "late night wars," when Leno and Letterman were battling over the succession to Carson's late-night crown, what few dared to point out was that not one of the candidates was fit to take Carson's place.

Letterman and Leno will do almost anything to be funny, and often they succeed. But neither has ever come up with anything as lovably funny as Floyd R. Turbo, Karnak, Aunt Blabby, or any of the other characters we loved to laugh at.

Carson was smart, not a smart alec, and when he needed to, he could talk to us from the heart. When Leno and Letterman try it, they always look like little kids trying to convince their parents that they're really really telling the truth this time.

Carson actually understood the news stories he made fun of. And though he had the power to destroy political figures -- Jerry Brown never recovered from the "Governor Moonbeam" tag -- Carson was truly even-handed in his political humor.

Unlike Leno and Letterman, who combine cheerful ignorance with impenetrable bias.

Most of all, I miss the fact that when Carson talked to a guest, he actually listened; his mind was actually engaged; there was real live conversation happening.

Johnny, I know you're having a good time in Malibu, spending all that money, but every now and then, couldn't you come out and talk to us?

Andy Richter. Conan O'Brien isn't half as stiff and unfunny as he used to be. But during those awful early years, the only thing that saved his show was Andy Richter, who put up with Conan's heavy-handed mockery while adding genuine humor and likeableness to "Late Night."

He left to do "other projects," and I wish him well in that. But if you ask me, I'd rather see Richter doing a latenight show than anybody currently doing one.

Bill Watterson. "Calvin & Hobbes" managed to be biting and warm, wise and silly, all at once, all the time. The comic strip antics of the little boy and his stuffed -- but dangerous -- tiger were the best thing in the paper most days.

I understand why Watterson quit -- he didn't want to slip into the pattern that weakened Charles Schulz's later years, relying on stock characters and situations that were increasingly divorced from real life.

But can't he come up with a new strip to which he brings the same wit and style and heart?

Gary Larson. "The Far Side" creator hasn't completely disappeared -- a few years ago he did a preachy sort of children's book, "There's a Hair in My Dirt." But that's not a lot of output from a guy who twisted our world into hilarious clarity every day for not-enough years.

Patty Scialfa. Long associated with Bruce Springsteen, her voice can be heard singing with him on the recent "Live in New York City" cd. It only made me wish she would release another solo album.

Her "Rumble Doll" (1993) was perhaps the most brilliant debut album I've ever heard. Every cut was a good song movingly performed. Her wistful, world-weary voice is unforgettable. One album from her is not enough.

Julee Cruise. Her dreamy, fifties-style songs are hauntingly strange. "Floating into the Night" (1983) and "The Voice of Love" (1993) show why David Lynch used her music with "Twin Peaks," but unlike Lynch, who is usually unwatchably precious, Cruise's music has a kind of universality and I'm impatient for her to record again.

David Hartman. He walked off ABC's "Good Morning" as the undisputed king of morning talk. I also thought his acting performance in the made-for-TV remake of "Miracle on 34th Street" was first-rate.

He had exactly the right balance of relaxed charm and gravitas to be the first voice we heard in the morning. I'd rather see him than any of the crew we get thrown at us today.

Andre Braugher. The first moment I saw him on "Homicide: Life on the Streets" I could see that this was an actor way too hot for the little box of television. He needs to be in feature films, and feature films need his power.

Unfortunately, he keeps getting cast in sidekick roles, and he doesn't belong there. He practically has to act inside a paper bag to keep from stealing scenes from the less-talented stars he is hired to "support."

If ever there was an actor born to play fiery or tortured roles -- one thinks of Hamlet or Macbeth -- it's Braugher.

And yet he's funny and tender, too -- I think he'd do as well as Tom Hanks in bringing off the baffled-but-game Jimmy Stewart character that audiences love so much.

To all these entertainers, I have only one word to say: Encore!

*

My nomination for Best New Comic Strip in the N&R in 2001: "Zits." Truthfully written, wittily drawn, this strip joins "For Better or For Worse" and "Sally Forth" on my list of "comic strips worth opening the paper for."

My nominees for Best Editorial Columnists in America: Leonard Pitts, Jr., and William Raspberry. Neither follows a party line; both examine issues on their merits and manage to fit cogent, well-written, thought-provoking ideas into the short space that columnists have to work with.

And Pitts's book "Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood" is the book I recommend most highly for fathers of any race.

My nomination for Most Spineless Columnist in America: Ann Landers.

Don't misunderstand -- I've been reading her column for many years and I don't plan to stop.

But I remember a time when she used to make a call and stand by it. Now her most frequent answer is "see a counselor" (a copout if there ever was one, for an advice columnist), and whenever she gets a few negative responses to a column, she flip-flops and apologizes instead of standing by her original answer.

All the principles she used to have seem to have been replaced by a nervous twitch whenever she thinks she might have been caught being politically incorrect.


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