By William Thomas

Every time a late night talk show makes the headlines – “Leno Gone!  Letterman To Follow!” – the inevitable comparison to the late Johnny Carson crops up.  And there is no comparison because Carson was the master of the late night microphone, better than Steve Allen and Jack Parr before him, much better than all the pretenders since.

Whereas the others trip over their tongues and interrupt their guests in the rush to deliver a funny line, Carson was a good listener.  When the comic opportunity arose, he’d process it and wait before launching the laugh missile. He rarely missed.

Carson’s most famous quip came when actor Ed Ames did miss while giving the host a tomahawk-throwing lesson.  “This is how you take care of an enemy,” boasted Ames as he flung his weapon at the human figure outlined in chalk on a wooden board.  Instead of the heart, Ames imbedded the tomahawk in the man’s crotch.  Embarrassed, the actor went to retrieve the small axe from the man’s wedding tackle when Carson grabbed him and held him back.  And they waited, first to allow the audience to laugh themselves silly and then to settle down.

That’s when Johnny Carson delivered the line that resulted in one of the largest laughs in television history: “Gee, Ed, I didn’t even know you were Jewish.”

Once that wave of hysterics finally died down, the flustered tomahawk teacher asked the host if he wanted to give it a try.  Said Carson a little sadly, “No.  I can’t hurt him anymore than you did.”

Delivering that one great line has become comedy’s highlight art form.  Quick, ruthless and on the money.  Jay Leno asking a chastened Hugh Grant: “What the hell were you thinking?!?”

Jack Parr’s greatest line came courtesy of Dick Cavett, an NBC writer dying to join the Tonight Show team.  As the story goes, they were in the elevator when Parr mentioned he was stumped as to how to introduce that night’s guest, the overwhelmingly voluptuous Jane Mansfield.  Cavett said he had a pretty good idea.  Jack Parr introduced Jane Mansfield with the now famous five words:  “Here they are, Jane Mansfield!” And Dick Cavett got a new job.

Normally drunkenness dulls a sharp mind, landing the comeback line with a thud.  Usually, but not always.  American humorist Robert Benchley was leaving New York’s Algonquin Hotel after a liquid lunch, still carousing with friends and not paying much attention to anything else.  Spotting what he thought was the uniformed doorman he said:  “My good man, would you please call me a taxi?”  Hugely offended, the man shot back:  “I am not a doorman.  I happen to be a rear admiral in the United States Navy!”  To which Benchley immediately replied:  “Alright then, get me a battleship.”

Fellow member of the Algonquin Round Table, Marc Connelly was as quick as Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Harpo Marx and the other well-known wits.  Going for a cheap laugh, a man came up behind Connelly at a dinner party, patted the playwright’s bald head and said:  “Marc, your head feels as smooth as my wife’s ass.”  When the laughter subsided, Connelly rubbed his own head and said:  “So it does.  So it does.”

The savviest of politicians know how to diffuse a nasty situation with a great line.  Ronald Reagan, explaining the confusion inside his administration over the Iraq Contra Affair said:  “Sometimes the right hand doesn’t know what the far right hand is doing.”  Later when asked if it was taking a personal toll, Reagan, famous for napping, admitted:  “I’m having a lot of sleepless afternoons.”

President Calvin Coolidge was nicknamed “Silent Cal” for a very good reason.  “I’ve never been hurt by something I didn’t say,” he often pointed out.  At a White House dinner, a woman approached him and whispered:  “You must talk to me, Mr. President.  I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you.”  Coolly, the president whispered back:  “You lose.”

The Hollywood press has always been in the hunt for what the British call a “jolly good slag off.” While posing for publicity photos actress Mary Anderson turned to her director and asked:  “What’s my best side?”  Replied Alfred Hitchcock without hesitation:  “You’re sitting on it.”

A  friend walked into the hospital room of W.C. Fields on his death bed and was shocked to see what the comedian and well-known agnostic was reading.  “What are you doing reading a Bible?” he asked.  A professional smartass to the very end, Fields replied:  “Looking for loopholes.”

So if you ever find yourself insulted by an obnoxious or overbearing cad who baits you with an insult, don’t bruise your brain trying to think of a killer comeback line. Leave that to the professionals. Just give ‘em the finger and leave.

For comments, ideas and copies of The True Story of Wainfleet, go to www.williamthomas.ca