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 The Anti-Eulogy: An Apologia 

February 15, 2005 
I’ve gotten plenty of reaction to my “anti-eulogy” of Johnny Carson. I said he just wasn’t very funny, and ever since then I’ve been pleasantly punished: readers have sent me some of their favorite Carson gags. I’d be forced to eat Read Joe's columns the day he writes words if I weren’t laughing so hard.

One example: During the gasoline shortage of the 1970s, Carson said he’d asked a gas station attendant how much he could get for $5. The man replied, “Hold out your hands.”

Now that I think of it, that’s the kind of thing Carson really did well: playing off whatever everyone was talking about at the moment. It’s an evanescent art, and if you don’t remember the gasoline shortage it may not seem so funny now. But it was funny then.

One reader cited the maxim De mortuis nil nisi bonum — Of the dead speak nothing but good. A good rule, but I don’t think it should be applied to celebrities. I wasn’t attacking Carson personally; his personal life was his own business, and I didn’t presume to judge that. But I did think it was fair to react against the cloying adulation of the public performer.

When celebrities die, in a culture where fame comes cheap, we go in for orgies of overpraise. I think the anti-eulogy is called for, not to belittle the dead, but to restore proportion. Let’s face it: We have far more famous people than we can support. The budget can’t afford it. At some point we have to make painful cuts, and the moment of death seems as good a time as any. If they die famous, that should be sufficient. We can’t go on cheering and applauding them all forever.

When the playwright Arthur Miller died at 89 the other day, one British director said that “if you leave Shakespeare out of the frame he is as great as any writer in the history of playwriting.” I think this is unfair to Sophocles and Neil Simon.

[Breaker quote: Coping with the celebrity glut]So does Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal, who, in a fine anti-eulogy, argues not only that Miller is being overrated in death but that he wasn’t all that highly rated even in his prime. Even many discerning critics who shared his leftist views — Kenneth Tynan, for one — found his plays heavy-handed and preachy.

Like Carson’s best one-liners, some of Miller’s plays were timely — at the time. Death of a Salesman moved audiences to tears in the days when the Common Man was being sentimentalized, and The Crucible seemed to liberals to draw a trenchant parallel between witch-hunts and the McCarthy hearings — an analogy that was already trite when he made it. Most of his other plays were flops. Those two plays have been revived many times, but Miller hasn’t left a Sophoclean, or even Simonian, body of work behind him.

He is probably best known for having married Marilyn Monroe, which at least is more than Moliere could boast. But this only shows that he owed much of his celebrity to marrying a celebrity. And in this his personal life upstaged his theatrical career. In fact he actually based two plays on that marriage, making his public life inseparable from his private one.

Miller’s obituaries have been all too reverent. To paraphrase one of his best-known lines, he was revered, but he wasn’t well liked. The liberal eulogists have had to airbrush his early days as a “progressive” in the Stalin era, and there is little to say about his theatrical career after his early hits. Setting aside the sad-sack Willie Loman, if he ever created a single memorable character, it has been forgotten.

This is not to say that Miller’s two famous plays are bad. But they belong to the curious category of what might be called ephemeral classics — works that are very highly regarded in their own time, but not for long afterward. Joseph Addison’s 1713 tragedy Cato enjoyed a towering reputation throughout the eighteenth century, yet today few remember it at all. Sic transit gloria mundi. We should be careful about conferring immortality prematurely.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 1 of every 17 Americans is now a celebrity. We mustn’t get carried away every time one of them kicks the bucket. That’s all I’m saying.

Joseph Sobran

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