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Johnny & The Wail

November 10, 1985

"The Tonight Show" has never been a wellspring of sensitivity, but a recent show (Oct. 24) reached new depths.

The subject was the humpback whale who was then still stranded in the Sacramento River, his life hanging on the attempts of volunteer rescuers to herd him back out to sea.

Carson began by describing with mock solemnity the plight of the whale, then offered his "plan" to save the creature's life: He played a recording of whale mating cries--which, in any other context, would have been haunting and wondrous--then invited the studio audience to imitate those cries "to chase the whale out to sea."

The audience, probably in town from Iowa and eager to join in the big-city fun, responded with an astonishing display of callous buffoonery, howling and clapping. Meanwhile, Ed McMahon, ever the shameless fool, punctuated this vulgar merriment by nearly choking on his own mindless sniggering. Even by "The Tonight Show" standards, this was all an outstanding disgrace.

I turned off the TV but felt ashamed of having been party to Carson and company's unabashed celebration of the then-likely death of a 40-ton whale. I could have been out helping the efforts to set the animal free.

The rescuers whose world would be immeasurably diminished by the loss of this single life, and those who find it in a confused creature's misfortune opportunity for humorless revelry, provide one simultaneously with hope and despair. The passion of the one stands against the insensibility of the other. Together they represent the best, and the worst, in us all.


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