When Noah Adams launched his "Good Evening" radio variety show Saturday at 6 p.m., millions of listeners were holding their breath.
The guy was replacing Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion," far and away the best-loved program of our time -- on radio or TV -- and he had to do it not only on Keillor's turf, Minnesota, but actually on the very same stage, at St. Paul's World Theater.
That's like dressing someone up in Charlie Chaplin's derby hat, cane and little mustache and telling him to go out there and "don't try to do a Chaplin act, for heaven's sake, just be yourself."
Well, he did it. With laryngitis, too.
There were problems, naturally. Some things were too much the same, and some things were unsettlingly different, like Adams' rather brisk, urban delivery, which made us yearn just a bit for Keillor's lovely shambling drawl, which sounded as if he were talking to himself.
Adams, a host for five years on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," indicated the directions he will take with the new show. We are going to be read to aloud, a nice idea. Novelist Richard Ford read a touching if somewhat grim passage from his "Rock Springs" short-story collection. Maybe "Good Evening" will become a resource for undiscovered writers as well.
And there was a skit: Mimsey and Bud Perkins trotted out their samples of classic American cliche' (winning coach: "What can I say?"; losing coach: "What can I say?"). Now, here is something that Keillor barely touched on, a half-forgotten genre of radio hilarity that today belongs to Bob and Ray, Stan Freberg and a few others, but that in the golden age of radio was almost a way of life. Remember Fred Allen and his Alley? Remember "Buck Benny Rides Again"?
It would be a great day for American laughter if Adams brought back the radio skit in its full glory.
"Good Evening" featured some competent down-home music, a solo by Peter Lang, "a great guitarist who happens to live in Minnesota"; and David Buskin and Robin Batteau (thanks for spelling the name for us, Noah), who specialize in very short songs, such as the Chevrolet chorus and the Burger King aria.
It was almost like old times. There was even a sing-along. And Adams recited a poem, though it was just a poem, not a personal message to the heart. Keillor's great talent was that he could touch you, right through the speaker.
There was a lot of weather talk. Adams has moved to St. Paul -- from Washington -- and he was raised in Appalachia, so he is qualified to talk of snow and cold. But how many cold jokes are there?
He also tried a brief monologue about his dog Will -- the show's theme song is "Struttin' With Will" -- and it was modestly charming and, more to the point, charmingly modest. It did not ask to be compared with Bruno the Fishing Dog, one of the great dogs of literature, so let us not compare it. Remember, Keillor had 13 years to perfect his formula.
"Good Evening" is a friendly show, the same but different. Keillor gave Minnesota to America, and of course it can't be done again. Adams has made a smashing good start on his own, with a program that would remind this bewildered country of the good stuff under its surface, and that is just what we need right now, so we should stand back and give him a little time.