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Pick of the Day: Heeeere's Johnny! (Again)

The recent tempest involving Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno brought to mind not their current rival, David Letterman, but the man who, 18 years after he left the air, remains the gold standard for late night comedy: Johnny Carson.

Kenneth Tynan's 1978 profile of Carson in The New Yorker is a classic of the genre, penetrating a man who was a mystery to many around him, even as he was so familiar to the millions of Americans who watched him every night. It's a challenge to capture in detail the looks of a celebrity everyone knows, but Tynan accomplishes the mission with carefully chosen detail, noting that Carson's eyes twinkle "like icicles," that his hair is the color of "pewter," and that his back is "as straight as a poker."

In two sentences, he also captures Carson's cultural significance: "I once asked a bright young Manhattan journalist whether he could define in a single word what made television different from theater or cinema. 'For good or ill,' he said, 'Carson.'"

Tynan interviews legendary director Billy Wilder, who offers this gem of a description of Carson: "He enchants the invalids and the insomniacs, as well as the people who get up at dawn. He is the Valium and the Nembutal of a nation."

By contemporary standards, Tynan's profile is long, very long, longer, perhaps, than anything that would get published today. But it's excellent and well worth the journey. Read it here

By Paul Schwartzman  | March 16, 2010; 12:59 PM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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