Johnny Carson and the Art of Magazine Writing

The New Yorker recently republished Kenneth Tynan’s 1978 profile
after the death of Johnny Carson on Jan. 24, 2005, and I spent some time picking it apart since magazine writing is a formula that I’ve never mastered, although I can’t say I find it appealing, despite the cachet it bestows on writers.

To me, magazine stories are longwinded set pieces published on slippery paper, written to a rigid formula, beginning with the obligatory anecdotal lead and working their well-worn path from Point A to Point B to Point C and beyond, never intended to be read in their entirety, but existing as something a reader can pick up in a waiting room and plow halfway through before having one’s name called, and not feel cheated by never knowing any more.

Tynan’s piece is a hefty work, printing out at 32 single-spaced pages, and begins with a long, typical scene-setter in the present tense, so it seemed a perfect candidate for dissection. What better exercise than to read about a writer turning the tables on a master interviewer; at least that could be the “high concept” although in the final analysis, Tynan falls short with a subject who obviously was a difficult interview.

The first thing that struck me, aside from the shameless name-dropping that litters the piece (“I get memory flash of cable sent to me by Gore Vidal when he agreed to accept my younger daughter as godchild”) is the stunning amount of time Tynan spent on it, about two years before publication, judging by internal evidence. Long enough, in fact, that some of his sources died while it was being prepared.

I also noted Tynan’s dubious ability to quote long conversations from cocktail parties, presumably without notes, and his uncanny luck in having people materialize at his elbow to supply just the right quote at just the right moment and then vanish.

But the other thing, even more remarkable, though not as apparent on first reading, is that Tynan portrays a landscape utterly devoid of women. Except for a few quotes from Carson’s third and then-current wife, Joanna, the women are anonymous starlets, receptionists and party hostesses; nameless, faceless extras dressing the piece.

Despite all that, Tynan is a gifted and engaging writer; which makes the exercise worthwhile; if I had merely wanted to punish myself I could have selected a story from any current magazine. One of my deeper reasons in picking this profile apart is the recurring notion that there was some reflective, thoughtful, contemplative–maybe even profound–side of Johnny Carson that he kept hidden from TV audiences, his fellow performers and even his friends.

The operating assumption of this piece, like many of the Johnny Carson tributes, was that there was a “there, there.” I’m not entirely convinced. Maybe he was no different than the toys shown with Saturday morning cartoons: Comes with everything shown here.

Unlike Carson, Tynan hasn’t held much cultural currency since the article appeared in 1978. In an admittedly arbitrary test, Carson’s name appears 403 times in Factiva’s archive of the New York Times between Jan. 1, 1980, and the day before his death. Tynan appears 112 times, often in obituaries of people whom he covered as the influential theater critic of The Observer, and of course his own obituary, which appeared July 29, 1980, three days after he died of emphysema in Santa Monica at the age of 53, and a little more than two years after this profile was published.

He survives today as the first person to say “fuck” on television (1965); co-author of Roman Polanski’s “Macbeth”; author of a published anthology of show business profiles, including Carson’s; the subject of a number of biographies; and as assembler of “Oh! Calcutta!”of which Carson might have been speaking when he told Tynan that he found British comedians “unfunny, infantile and obsessed with toilet jokes.”

Many articles on Tynan note that he was an avid diarist, and indeed much of the Carson profile is cast as a diary, including the opening scene-setter, and the conclusion, in which he joins the entourage as Carson goes to Harvard to receive an award as Hasty Pudding Theatrical’s Man of the Year.

There is also a tremendous amount of research underlying the profile. Tynan (or someone) has not only gone to the clips to read Betty Rollin’s 1966 article in Look, and Robert Blake’s interview in Playboy, he’s consulted: Woody Allen; George Axelrod; Mel Brooks; David Brenner; Fred de Cordova; Dom DeLuise; Nunnally Johnson; Irving “Swifty” Lazar; Jackie Mason; Arley D. “Pat” McCormick; Ed McMahon; Paul Morrissey; Don Rickles; Mort Sahl; David Tebet; Orson Welles; Billy Wilder.

The names and cultural references fly thick and fast: Frank Sinatra and Paul Newman; the Pinter plays, the books by Robert Ardrey, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, at a certain point the irrelevant references become rather amusing, especially when Tynan drags in Franklin P. Adams’ newspaper column “The Conning Tower,” which began in 1914 and ended in 1941, 37 years before publication of the Carson profile.

Before proceeding, I should let Tynan speak for himself. Here’s his opening to the Carson piece:

July 14, 1977: There is a dinner party tonight at the Beverly Hills home of Irving Lazar, doyen of agents and agent of doyens. The host is a diminutive potentate, as bald as a doorknob, who was likened by the late screenwriter Harry Kurnitz to “a very expensive rubber beach toy.” He has represented many of the top-grossing movie directors and best-selling novelists of the past four decades, not always with their prior knowledge, since speed is of the essence in such transactions; and Lazar’s flair for fleet-footed deal-clinching—sometimes on behalf of people who had never met him—has earned him the nickname of Swifty. On this occasion, at his behest and that of his wife, Mary (a sleek and catlike sorceress, deceptively demure, who could pass for her husband’s ward), some fifty friends have gathered to mourn the departure of Fred de Cordova, who has been the producer of NBC’s “Tonight Show” since 1970; he is about to leave for Europe on two weeks’ vacation. A flimsy pretext, you may think, for a wingding; but, according to Beverly Hills protocol, anyone who quits the state of California for more than a long weekend qualifies for a farewell party, unless he is going to Las Vegas or New York, each of which counts as a colonial suburb of Los Angeles. Most of the Lazars’ guests tonight are theatre and/or movie people; e.g., Elizabeth Ashley, Tony Curtis, Gregory Peck, Sammy Cahn, Ray Stark, Richard Brooks. And even Fred de Cordova spent twenty years working for the Shuberts, Warner Brothers, and Universal before he moved into television. The senior media still take social precedence in the upper and elder reaches of these costly hills.

There are any number of lessons to be learned here, and I can almost envision the opening page of a play, for Tynan was, after all, a theater critic: “The curtain rises on the Beverly Hills home of IRVING LAZAR. It is evening and a large cocktail party is underway.”

But unlike a play, absolutely no one in the opening scene appears in the profile, aside from de Cordova, who resurfaces from time to time, and Lazar, who magically materializes at Tynan’s elbow to provide a few necessary quotes and vanishes for the rest of the piece. A writer might well be expected to go off in any number of directions from here, and indeed the opening could just as easily preface a profile on Lazar as Carson. What, then, is Tynan up to?

First of all, he’s establishing the primacy of the theater, that is Broadway, for this is a New York audience, and of films against the marginal legitimacy of television and the rather crass and somewhat unnatural practices of California and Californians.

It is only now that he introduces the subject of his piece:

One of the rare exceptions to this rule is the male latecomer who now enters, lean and dapper in an indigo blazer, white slacks, and a pale-blue open-necked shirt. Apart from two months in the late nineteen-fifties (when he replaced Tom Ewell in a Broadway comedy called “The Tunnel of Love”), Johnny Carson has never been seen on the legitimate stage; and, despite a multitude of offers, he has yet to appear in his first film. He does not, in fact, much like appearing anywhere except (a) in the audience at the Wimbledon tennis championships, which he and his wife recently attended, (b) at his home in Bel Air, and (c) before the NBC cameras in Burbank, which act on him like an addictive and galvanic drug. Just how the drug works is not known to science, but its effect is witnessed—ninety minutes per night, four nights per week, thirty-seven weeks per year—by upward of fourteen million viewers; and it provoked the actor Robert Blake, while he was being interviewed by Carson on the “Tonight Show” in 1976, to describe him with honest adulation as “the ace comedian top-dog talk artist of the universe.” I once asked a bright young Manhattan journalist whether he could define in a single word what made television different from theatre or cinema. “For good or ill,” he said, “Carson.”

To be continued…

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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