Billy Wilder on Johnny Carson

Sep 27, 2004  •  Post A Comment

The late Billy Wilder, the winner of six Academy Awards, wrote and directed a number of classic movies, including “Some Like It Hot” and “Double Indemnity.” This excerpt is taken from a profile of Mr. Carson by Kenneth Tynan that appeared Feb. 20, 1978 in The New Yorker.

By the simple law of survival, Carson is the best. He enchants the invalids and the insomniacs as well as the people who have to get up at dawn. He is the Valium and the Nembutal of a nation. No matter what kind of dead-asses are on the show, he has to make them funny and exciting. He has to be their nurse and their surgeon. He has no conceit. He does his work and he comes prepared. If he’s talking to an author, he has read the book. Even his rehearsed routines sound improvised. He’s the cream of middle-class elegance, yet he’s not a mannequin. He has captivated the American bourgeoisie without ever offending the highbrows, and he has never said anything that wasn’t liberal or progressive. Every night, in front of millions of people, he has to do the salto mortale [an aerial somersault performed on a tightrope]. What’s more, he does it without a net. No rewrites. No retakes. The jokes must work tonight.