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Ivy League Culture

As Harvard Alum Conan O’Brien takes over the reigns at the "Tonight Show," it is worth asking what, if anything, it says about our culture. For years, Johnny Carson ruled the roost, and brought his midwestern sensibility to the show. If Wikipedia is correct, O’Brien, by contrast, went to Harvard, and is the son of a Professor at Harvard Medical School. Might that change reflect a larger change both in Hollywood and at Harvard?

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Hollywood, in fact, was overrun with Harvard grads years ago. Many of them wrote for The Simpsons. You won't be surprised to learn that Conan O'Brien was a writer and producer during the show's heyday in the early '90s.

From The Simpsons, these Harvard BAs spread like kudzu to sitcoms all over town. A buddy of mine and I visited the set of Newsradio in 1998. We met a writer who was wearing a Columbia sweatshirt. "Oh," I said, "when did you graduate from Columbia?" "I didn't go to Columbia," he replied. "I went to Harvard."

If you've ever seen O'Brien's late night show, you'll have some idea of his brand of humor. It's snarky. He started out uncertain but grew more comfortable over the years. He's done some very funny stuff over the years. He staged a great fake feud with Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart over "Who created Mike Huckabee" that they resolved with an over-the-top backstage brawl. (Highlights here.)

But, the bottom line is, Carson's midwestern style of humor retired with him. In late night TV, it's Leno's, Letterman's and, now, Conan's world.

Aside from the content of his humor, Johnny Carson had a gentle, humble, self-deprecating style that invited the audience in -- he always appeared to be, like them, caught comically unawares by the punchline (that he just delivered).

By contrast, palooka Leno and smartypants Conan flaunt their mastery of their material, which, true, can at times be absurdly funny or bizarrely hilarious. But Carson's manner of comic innocence is beyond them.

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