Johnny Carson, by Henry Bushkin (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin, 294 pp., $28)
“I started out in a gaseous state, and then I cooled,” said Johnny Carson when asked about the reason for his success. That tongue-in-cheek assessment was on the money: in the 1970s and 1980s, Carson was the coolest television personality on the planet. Though he retired from show business in 1992 (after 4,531 Tonight Show broadcasts) and died in 2005, he still inspires great devotion from fans—and fierce resentment from colleagues. Carson’s longtime lawyer, Henry Bushkin, is a member of both groups, and his new book about the late-night king has provoked full-throated responses from the corridors of NBC in New York to the broadcast venues of Burbank, California.
Bushkin was an inexperienced attorney when Carson consulted his law firm in 1970, took a shine to the young man, and elevated him to the role of personal consultant. Their arrangement lasted 18 years and ended, like so many of Carson’s relationships, in acrimony and charges of disloyalty. Before the fadeout, though, there were high times, incessant laughter, generous helpings of loot, and a steady flow of A-list celebrities. These perks came at a cost. Among them: Bushkin’s self-respect (one of the job requirements was losing to Carson at tennis in order to sweeten the boss’s disposition); his peace of mind (the mercurial Carson was constantly splitting with his wives, reconciling, and then divorcing them, a process that involved millions of dollars and reams of documents); and, eventually, Bushkin’s own marriage, when the lawyer emulated his employer’s tomcat proclivities.
The two were close for a time—so close that Bushkin was invited to accompany Carson as he broke into the apartment of his estranged wife, Joanne, on a raid that revealed she had been seeing the football star Frank Gifford. Awash with self-pity, Carson confessed, “Joanne has broken my heart . . . to the extent I have one.” But even here, he displayed an uncanny ability to turn misery into comedy. Gifford, he remarked, “plays three positions on the field. I could never get Joanne to go for more than two.” As Bushkin dutifully dissolved in laughter, Carson beamed. “I think I’ll use that line in tomorrow’s monologue.”
As lawyer got to know employer, he found “that Carson wasn’t wealthy. Indeed, he had very little money.” Moreover, Johnny, who had already gone through two painful marriages (there would be two more), “was the father of three sons whom he seldom saw, and he drank to excess nearly every night.” Carson was rescued from penury, Bushkin writes, by Bushkin himself. He negotiated new, multi-million-dollar contracts for his client. He oversaw the development of an elegant clothing line, as well as the founding of a production company, both of which bore the Carson name. The trouble was, the star couldn’t be bothered to pose for photos of the tuxes and suits, and the corporate side of television bored him to distraction.
The straying husband, remote father, difficult friend, and indifferent businessman turned out to be a flop at everything except emceeing a talk show. There he was supreme. Born in Iowa, bred in Nebraska, Carson offered none of the customary New York backchat or L.A. glitz. What America saw was what America got—a good-looking Midwesterner with impeccable timing, a genius for connecting with audiences, hip and square alike, and an irreverent attitude still imitated today. The current crop of late-night stars—Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien—have rightfully acknowledged their debt to Carson. His topical monologues, his ping-pong exchanges with guests, and above all, his equal-opportunity political jokes, set the tone for every host who followed. “Did you know that Richard Nixon is the only president whose formal portrait was painted by a police sketch artist?” “Democracy means that anyone can grow up to be president, and anyone who doesn’t grow up can be vice president.” “Jerry Brown admitted that he tried pot in the sixties, but didn’t exhale.” “New York is an exciting town where something is happening all the time, most unsolved.”
Even so, the droll superstar who found himself compared with Will Rogers and Mark Twain was acutely miserable off screen. “I don’t have much of a talent for happiness,” he once observed. “I never have. My mother saw to that.” This sounds like pop-psych rationale, but Bushkin observed firsthand that the line was based in reality. At every turn, Carson’s cold, domineering mother, Ruth, remained a monument of ingratitude. Nothing her son did merited applause. After Johnny sent his parents on an all-expenses-paid tour of Europe, for example, he called to ask about the highlights of their journey. Ruth gave him a five-word answer: “It’s good to be home.” When he sent her a mink coat, she promptly returned the gift because it was “too fancy for Nebraska.” When she passed on, Johnny ad-libbed a brief epitaph: “The Wicked Witch is dead.” Small wonder that he had difficulty with the women he loved but couldn’t respect and the associates he needed but couldn’t retain.
Johnny Carson brims with many equally revealing glimpses, as well as funny, if unprintable, jokes, and up-and-down encounters with the famous. Wayne Newton “advised” the Tonight Show host to lose the Wayne Newton jokes. Carson finally backed off, but even though he had been a headliner in Las Vegas, he never worked in Wayne’s town again. At a White House gala, when the third Mrs. Carson was given an inferior seat, President Ronald Reagan made a contrite phone call to her husband. Reagan’s regard bordered on awe, and he wasn’t alone. Yet all the adulation, the astronomical ratings, the six Emmys, the Peabody Award, induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a Kennedy Center honor could not mitigate the hard years of retirement. Bushkin observed Carson’s later years from afar, having been unceremoniously canned, but his biographical account rings true. Carson’s troubled, alcoholic son died in an automobile accident, and “at some point following Rick’s death, Johnny apologized to Chris and Cory, his surviving sons, for not being there when they needed him.” Carson and his fourth wife separated, though they never divorced. Suffering from emphysema, the four-pack-a-day smoker “spent a great deal of his time in his last years on his boat, alone with his crew, who took care of him.”
Bushkin’s book is more affectionate than critical, more grieving than aggrieved. As he ruefully acknowledges, he was in the vast audience that took Carson for granted until it was too late—“in the way New Yorkers can pass the Empire State Building every day without looking up.”