Book Review: Henry Buskin’s Biography Johnny Carson

A new biography of Johnny Carson by the lawyer he fired, Henry Bushkin, is ultimately too shallow and calculated to be credible.

The book, simply titled Johnny Carson, is a major publishing event. There’s not much that’s known about the talented Midwestern comedian and host of the Oscars, President Reagan’s inauguration and, of course, The Tonight Show (1962-1992). He was famously private. He lost a child to addiction and married several times and he pioneered both television and the entertainment industry, with highly profitable deals – apparently made after learning lessons from some bad deals – in media, real estate and men’s fashion. The reader learns about the business of Johnny Carson’s show business.

But something’s off. Author Bushkin, whom Johnny hired through a referral early in his career for no apparent reason, as reported here, delivers a crisp, curt narrative. In fact, it’s too clipped. Sentences feel overly edited, as if important information is deliberately left out, and in every chapter it seems like there must be more to each story. For example, Bushkin writes that he lets Johnny win at tennis because he says he’s afraid of being fired, but Johnny hasn’t fired a single person without cause in the past. By Bushkin’s telling, which comes early in the telling of this tell-all, he fears for his job when he says he has no reason to worry. So, one already has reason to suspect his motives. Something doesn’t add up.

As I read on, the sense of omission increased. A minor error, the misspelling of boxer Joe Frazier’s name, made me wonder if there were other errors as well as omissions, which may have escaped notice or scrutiny by publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Johnny Carson was a powerful, intensely entertaining host and humorist. His nightly monologue was, like Carson, groundbreaking in wit, depth and relevance. Decades later, the format he perfected dominates late night television. At times, he was silly. Other times, he was serious. He interviewed the nation’s top stars and intellectuals, bringing both a touch of lightness and a graceful dignity to everything he discussed. And he did discuss. Unlike today’s smarmy TV cynics masquerading as comedians, such as Jon Stewart, Greg Gutfeld and Stephen Colbert, Johnny Carson took ideas seriously.

Some of that sensibility can’t help but come through. More than a few of Johnny’s jokes, which are best described as witty observations, are retold. They’re still spot on. I laughed out loud at several of them. His ability to grasp the irony and humor in a given topic was extraordinary, a fact which is ignored in these pages, and his timing and delivery were perfect. Johnny Carson had both a twinkle and a reality-driven, Midwestern accessibility that made his knowing look and distinctly controlled lack of expression communicate a response to something in an instantaneously universal way. After Johnny visited London for Wimbledon and found himself in a hotel without air conditioning during a prolonged and sweltering heatwave, Bushkin came with his wife to pick him up and found him in a tub filled with ice and water. The author writes that Johnny Carson looked up at them and said: “I don’t care what you have to do but get us the hell out of here tomorrow. Charter a 747 if you must, but get us out of Dodge.”

Bushkin speculates with some degree of plausibility that the Tonight Show host was driven in some fundamental way by his inaccessible, unloving mother’s lack of approval.“Ruth Carson was a person who was impossible to impress and impossible to please,” he observes. “She seemed to take no pride or pleasure in her son’s accomplishments.” He suggests that Carson, who he says could be biting and cruel, became like his mother: “There came to be too many moments when Ruth Carson’s chilly influence abruptly took over his disposition.”

There are too many instances to the contrary to count. According to Bushkin’s version, Johnny Carson, who died in 2005, was also meticulously kind and generous. Of course, Johnny was fastidious about his work and reputation, the responsibility for which appears to have been lost on Bushkin, who as Carson’s attorney was the recipient of the barbs, kindness and attention to detail. When Johnny Carson sued a manufacturer of “Here’s Johnny” toilets for trademark violation of his individual rights, the lawyer accuses Carson of being petty. Never mind that the signature phrase powered Bushkin’s countless escapades and indulgences. Among these include the author’s extramarital affairs – he writes about Johnny’s infidelity in more detail – and trips around the world. But constantly and insidiously Henry Bushkin drops the context that he, unlike Johnny Carson, was not the king of late night television and a brand unto himself for over 30 years.

Never mind, too, that, as Bushkin reports, his boss was singled out for attack time and again. For instance, Carson, a father of three boys, was threatened with a grenade by a German couple demanding money at a time when the children of Sinatra, Hearst and Getty had been kidnapped. When Los Angeles Police advised Carson to defy the criminals’ demands and let police deliver a bag to a location on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood near NBC’s Tonight Show studios in Burbank, Johnny Carson said No, insisting that he personally deliver a decoy bag of money rather than risk harm and injury to his wife and her child. Whether being targeted in bars or being the second name on John Lennon assassin Mark David Chapman’s list, “Here’s Johnny” carried with its instant association of good humor and an upright posture a huge target for pure post-New Left envy and hatred of ability, achievement and success.

Bushkin himself seems to realize this, though he doesn’t grant Johnny much understanding, which reinforces the impression that he sought to profit from his association with Johnny Carson without regard to what made Johnny great. It’s a common flaw in today’s celebrity biographies and in Johnny Carson it’s less obvious, which makes the omission worse. Without any interest in Johnny Carson the artist, we are left with a cold and calculated assessment of Johnny Carson the brand that seeks to cash in on Johnny Carson without earning it. So the narrative reads like a bean-counter passing judgment on an artist. In the scope of the entire book, there is not a single sentence or thought describing Johnny Carson at work on his monologue, for example, or preparing for an interview with one of his guests, so we’re left empty of any examination of his ability to create humor and induce laughter, which is a tremendous skill. Johnny Carson’s talent and ability are taken for granted.

All that’s left is celebrity and that’s the appeal of this book. Writing about a cultural icon of late 20th century America does have an upside and it’s fun to read about someone who was a titan of comedy and television. When Johnny and his third wife, Joanna, decided to spontaneously marry in private at the posh Beverly Hills Hotel on a day he was being honored with some other award for achievement, Bushkin writes that Johnny informed the gathered guests: “A lot of columnists have been asking why me and my gal haven’t set a date for the wedding, so I think I will tell you that we were married at one-thirty this afternoon.” Bushkin continues: “Johnny then leaned down and kissed Joanna. Flip Wilson, wearing his Geraldine drag, kissed Johnny. Noting that all three of Johnny’s wives had names that started with the same letter, Bob Newhart concluded, “Obviously Johnny didn’t want to have to change the monograms on the towels after every marriage.” The secret had been kept, romance had triumphed, the laughs were plentiful, and the party rocked. No marriage ever had a more promising beginning. In time, when the marriage ended and the divorce was settled, this romantic gesture would cost Johnny $35 million.”

How Johnny earned the money is left essentially unsaid, probably because Bushkin doesn’t know or care to know the source of Johnny’s wealth. The deals are one thing and Bushkin may have arranged, papered and closed them as he says. But the talent that made the deals – and profits – possible is something else. Instead, we get glimpses of glimpses of Bushkin in Vegas with women. Bushkin in the south of France with Mary Hart (Entertainment Tonight). Bushkin in Hawaii with Joyce DeWitt (Three’s Company). The story of Carson Productions, the business failures and success, the Hart, Schaffner and Marx company’s Carson suit designs are left untold, listed in dollars, cents and snippets. Again, there’s next to nothing about how Johnny worked, studied and made choices – did he watch clips of comedy routines, listen to songs or albums or read book excerpts before guests appeared on The Tonight Show and was he involved in creative meetings? – let alone deeper insights. Only in the last chapters does Bushkin disclose that “the man smoked four packs a day or more.” Why? Did he try to quit? Blank out. The death of Johnny Carson’s alcoholic son, Rick, is barely mentioned let alone explored.

Politically, Bushkin writes that Johnny Carson – who interviewed everyone from Bobby Kennedy to Ayn Rand on The Tonight Show - was “strong on integration and civil rights, skeptical of the military and war, big on personal responsibility. Overall, you’d have to say he was anti-big: anti–big government, anti–big money, anti–big bullies, anti–big blowhards.” Carson’s politics sound interesting. So does his friendship with flamboyant gay writer Truman Capote (Breakfast at Tiffany’sIn Cold Blood). So does the fact that Johnny chose not to attend either of his parents’ funerals. Bushkin never goes into any of that.

The man, the artist, the host, the master of ceremonies – all remain elusive to the man who was Carson’s longtime lawyer and it isn’t hard to see why. Bushkin reports that his then-romantic partner, actress Joyce DeWitt, once suggested to Johnny that he should play Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bushkin writes that Carson responded by lecturing DeWitt in why his audience would never want to see him in that. It’s probably one of the most interesting untold stories in this biography. But again, we never get to read a word of Carson’s lecture, which might have contained his philosophy of humor or at least his approach to doing comedy or at minimum understanding his appeal.

At the end of one chapter, Bushkin says that Mary Hart called Johnny Carson insane. We are expected to take her word for it via the author, but in the very next chapter Johnny Carson is angling to get a job for his alcoholic son in order to help him recover. He doesn’t sound remotely irrational let alone insane.

This sense of there being more to the story and huge gaping holes in Bushkin’s account is especially true when it comes to Joan Rivers. The comedienne was once Carson’s handpicked substitute host and presumed heiress to The Tonight Show‘s hosting. But she went behind Johnny’s back and took a late-night show gig with then-fledgling Fox. Why she did do what she did, which led to a ratings disaster and may have contributed to her husband Edgar’s suicide, is another untold story here. Elsewhere, Bushkin describes himself as the middleman between Johnny Carson and Carson Productions chief Ed Weinberger, then admits that he asked Ed to be the one to tell Johnny that his son Rick had been fired. Bushkin clearly expects the tale to reflect poorly upon Johnny. Instead it reflects poorly on Henry Bushkin. Did Bushkin forget that he was the middleman? Or just that he’d told us he was?

Tellingly, when speaking of Frank Sinatra and Johnny Carson, Bushkin intersperses the terms envied and admired.

In the end, the lawyer who waited until Johnny Carson – and his TV sidekick Ed McMahon, who hardly rates a mention here and there – died to write his superficial Johnny Carson confesses that he went behind Johnny’s back and tried to undersell Carson Productions by $30 million. He says he did it because he thought he was suited to run Carson Productions and therefore didn’t think it was “that big of a crime”. But he didn’t object when Carson found out about the double-cross and called him into his Malibu beach house to fire Henry Bushkin. The author describes Johnny Carson as “the most interesting man I had ever known.” He doesn’t come close to exploring or explaining why. (Read my 2005 obituary of Johnny Carson here.)

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