Monday, July 25, 2016

Book Review: Johnny Carson by Henry Bushkin (2013)

The cover of Johnny Carson, by Henry Bushkin, 2013.

Henry Bushkin, Joyce DeWitt, and Johnny Carson, 1980's.
Henry Bushkin worked for Johnny Carson for eighteen years, from 1970 until 1988. Bushkin was Carson’s lawyer and one of Carson’s closest friends during this period of his life. In a 1978 New Yorker profile of Carson, author Kenneth Tynan asked Carson who he entertained at home, and Carson responded, “My lawyer, Henry Bushkin, who’s probably my best friend.” It would seem that Bushkin would be as well-equipped as anyone who knew Carson to solve the enigma that was Johnny Carson. 

Bushkin didn’t talk about Carson on the record very much until he released Johnny Carson in 2013. Bushkin’s memoir of his time spent working for Carson became a best-seller, and it’s the only book of any note about Carson that’s been published since his death in 2005. Johnny Carson is certainly a juicy, dishy piece of gossip, as Bushkin relates numerous stories and anecdotes showing Johnny Carson in a less than flattering light. 

One of the first times that Bushkin met Carson, the talk show host was organizing friends to break into an apartment that his second wife Joanne was renting that Carson suspected she was using to cheat on him. After the break in provided conclusive evidence of Joanne’s unfaithfulness, Bushkin was summoned by a drunken Carson to meet him at Jilly’s Saloon, where Carson proceeded to bare his soul to Bushkin, a man he barely knew. Bushkin quotes Carson as saying, “I can’t quit smoking and I get drunk every night and I chase all the pussy I can get. I’m shitty in the marriage department. Make sure you understand this.” (Bushkin, p.38) It’s a great scene, but as I read it I had to wonder, did it really happen? It just seems a little too perfect, as Carson also reveals in the conversation that his mother, Ruth Carson, “deprived us all of any real goddamn warmth.” (Bushkin, p.38) For Johnny Carson to thus unburden himself emotionally was highly unusual. But maybe this odd conversation helped to strengthen the bond between Carson and Bushkin.

After these first emotionally charged encounters, Carson made Bushkin his attorney, and Bushkin helped in Carson’s divorce from his second wife, Joanne. Bushkin also moved with Carson when The Tonight Show relocated to beautiful downtown Burbank in 1972. Carson and Bushkin played tennis regularly together, and Bushkin and his wife Judy often socialized with Carson and his third wife Joanna. Working for Johnny Carson was never easy, as Carson expected that he would always be Bushkin’s first priority. 

Johnny Carson is filled with stories about Carson’s incessant womanizing, and his frequently icy moods. Johnny Carson shows us Carson at his very best and very worst, and while that’s entertaining to read about, it's hard to get a picture of what Carson was like day to day. 

Bushkin negotiated Carson’s contract with NBC in 1980, which paid Carson a whopping $25 million a year. Carson’s new contract called for him to film three episodes of The Tonight Show a week, for 37 weeks out of the year, which meant that Johnny was making $225,000 for every episode of The Tonight Show. That’s a pretty good chunk of change. It’s a measure of the incredible power Johnny Carson had in 1980 that he was able to cut back his working week to three days. 

A provision of Carson’s 1980 contract was that his production company would sell NBC five television series. This was an opportunity for Carson to become an even wealthier and more powerful man than he already was. Bushkin played an active role in the business side of Carson Productions, and he pushed Carson to become a TV and movie mogul, but Carson simply wasn’t interested in creating an entertainment empire.

The last part of Johnny Carson gets a little dull, as it deals less and less with Johnny Carson and more with Bushkin’s involvement in Carson Productions. Bushkin was eventually fired in 1988, and his relationship with Johnny Carson came to an end. 

Bushkin makes it clear throughout the book that Carson was an extremely difficult man to deal with. Carson could be blunt in assessing himself, once saying to Bushkin, “You know I don’t have much of a talent for happiness. I never have. My mother saw to that.” (Bushkin, p.254) 

While Bushkin claimed that he was surprised when he read in 1978 that Johnny Carson considered Bushkin his closest friend, Judy Bushkin, Henry’s ex-wife, said, “I don’t know if Henry can think of anyone as a friend, except for Johnny. I’ve never known Henry to be really close to anybody except Johnny. I think that was true of Johnny as well. They had each other, and that was that.” (King of the Night, by Laurence Leamer, p.267) 

Maybe it was just the 1970’s setting, but as I read Johnny Carson, I couldn’t help but think that Henry Bushkin would make an excellent character in a Philip Roth novel. Bushkin starts out as an earnest Jewish attorney who eventually becomes the selfish double of his emotionally distant WASP boss. Johnny cheats on his wife, so Bushkin too cheats on his. The novel would practically write itself. What would the title be? Bushkin’s Kvetching? 

Johnny Carson is an entertaining read about one of the most interesting American entertainers of the last half-century, a man whose work still looms large over the late night television landscape that he helped to create.

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