Monday, August 1, 2016

Review of "Johnny Carson" by Henry Bushkin




Johnny Carson is best known as a comedian and host of the 'The Tonight Show', which he emceed from 1962 to 1992. When I plucked this (audio) book off the library shelf I thought it was a biography of the entertainer. It's not. Rather it's a memoir written by Carson's lawyer Henry Bushkin, who worked for Johnny from 1970 to 1988.

Bushkin's employment began when he was in his late twenties and not very experienced with entertainment law. The young attorney caught on quickly though and discovered that some of Johnny's advisors and employers were enriching themselves at Carson's expense. (According to himself) Bushkin quickly put all this to rights and soon became Johnny's loyal companion - functioning as 'lawyer, advisor, assistant, companion, fixer, tennis buddy, drinking partner' and so on.

On television Johnny came across as genial, intelligent, and funny...and his nightly monologue was 'must-see TV' for millions of people. Off the air though, Carson was uncomfortable with people, prickly, and quick to take offense. In addition, his personal life was turbulent. Johnny married four times but was a distant father and serial cheater who hardly hid his indiscretions. Johnny's problems are often attributed (in large part) to his cold withholding mother, and Bushkin's anecdotes seem to support this view.

The book doesn't especially enlighten the reader about Carson but it does provide a little information about his wives, sons, luxurious homes, expensive cars, affairs, agents, managers, visits to Las Vegas, casino performances, production company (which mostly managed to sponsor flop sitcoms and mediocre movies), etc. Bushkin also details a few visits from Johnny's parents, which never went well. In fact, Carson did not attend the funeral of either of his parents when they died. On the lighter side, Bushkin sprinkles some of Carson's jokes through the book, though they really don't seem to fit the narrative.

The book is largely about Bushkin himself, and being Johnny's attorney/friend/companion provided a lot of perks for the lawyer. These included: a hefty salary; a trip to the Wimbledon tennis tournament every year; cruises on yachts; dining in the best restaurants; access to classy tennis clubs; tickets to the Oscars; hob-nobbing with celebrities; visits to Las Vegas; lucrative business opportunities; etc.

Bushkin also describes how - with constant access to beautiful women - he became a cheating husband and neglectful father himself. Looking back Bushkin chides himself about this.....but he certainly seemed to enjoy it at the time. In this vein Bushkin also details how he did his best to manipulate business opportunities so that his and Johnny's future ex-wives would be cut out of the big profits. All this didn't endear the author to me but I guess his honesty should be acknowledged.

Though Bushkin sincerely praises Johnny's immense talent this book is not flattering to the entertainer. Carson is portrayed as pampered, self-centered, entitled, unreasonable, quick-tempered, nasty, vengeful, and so on. Moreover, anyone who got on Carson's bad side was cut off completely; Johnny never spoke to him/her again. In the end, this is what happened to Bushkin.

In 1988 Bushkin attempted to negotiate a business deal that Carson interpreted as trying to cheat him. Johnny immediately fired Bushkin and (except for a misdial) never exchanged another word with him. Even worse, Carson initiated a series of lawsuits that caused tremendous trouble and angst for Bushkin and his law partners. Later, when Carson died of emphysema in 2005, Bushkin asserts that he 'felt nothing.' A sad ending to a once warm relationship.

The book is interesting in a kind of voyeuristic, gossipy way. I was aware that Carson had a reputation as a skirt chaser but I was not aware of the rest of his bad behavior, and it detracts from my opinion of him. Still, Johnny Carson was a talented performer who made a lot of people laugh and he deserves kudos for that.

If you're interested in knowing how Henry Bushkin became successful and rich this is the book for you. If you want to know more about Johnny Carson's real life, this book won't be especially helpful.

One more thought: I listened to the audiobook read by Dick Hill. Hill has won awards for his audiobook narration but his VERY DRAMATIC style seems more appropriate for a wartime epic than this celebrity exposé. I found it off-putting.

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