I long wondered why Johnny Carson’s Tonight monologues of the early to late ‘70s often seemed more vulnerable and spontaneous than in the ‘80s or early ‘90s. What also bothered me in the latter ones was how he gave less attention to Ed and Doc, when a viewer like myself wanted more interplay there. Instead? Oh, the tie-adjusting and other familiar moves accompanying a series of jokes that were pure Johnny. No symbiotic additions needed...
How to find reasons for this change? Till recently I’d resisted reading Henry Bushkin’s 2013 memoir on Carson, thinking it might be petty and self-serving. But this gent who became Johnny’s attorney, business advisor, caretaker, and close friend for some 18 years (1970-88) is intelligent, and his fine account helped me answer my own questions.
Bushkin met Carson in 1970, as a young entertainment lawyer barely out of Vanderbilt and back home in New York. Smoking and drinking heavily, Johnny was at a rather low point, seeing a second marriage (to Joanne) founder, partly due to a heartbreak inflicted by football’s Frank Gifford. In addition, Carson’s manager, Sonny Werblin, was making big dough off him, while leaving the Tonight show host relatively poor.
In short order Carson made Bushkin his lawyer and much else. Werblin was soon gone, and one by one, so were the deals he’d crafted. Carson got a better producer for Tonight, and was soon the highest paid person on TV. While still in New York he endured a messy divorce, but for solace, began taking Bushkin more frequently from his own solid family life to the Apple’s nocturnal hot spots.
When Tonight moved to LA in ‘72, Henry flew back and forth, but Carson’s new love (Joanna) convinced the Bushkins to come out and be their La-La Land pals. Johnny decided to re-marry quickly (his third go), and with Italo-American verve, Joanna refined his home, apparel, vacation choices, and general taste. In the process, he became surer of his spot in the world. That Carson of circa ‘72-’77, whose monologues I liked, was a product of both hurt stemming from one marital collapse, and the stability of a different way his new involvement (along with a sleek LA lifestyle) brought him.
Unfortunately, big money and perks, plus extended gigs in Vegas cum hedonistic pleasures, helped turn Carson’s new marriage into a series of heated arguments, and into the bargain, wreck his buddy’s, too.
Then came a threat to leave NBC, with Bushkin defeating the legendary attorney Mickey Rudin and getting Carson astronomical sums to keep him at that network, including via ownership of the Tonight cash machine, which even Sinatra envied.
By 1982-85 another divorce from this Joanna was getting thrashed out, more horrid, draining and costly than the last; and increasingly, Carson couldn’t overcome his bad moods, despite everything Bushkin and others did to placate him. No wonder he sometimes seemed more apart from Ed and Doc on monologues of that era, and into self.
On the tennis courts he grew miserable, too, calling shots in his own favor, and people stopped playing with him, finally including Bushkin himself. Carson’s sniping knew no bounds, and he chopped old standbys as though clearing a forest. By and large he’d developed the King Complex I intuited from Tonights of that era. Except of course when deferential around his guests, such as tennis great Björn Borg, actresses like Lynn Redgrave, or other kings, like Frank and Dean.
But despite all that, plus bursts of private generosity, Carson was increasingly a prima donna, tougher and tougher on the loyal around him. Finally he dropped Bushkin himself in ‘88, with the latter unfairly blackened in the media and in many peoples’ minds, and also faced with drawn-out legal and financial woes.
However, his memoir is anything but simply negative. Bushkin cared about Johnny, flaws and all, and it shows. No other book on the subject will top this one. And yes, it helped me unravel an American icon.
Roughly along the following lines: that it’s often tough in life simply to stay put and not want more and more. Which is basically what happened to Carson, and changed him. Sure, there are scads of famed names and places mentioned in this account, but don’t forget: NT and Cheektowaga have their pluses, too.
B.B. Singer has taught at several area colleges including Niagara University.