Johnny Carson: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: November 12th, 2013 by bobmorris

Johnny CarsonJohnny Carson
Henry Bushkin
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2013)

“Here’s Johnny!” or at least what he was willing to seem

Let’s start with a multiple-choice question.

According to Henry Bushkin, Johnny Carson (1925-2005) could be

(a) Irresistibly charming
(b) Distant and unapproachable
(c) Cunning and prudent
(d) Impulsive and extravagant
(e) In public, supremely self-confident
(f) In private, insecure and guilt-ridden
(g) All of the above

What we have in this volume is Bushkin’s account of his longtime association with Carson as his attorney, confidante, consigliore, messenger, scapegoat, errand boy, and friend. This is a memoir of his relationship with Carson rather than a definitive biography of him.

Three insights were of greatest interest to me. First, Carson tried without any success until Ruth Carson’s death to receive any indication from her that she loved him, was proud of him, and was grateful for an endless series of lavish gifts to her and his father, Homer (“Kit”) Carson. He insisted (and Bushkin agrees) that his mother and her attitude prevented him from ever sustaining a healthy relationship with anyone, including four wives, three sons, a brother and a sister as well as several dozen other beautiful women and countless business colleagues, including Ed McMahon. Even Bushkin never really felt close to Carson, however much he wished to be.

Second, Carson had a very strong sense of entitlement and was well aware of the nature and extent of his power within the business world. Apparently no one intimidated him; on the contrary, with rare exception, most of those with whom he was associated went to great lengths to curry his favor.

Finally, for 30 years, Carson maintained an exceptionally high-level of program quality on The Tonight Show, later renamed The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I am grateful to Henry Bushkin, an eyewitness, for what I learned about how the relative success of that relationship was achieved and then sustained amidst so many other relationships that failed.

As Billy Wilder once observed, “By the simple law of survival, Carson is the best. He enchants the invalids and the insomniacs as well as the people who have to get up at dawn. He is the Valium and the Nembutal of a nation. No matter what kind of dead-asses are on the show, he has to make them funny and exciting. He has to be their nurse and their surgeon. He has no conceit. He does his work and he comes prepared. If he’s talking to an author, he has read the book. Even his rehearsed routines sound improvised. He’s the cream of middle-class elegance, yet he’s not a mannequin. He has captivated the American bourgeoisie without ever offending the highbrows, and he has never said anything that wasn’t liberal or progressive. Every night, in front of millions of people, he has to do the salto mortale [a circus parlance for an aerial somersault performed on the tightrope]. What’s more, he does it without a net. No rewrites. No retakes. The jokes must work tonight.”

With regard the correct answer to the multiple-choice question, the answer is (g). To paraphrase Walt Whitman, Johnny Carson was “large”…he contained “multitudes.”

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