Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Johnny Carson by Henry Bushkin

If you're looking for a cradle-to-grave bio, this isn't it. This highly readable, warts-and-all book is a memoir of Johnny as the author knew him. 

In 1970, Bushkin was a young lawyer just learning the ropes in the entertainment world when a mutual friend with a certain moral elasticity entreated him to meet Johnny. The friend and another man, along with Carson, were planning on breaking into Johnny's then wife's apartment to find evidence she was cheating on him. Despite how illegal the whole caper was, in Carson's mind, having a lawyer along would be helpful in case they were caught. So, they broke in, found she was indeed cheating on him (with Frank Gifford, no less) and got out. Carson wept. From there and for the better part of the next twenty years, Bushkin would remain Carson's lawyer and among his closest friends if it could be said he had any. 

While Carson was the nation's most beloved late night companion with millions of viewers each night, his business affairs were in shambles, his marriage was a mess and money was short. Carson could rarely be bothered with business matters and chose to trust those he thought were doing business in his best interests. Mostly, they weren't. Bushkin stepped in, cleaned house, and made Johnny a very rich man. 

Carson was a fiercely private person and Bushkin maintains that, aside from some drinking companions, three wives, and a few business relationships, there wasn't even an inner circle of friends. Johnny could entertain a small group of people, say the guests at a party, or millions watching the show but on an interpersonal level, he was worthless. Small talk bored him, compliments made him uncomfortable and, in truth, he just didn't really care about you. According to Bushkin, Johnny was really only interested in Johnny. This inability to connect with people was a problem Carson blamed on his mother, an icy woman, whom he could never please despite his great fame, wealth, and public standing. 

Heedlessly, he drank and smoked too much and refused to quit despite the toll it took on his health. He was a serial womanizer and a great wooer of women but a terrible husband, an almost entirely absent father, a workaholic bereft of business acumen, a cruel boss, and often, a giant prick to those around him. For how much we loved Johnny, Johnny didn't really love anyone, including himself. 

There has been some criticism that there's too much Bushkin and not enough Johnny though I would disagree. After learning who Carson really was, I'd had enough of him by the book's end. It has also been said Bushkin has an axe to grind but his willingness to write vividly about his own considerable shortcomings makes me believe otherwise. 

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