Late Night

Wheeere’s Johnny?

A new biography by his best friend argues that no one really knew Johnny Carson, writes Malcolm Jones.

NBCU Photo Bank, via Getty

It is a truth not universally acknowledged—but it should be—that an artist’s work is always that artist’s best foot forward. That is, the art that drew you to that person is the best thing about them. If the artist also happens to be kind or generous or brave, clean, and reverent, that’s just gravy. And the genre doesn’t matter—a classical pianist, a sculptor, a graffiti tagger, an ecdysiast, or a stand up comic. But for the sake of this story, let’s stick with the comedian.

As the host of the Tonight Show from 1962 to 1992, Johnny Carson was famously the extra guy in more American bedrooms than anyone before or since. Over the course of 30 years—4,531 episodes, 23,000 guests—he was seen by more people than anyone in American history. This speaks more to television’s limitations than it does to Carson’s talent, since throughout the course of his reign as the king of late night, there were three major networks and not much else. But Carson did have competitors (Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin, Joan Rivers), and he vanquished them all.

Exactly how he did this will be debated forever, since Carson was a very good but not great comedian, although he did have exquisite timing and, as Joan Rivers pointed out, he was the greatest straight man ever, ccomfortable in his own skin in front of 15 million people every night. But that doesn’t really unriddle his appeal. Henry Bushkin, who served as his lawyer for 18 years, comes as close as anyone to explaining Carson’s appeal: He was not confessional, he was never mean, and he almost never made his audiences uncomfortable. “Johnny had become a fixture in [American] homes by being consistently light; he was never guilty of opening a vein.” Five nights a week for 30 years, Carson hosted a party that never got out of control. Indeed, on most night people on both sides of the TV screen had fun.

Bushkin says a lot of other things to say about the talk show host in ++ Johnny Carson ++ , his gracefully written, often insightful memoir of his former boss and best friend. The best friend description comes not from Bushkin, who never presumes, but from Carson, who said as much to the writer Kenneth Tynan. Tellingly, though, Bushkin got the news when he read Tynan’s 1978 profile of Carson in The New Yorker.

They met in 1970 when Carson hired Bushkin to handle his divorce from his second wife, Joanne. In no time, Bushkin found himself recast as Carson’s “Swiss Army knife of a companion, attorney, manager, agent, henchman, crony, tennis pal, and corkscrew all in one.” In the annals of paid acquaintances, Bushkin has few peers.

When they hooked up, Bushkin was a struggling and unknown entertainment lawyer. Getting hired by Carson was like traveling to another planet. Even Carson’s office was otherworldly: “The men I worked for had nice offices, but theirs were places where money was earned; here it was taken for granted.” Carson hired him more or less on a whim, and he must have liked his new mouthpiece, keeping him close for almost two decades. But who knows exactly what Carson thought—certainly not Bushkin, who found himself fired as quickly and with as little cause as he’d been hired.

The Carson who emerges in this book is not a monster, but he’s not especially likeable either. A couple of nights into their friendship, Bushkin found himself listening to a drunken Carson in a bar: “If a doctor opened up my chest right now, he couldn’t find a heart, or any goddamn thing,” Carson said. “Just a lot of misery. My mother made sure of that. She deprived us all of any real goddamn warmth.” Bushkin would come to discover that such soul bearing was rare, but the chilly self-diagnosis was not far from the truth. Remote, moody, petulant—Carson resembled nothing so much as an extremely talented, often charming but ultimately spoiled little boy who used his talent and his increasingly enormous wealth to have his way in just about every circumstance. And he cheated at tennis.

Bushkin says he came to love Carson. And maybe he did. But it’s telling that the moment he’s happiest in Carson’s company came when, backstage with him one night, he performed just for him. In other words, Bushkin was like all the rest of us, just a little closer.

This is not a hatchet job, and it certainly could have been. Bushkin goes out of his way to point out his client’s good points, notably his generosity, which was not limited to money, although Carson was certainly not shy about sharing his wealth with friends in need, waiters, and bellhops. But he was also generous with colleagues, and particularly people who did what he did, i.e., people who made other people laugh for a living.

I was never a habitual fan of the Tonight Show, but I never changed the channel if Carson had a comedian on his show and especially a great comedian. No one laughed harder at Jonathan Winters or Richard Pryor than Carson. He recognized and visibly appreciated talent, and he went out of his way to welcome great comics onto his show even though he knew they could show him up. You have to tip your hat to that.

Off stage, he was an unfaithful husband, a neglectful father, and a friend only so long as you did what he wanted. Everything was on his terms, and while he could turn on the charm, he could turn it off just as quickly. He was also sort of dull, weirdly not there when not on stage. Ultimately, his various biographers all reach a point—Bushkin, too—where they throw up their hands and shrug, there’s just no knowing this guy that everyone knows. Books and stories about Carson tend to wind up in a puddle of gloom, at least until the authors of those stories remember what led them to there in the first place.

Put it this way: the man you watched at home on TV five nights a week—that wasn’t just as close as you were going to get. That was as close as anyone was ever going to get.

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But so what?

Johnny Carson was the perfect host. Don’t get greedy.