Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Laughter & Betrayal: Is Johnny Carson's New Biographer a Traitor?

Like many of you, I have a deep affection for Johnny Carson. My reverence for the television icon, who hosted The Tonight Show from 1962 to 1992, dates back as far as I can remember. I was never too proud to beg my parents to let me stay up and watch his monologue, which always made me laugh even before I understood all the political and sexual references. 

As an Iowa boy with big dreams, I guess I saw a bit of myself in Johnny, who, like me, is from the Hawkeye State. Contrary to popular belief, Johnny wasn't born in Nebraska. He was born in a small Iowa town called Corning. He moved with his family to Nebraska at a young age. Johnny, who died in 2005, never lost his Midwestern sensibility. But he was a complex man. 

A fascinating hybrid of urbane and homespun, he was not a phony. But he was difficult. Reliably charming and quick-witted, Johnny could be very kind, at least when he was sober. And his undeniably large ego never prevented him from letting his guests shine. There was goodness and decency in him. But as many have pointed out over the years, and which Johnny never denied, the man had his demons. Johnny had a fiery temper and was at times emotionally unavailable. He could even be cruel if he felt he was being crossed. 

A comedic genius who creatively emulated all his comedy heroes - Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason - Johnny was a solitary soul who was prone to cynicism. A bit of a fatalist, he never seemed entirely comfortable in his own skin. And according to numerous accounts, he sadly never got the love and recognition he craved from his cold-hearted mother.

Which brings me to the latest biography of Johnny, which I've just finished reading. Presumptuously titled Johnny Carson, the book was written by Henry Bushkin, Johnny's longtime attorney and allegedly close friend. Loyal Carson fans will recall that Bushkin was often hilariously referenced in Johnny's nightly monologues as "Bombastic Bushkin." But after reading this book, let me suggest that "Traitor Bushkin" or "Turncoat Bushkin" would be a better nickname.

Bushkin's book is somewhat well crafted and often compelling. But it is utterly devoid of shame or conscience. 

Bushkin says that Johnny once told him after a drunken confessional, “You must never, ever repeat a word from last night." To which Bushkin responded, “I would lose my license if during your lifetime I repeated it to a soul.”

But apparently after your client and friend dies, all bets are off. Loyalty ends at the funeral parlor - at least for Bombastic Bushkin.

Here's the rub: Carson fired Bushkin after two decades of service. So this book stinks of revenge. Henry's just getting even. But they were never "even." Carson was a gifted and beloved entertainer; Bushkin is just a lawyer who made a ton of money working for Johnny and now stands to make even more.

He is a pretty good writer – assuming, which I probably shouldn't, that Henry didn't have lots of help. The book is hard to put down. That is, it's hard to stop reading. I can easily "put it down" for being a shameful betrayal of a friend.

Without giving anything away, I can tell you that the book tells us all the things about Carson that we already knew. With new details, yes, but nothing all that revelatory.  

Did Johnny have a drinking problem early in his career and could he be a mean, nasty drunk? Yes. We already knew that. Did he have a very difficult time warming up to people  and was he, for the most part, a wildly ambitious and almost pathologically private man with few real friends? Yep. We knew that, too. Did Johnny often carry a gun in his car? Yes. Knew it. Did he have deep-seated issues with women and was he unfaithful? Again, yes and yes. Tell me something we don't know, Henry. Please.

It's ironic, or perhaps not, that Bushkin, one of the few people Johnny genuinely trusted after attaining great wealth and fame, would turn around and betray Johnny's trust so completely. I guess Johnny's often distrusting nature was justified after all. 

Lawyer and author Henry Bushkin
Obviously Bushkin is deeply conflicted. But when he suggests that Johnny, who was a big fan of honesty, would appreciate this book, he fools himself and offends me.

In the book's final chapter, Bushkin writes, "I do like to think that he (Johhny) would have been happy with this book. I've tried to show him in all his complexity; in his huge talent and great vivacity, and with his tremendous appeal and charisma and sense of fun, and also with his failures and shortcomings and even cruelties. A man so suspicious of flattery and sentimentality might have appreciated my attempt to paint an accurate portrait of the most thrilling, fun, frustrating and mysterious relationship of my life - a portrait of a man I loved."

If this is love, I'd hate to know what Bushkin would write about someone he hates. As I read this book, I kept envisioning Johnny looking down on Henry's epic betrayal and just shaking his head in disbelief and disappointment. 

But there is at least one man who worked with Johnny every night who is still around to respond to Bushkin's trashy tome. Doc Severinsen, the legendary trumpet player and longtime bandleader on The Tonight Show, told The Buffalo News on Saturday that Bushkin became estranged from Johnny after he accused Bushkin of negligence and malpractice.

Doc Severinsen
“I didn’t have any personal problems with him except it seems that he was released from Johnny’s employ over a matter to do with some questionable behavior,” Severinsen said. “There may have been an agreement, something like ‘Sign this paper and go away.’ I have no business going beyond that.”

He added, “I feel he might be desperate for money or something, or someone said to him, ‘Did you work with Carson? You did? Why don’t you write about it in a book?’ That says it all.”

I don't know the details behind Johnny's decision to fire Bushkin. But Severinsen said Johnny was "a good boss because he was a fair boss. He didn’t snoop in there about what you were doing. If you repeatedly did something that he didn’t feel was right, he’d call you in and talk about it. He was fair. He was very fair, and he knew everything that was going on. As Henry Bushkin found out.”


  1. I wouldn't waste my money buying this book. I don't contribute to people who betray others. That Buskin would stoop this low speaks volumes to his character.

    1. I agree with you. It is a compelling book. But you are absolutely right.

    2. If people didn't "report" and "write" stories, we would have no history. There is no loyalty to the dead. Get over it.

    3. Nice try. But this is revisionist and very biased history. Who are you?

  2. Actually, I thought the book had "ghostwriter" written all over it. But then I reconsidered. A ghostwriter would have writen a book that was interesting, not a loosely connected series of anecdotes that always *seem* to start of with the promise of some amazing "punchline" at the end -- I guess that would be called "building suspense" -- but then the anecdote fizzles out into yet more banality and you come away with the impression, "When is this guy going to tell me something interesting?"

    This is like getting a description of the Mona Lisa from someone who's only ever seen it in books -- and all those were in black and white.

    There are no interesting character portrayals -- just surface noise speckled with a hefty, and nauseating dose of name-dropping, which always kills any book written about a celebrity by someone who hung out with the celebrity but wasn't a celebrity himself. Even the name-dropped become caricatures of themselves; the equivalent of literally doodles on a legal pad as opposed to oil paintings.

    And that extended to the portrait of Johnny Carson: just a long-winded recitation of "this happened and then that happened" from page one until the last.

    You could have just tracked down a stack of magazines and newspapers from over the years and cut the relevant articles out of them, typed them all up as if they were one long article, and you'd have this book.


    1. Agree, to a point. Bombastic Bushkin's takes are not necessarily accurate or factual. He didn't cull them from news clips, they are instead accounts of various first-person experiences with Johnny mixed with a very large and regrettable dose of emotionally charged bitterness and pure fiction that for the most part can't be disproved.

  3. A great book. It deserves much acclaim, but Johnny would be furious.
    Beyond furious.
    Incredible disloyalty.