Commentary Magazine


Mr. America

Johnny Carson
By Henry Bushkin
Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 304 pages

True story: The son of a famous television sitcom actor tried, hopelessly, to connect emotionally with his prickly and distant father. The son had grown up to be a very successful television producer (motivated, probably, by the icy limits of his father’s affection) and sat with his father near the end of his life for one last attempt at something—anything!—resembling paternal warmth.

“Isn’t it amazing, Dad,” he is reported to have said in a softly plaintive voice, “that when I was a little boy and we lived on Maple Drive in Beverly Hills, you’d leave in the morning and head down Santa Monica Boulevard, take a right on Cahuenga, and then pull into the studio to do your show? And now, when I’m grown, I live on Maple Drive too, and have a little boy, too, and I drive down Santa Monica and take the same right on Cahuenga and pull into the same studio where I have a show, too? Isn’t that amazing?”

His father looked into the middle distance and shrugged.

“I took Willoughby,” he said.

And that was that. Moral of the story: Show people can light up the screen with wit and warmth, but at home they tend to the cruel and the cold.

In his up-close account of his years working for Johnny Carson, the host of NBC’s Tonight Show back when both NBC and the Tonight Show really meant something, Henry Buskin takes 304 pages to figure that out. He starts out as a young and aggressive lawyer who takes over Carson’s mess of a business life in 1970, develops into his intimate consigliere and business partner over the course of 18 years, but ends up with a frosty dismissal and perfunctory handshake in Carson’s Malibu living room.

A young friend of mine once surprised (and depressed) me by asking, without joking, “Hey, you know that movie where the two women drive off a cliff at the end? Was that Laverne & Shirley?” So it’s probably useful at this point to explain to folks under 40, who know Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon and David Letterman and Carson Daly and Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, exactly who Johnny Carson was. 

He was all of those guys. Put together. If you’re over 40, you’ll remember what broadcast television was like back then: Three television networks divided up the American viewing audience each night, like bank robbers divvying up the loot, or the Big Three auto companies rolling out new models without so much as a thought about Toyota. There were three big channels—and maybe an old movie on one of those fuzzy UHF stations—so if you didn’t like what was on, you were out of luck. Network television didn’t compete with cable channels or Hulu or Amazon Prime. It competed with silence.

At 11:30 each weeknight, millions tuned into Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show to watch him tell a few jokes, banter with his sidekick Ed MacMahon, and chat with his celebrity guests. Yes, it was a talk show—there was a desk and a sofa and a dude who just sat there to the right—but it was the talk show.  Johnny had inherited the desk job from Jack Paar who had inherited it from Steve Allen who had started it when the television business began, so watching Johnny Carson in the late 1980s tell a joke and talk to a celeb was sort of like watching the Pope celebrate Easter Mass: It was a ritual from the ancients.

And Johnny did it better than any of his predecessors. Steve Allen was too smug and intellectual—too pompously East Coast, and he had one of those old television-announcer voices that’s just a little bit English. Jack Paar was too raw and edgy—all the tics and irks of the day played out on his face and in his banter—so watching him was like wearing an itchy scarf.

Carson, though, was pure cool.  Slim and collected, he somehow managed to be both big-city smooth and small-town real. His Nebraska roots showed in his slightly nasal twang and his way of arching an eyebrow at something particularly weird or racy a guest had said, as if to communicate with the audience, Hey, can you believe this? But he could be equally swank when he wanted to be. For years, Carson hosted the Oscars—with more polish and wit than anyone before or since—and glided among movie stars not as an equal, but a better.   For a time, Johnny had his own fragrance, his own clothing line—take that, P. Diddy!—and his own television studio.

And he was miserable.

“I don’t have much of a talent for happiness,” Carson tells Bushkin at one point, during what should have been a relaxing cruise through the Riviera. “I never have. My mother saw to that.” And Bushkin adds: “Somehow, here on the Riviera, he was feeling a howling Nebraska wind.”

It was Carson’s mother, according to the unlicensed psychoanalysis of Henry Bushkin, who was at the root of his emotionally distant, even cruel, behavior. “As long as [Ruth Carson] lived, he strove to win her love, and he never received it. He was the child of an emotionally abusive mother—no matter how strong or successful he became, he was a child whose trust had been betrayed.”

Others agreed. “‘She was selfish and cold,’ Johnny’s second wife, Joanne, once told an interviewer. ‘No wonder he had trouble dealing with women. Mrs. Carson was cold, closed off, a zero when it came to showing affection.’”

And when she died, he called Bushkin with the news: “The wicked witch is dead.”

None of this is really news, of course. We’re all primed to hear stories of movie stars and celebrities and their creepy emotional problems. But for actors—who, after all, appear only on screen, in character, or in a few carefully stage-managed publicity appearances—it’s easy to cover up the seams of a psychotic or broken-down personality.

But Johnny appeared on television every weeknight. He was playing himself—or, rather, an idealized version of himself: jovial, chummy, witty, warm. The strain of that kind of acting must have been monumental. It’s no wonder that real movie stars—Jimmy Stewart, Michael Caine, a whole bushel of A-listers—respected him so much. In one of the best stories in a book filled with great stories, when Johnny arrives late to a very exclusive industry event filled with movie stars, he lights up the room. He wasn’t just the king of late night television. He was the king of managing not to appear like the rat bastard he clearly was.

Bushkin, though, writes so deftly and with such affection for his old friend—and, in many instances, chief torturer—that the full picture of Johnny Carson emerges. The book is filled with great old Hollywood dish: tantrums, backstabbing, financial mysteries, and a whole lot of extramarital cheating. But somehow it all seems touched by sadness. Even the crazy hijinks he and Carson get into, like breaking into an apartment to gather evidence that his first wife, Joanne, was cheating on him, are darkened by Carson’s depressive shadow. You’re reading it and thinking, This should feel Rat-Packish and period-cool, but it doesn’t. 

It’s to Henry Bushkin’s credit that his unsparing memoir of Johnny Carson is equally unsparing of Henry Bushkin. He’s dazzled and intoxicated by Carson’s world and wealth, and he allows himself—like so many lawyers and agents and managers and hangers-on in Hollywood—to be cowed and humiliated and abused by the star. He loves the action. He loves the access. He even loves, in a way, Johnny Carson.

Carson takes Willoughby.

It’s all gone now, of course. The American television viewer is a silo’ed creature, binge-viewing on cable dramas or watching clips on Hulu—the second screen of the smartphone always there, demanding attention—and with hundreds of channels to choose from, who can blame them? They even have plenty of late-night talk-show choices, too: There are Kimmel fans and Letterman fans and people who claim to be Team Coco, and all those guys do a pretty good job serving their small slice of the late-night audience. But nobody owns it all. Nobody commands an audience the way Johnny Carson did.

That’s why reading Johnny Carson has a slight Sunset Boulevard vibe to it. It’s not just the parade of 1970s celebrities that Bushkin trots out—your Joyce DeWitts, your Tom Snyders, your Sherman Helmsleys—it’s about the kind of man, and the kind of business, that doesn’t really exist anymore. Carson’s successors are either cranky weirdos like Letterman or giggling boys like Conan and Fallon. It’s a very different kind of man who sits in the big chair these days. There’s nothing emotionally remote about Conan O’Brien. Jimmy Kimmel isn’t cool and detached. When David Letterman has a bad day, every single viewer knows it. If anything, the guys who sit at the desk at 11:30 (and later) are all exposed nerves, all beta male, guys who drive their kids to school and show up at soccer games. 

And that’s an improvement, of course, for those who live with them and love them. But it somehow makes the job seem less important. 

In Sunset Boulevard, when Joe Gillis recognizes Norma Desmond for the first time, he says, “You used to be big.”

“I am big,” she replies. “It’s the pictures that got small.”

In the television business, it’s the opposite. The pictures have gotten huge—some screens are 60 inches across. They just seem small because they have Jimmy Kimmel on them.

About the Author

Rob Long is a writer and producer in Hollywood. He is also the co-founder of Ricochet.com.




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