For 30 years, Johnny Carson carried his comic monologues and acidly funny interview questions into America’s living rooms and bedrooms on “The Tonight Show.” Although at least two unauthorized biographies—Ronald L. Smith’s Johnny Carson (1987) and Paul Corkery’s Carson (1987)—appeared during his lifetime, the definitive or authorized biography has yet to be written.
In his rambling, haplessly written and arrogant memoir masquerading as a biography, Johnny Carson, Henry Bushkin offers a glimpse of only a small slice of Carson’s life, the 18 years that Bushkin served as Carson’s attorney. “I was his attorney, but more properly, I was his lawyer, counselor, partner, employee, business advisor, earpiece . . . enforcer, running buddy, drinking and dining companion, and foil.”
Using his unique vantage point, Bushkin reveals the Carson he knew while also defending himself and his decisions during his years with Carson. Carson emerges from Bushkin’s portrait as “witty and enormously fun to be around but he could also be the nastiest SOB on earth.” Bushkin chronicles Carson’s womanizing—”No matter to whom he was married, no matter how happily, when an alluring woman came within range, the instinct for new adventure was an instinct he saw little need to restrain”—his difficulties with his wives, his public battles with NBC over the show and his failure as a father. Bushkin recalls as well the many times that Carson mistreated him; after the Reagan inauguration, a livid Carson calls Bushkin, angry about his wife Joanna’s seats at the event; according to Bushkin, “Carson wanted a dog to kick, and every time he looked at me, he saw a Milk-Bone in my mouth.”
Yet this sensationalist book reveals more about Bushkin than Carson: “There are no feelings from that time I can compare with the sadness I feel over the pain I caused some of my friends and loved ones during the Carson years.” Although Bushkin claims that he’s written “a portrait of a man I loved,” he spends more time in his book dusting off his reputation and throwing dirt on Carson’s that this book would have been better titled, “My Years with Johnny Carson.”