On a recent flight back from Japan, I decided to read something light and carefree, since we were traveling in an extremely heavy metal tube six miles above the ocean, without any strings to hold us up. Not that I was worried. The book was the slightly dated Johnny Carson, written by the late entertainer’s long-time lawyer, Henry Bushkin.
Younger readers have perhaps have heard of Carson, though the name-dropping throughout the text might pass them by without interest. Even I barely remember Rich Little and Joyce DeWitt, the latter of whom dated the book’s author for a few years. More than just a lawyer, Bushkin was the late-night talk show host’s business partner, drinking buddy, and confidant, and perhaps even a friend, at least to the extent that Carson had friends. While Americans saw a talented and witty conversationalist on their TV screens most weeknights, the true Carson was short-tempered and petulant, a complicated man made miserable by a mother who found nothing but disappointment in her offspring.
What Johnny lacked in friendships, he more than made up for with riches. Through his various business ventures, some organized by Bushkin, Johnny Carson became one of the wealthiest men in Hollywood. While he did not crave money, it became a useful tool with which he could fill the emotional cavern dug by his mother. And there were also the women. In addition to his multiple wives, Carson went through women like they were $100 bills in his wallet.
The Johnny Carson painted by Bushkin is vastly talented, but equally miserable. In Carson’s world, there was only Johnny Carson, and he was not opposed to complicating the lives of others if it meant getting his way. Carson encouraged the author to join him in his frequent revelry, leading to Bushkin’s own bitter divorce. In later years, Carson and Bushkin had a falling out over a business misunderstanding. Despite the troubles that came from the author’s relationship with Carson, the book is not a hit piece, but an attempt to describe a complicated friendship with a wealthy, intelligent, dysfunctional celebrity who might have been incapable of true friendship.
The womanizing as described in the book was perhaps the most shocking aspect. But even more shocking is how it was swept under the rug throughout his lifetime. Johnny’s divorces were no secret; I recall him making angry jokes about them in his nightly monologues. And it was common knowledge, especially in the era of Carson’s Tonight Show tenure, that among the actors, star athletes, politicians, and others who had attained Carson’s level, some were committing adultery on a nightly basis. And yet, you never hear of anyone being upset at Carson’s lifestyle, then or now.
Not that Carson’s behavior should have been tolerated, no matter how cruel his mother had been to him. But it’s a curious part of our society that the indiscretions of some celebrities are ignored or accepted, while they are made a point of condemnation for others. Carson, JFK, and even Bill Clinton are accepted as they are, flaws and all, despite regular womanizing. Donald Trump and Bill Cosby, on the other hand, receive public censure from even the slightest hint of immorality. Perhaps it’s because the former group entertained us, or are remembered primarily for the level of entertainment, amusement, or acclaim they imparted in our minds. Or maybe it’s politics. Or possibly, it’s just random.
Bushkin makes no attempt to address or answer such questions in his book, although he does lament, years later, the things he lost by acquiescing to the temptations inherent in Carson’s environment. The book is entertaining, though not happy. You get a well-rounded account of one of the country’s most well-known personalities. And if you find yourself on an airplane, tempting the forces of gravity, and just want to avoid the deep thought of why society’s moral compass seems to fluctuate with surprising regularity, Johnny Carson will give you the right amount of entertainment for a few hours. And that’s precisely what Johnny wanted for the viewing public.