In 1970, when Henry Bushkin was a young entertainment lawyer only a few years out of law school, Johnny Carson hired him after a single brief, cursory meeting. 18 years later, after another meeting that Bushkin recalls lasting only three minutes, he was out. What happens in between those two meetings is the subject of Bushkin’s new memoir about his years with the King of Late Night, when he served not just as Carson’s lawyer, but as his manager, confidant, and, much to Bushkin’s surprise, his best friend, too. (He was also the inspiration for “the Bombastic Bushkin,” a character in Carson’s monologs.)
Bushkin writes with great compassion and empathy about a man he has many reasons to remember not so fondly. Carson, like so many famous public figures, fought some major demons and could be a total shit. But Bushkin offers keen insights into why America loved a man so nearly incapable of love himself.
I’m one of those who loved Johnny Carson. As a school kid, staying up late to watch the Tonight Show during summer vacation became a cherished ritual. He was so effortlessly funny, and never funnier than when his nightly monolog bombed. (And Bushkin reveals that Carson often intentionally left crappy jokes in the monolog for just this reason.) He was funny, he was dashing and handsome, yet he was so cool about all of it, too.
During college and after, I seldom watched the Tonight Show, feeling I’d outgrown such mainstream fare. Yet when I happened to catch one of Johnny’s monologs, he’d have me in his pocket all over again.
Bushkin’s book is by no means a profound psychological study. But it’s highly readable, humane, and likely as up close and personal an account as we’ll get of a man who millions welcomed into their homes every night, yet few ever really knew.