“You would think that by now the questions would have stopped.” That’s how Henry Bushkin opened his outstanding biography of longtime client and close friend, Johnny Carson. It’s the story of his two-decade run with The Tonight Show icon. Because of that, the book is also a history of the golden age of late-night comedy.
Even when Carson left the scene in 1992 after helping launch the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy, and David Letterman, his legacy continued to loom over late-night comedy. The genre he defined remained a reliable hitmaker of comedians and other stars before hitting a tumultuous phase after he died in 2005.
By now, it’s practically irrelevant in pop culture – except for occasional spectacles like Elon Musk hosting Saturday Night Live. Its status has slipped from an incubator of fresh material to a syndicator of recycled stuff, usually from social media and left-wing cable news coverage.
Bushkin was with Carson from when his show was still broadcast out of Rockefeller Center in New York until they broke over a business dispute in 1988.
Now, he’s working on another book, Good to be King. It’s also being developed into a television series that he describes as “Mad Men meets the Morning Show.” It’s about the very early days of Carson’s Tonight Show up until 1969, when an appearance on the program became the standard by which comedians were measured.
We spoke with Bushkin, who lives in New York, about late-night’s past and present, his history with Donald Trump, and his novel theory on what spawned Carson’s pain.
When you watch late-night TV now, why do you think it’s practically irrelevant after being so important in the culture?
Bushkin: My interest waned when it all became political, and it all became “dump on Trump”.
Not that I minded it, because Trump’s a supreme asshole. I went to school with his brother Fred. We were in the same fraternity, which happened to be a Jewish fraternity. So, you can’t ever say the Trumps were in any way anti-Semitic. Although I think they were less than honorable in many respects. But the brother was a very cool guy, and totally unlike Donald.
Carson and I each bought apartments at Trump Tower. I knew Donald for a long time, and we’d always bump into him at tennis matches like the U.S. Open. That’s how he convinced us to buy the apartments. He had us over when it was still steel and structure, so we had to go in hard hats to see the view each of us would choose.
When Joan Rivers died, they had the memorial for her at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue, the most prestigious temple in all of New York. Howard Stern was the first guy to get up and speak, and the 800-pound gorilla in that room was Johnny Carson because everybody was talking about how she was devastated when Carson wouldn’t speak to her, and how that ruined her life for a period of time.
When the ceremony is over and everybody pours out into Fifth Avenue, there’s Donald and his wife, and I’m with my wife. Donald says hello, and I say hello to Donald.
He says, “You know? I read your book and I really liked the book.” I said, “Thanks Donald, I really appreciate that.” He says, “You know? No-one knew Johnny Carson like you and I did.” And I looked, I said to my wife, “Did I just hear what he just said? That nobody knew this guy better than he and I?”
Typical Donald Trump, right?
Do you think Trump really read your book?
He said he did. Do I know? I don’t care. Even if you disagree with all the nastiness Donald Trump promotes and exhibits, enough is enough. You hear it all day long. All you have to do is listen to CNN. And I do listen to CNN, but they got nothing good to say about Donald Trump.
Fair enough, but with late-night television, you like to be entertained. You like to have some joy in your life instead of listening to more diatribe against a political candidate.
Carson was totally apolitical. He’d make fun of anybody, but he wasn’t about to lose 50% of an audience because he was taking a Stephen Colbert point of view.
He wasn’t willing to do that and, certainly, it wasn’t his role to do that. He’s a performer, he’s not a political pundit of any sort, he’s an entertainer. I think that’s what people basically loved, amongst other things, about The Tonight Show; there was entertainment.
Was it also a fearlessness Carson had?
I don’t know that I would put it that way. Nobody before, or since, had the power he had at the time. That was like the holy grail, to get on that show. The network, at some point, recognized that he was more important to the network than the network was to him.
So, nobody before had that power, and nobody since had that power, to the extent, if you take any of the guys on late-night, who knows what power they have? Probably very little in the scheme of things. Carson was so comfortable with who he was that I’m not sure today’s crop of entertainers could ever be that comfortable.
You cut a deal for Carson where he owned The Tonight Show. Was that the frontier of stars owning their own content?
The fact that Carson got ownership, basically of all The Tonight Shows that he was ever on and all that preceded him, is a recognition of real power. I don’t think that existed before or since.
Now maybe Oprah Winfrey, because the type of audience that she had was unavailable to Carson other than through network television. It was, really, the birth of cable TV that was going on at that time.
Carson’s power also meant that he was making $25 million a year back in the early 1980s. In your book you say that Frank Sinatra was jealous because Carson just had to drive to Burbank three or four days a week and tape his show, whereas Sinatra had to pay for a band to tour around the world. That model of celebrity content distribution was incredibly efficient, right?
Carson drove from Malibu to NBC in a white Corvette. Ed McMahon, every day, came in a limousine. Every day he came in a limousine, and every evening the limousine picked him up. Quite a difference, right?
But Carson didn’t accumulate his estate of $500 or $600 million by his yearly earnings. It was the Carson Company assets.
I had negotiated a deal to sell his assets to Coca-Cola, and Coca-Cola would take all of the Carson Company assets and we would take 100 million in Coca-Cola stock, and Carson would become a board member of Coca-Cola. The deal never went through because Carson couldn’t see himself becoming a board member of Coca-Cola.
He said, “It’s going to be a pain in the ass. I’d have to go to Georgia and sit with these people, what do I have in common with them?” I said, “Well, you don’t need anything in common with them, it’s like two hours. You could be sort of gracious for two hours.” He said, “No. I don’t want to sit with those people. I don’t want to be on that board,” which is sort of a lovely thing to be able to do. It’s sort of lovely to pass up.
I calculated at one point that the $100 million in Coca-Cola stock would be worth $2.3 billion.
Carson retired in 1992 but continued to occasionally write jokes for late-night TV – but for David Letterman, not his successor Jay Leno. Why did Leno get his job if Carson preferred Letterman?
The reason Jay Leno ultimately became the permanent guest host of The Tonight Show was because his manager Jerry Kushnick was my old boss at a law firm. We were longtime friends, and we were able to work out a convenient deal. Jerry dies around 1990, after Carson and I are no longer together, and his widow Helen Kushnick takes over as Leno’s manager. She is an old friend of mine too, and she is really pissed at Carson for how he treated me.
It all manifested itself in whatever negotiation she had, or whatever maneuvering she had, to get Leno the gig as opposed to Carson. Because, at that point, Carson didn’t have any further say. In other words, 30 years later, they’re not looking for his approval. So, the fact he may have favored Letterman had little to do with NBC’s decision to hire Leno.
Even though Carson owned The Tonight Show?
This was my observation: David Letterman got his shot on The Tonight Show. Then, David Letterman got his own show, which the Carson Company owned. The Carson Company owned that for the same reason they got ownership of The Tonight Show, to license it to NBC.
So, we owned that hour with David Letterman, and frankly, it was Johnny’s hope that Letterman would stay with The Late Night Show and stay with it until Johnny retired and took over The Tonight Show.
I met with Letterman, and he absolutely refused. He said, “No, I’m going to do my own show, and I’m going to do my own deal.” I was really aggravated at him that he just completely dismissed the idea of staying with it. His problem was Carson would never tell anybody when he was going to retire. Garry Shandling would have taken over The Tonight Show too if he knew when Carson was going to leave.
Was Letterman the host that Carson saw the most of himself in?
That’s maybe too introspective for Carson. I think he liked Letterman’s sensibilities. His willingness to do character stuff. But, as far as I was concerned, Letterman was a bad guy. Carson, for whatever reason, continued to be very fond of Letterman.
Fair enough. I wasn’t. We’re asking on behalf of Carson, we’re not asking on behalf of ourselves, and he sort of poo-pooed it like, “I don’t give a fuck what Johnny wants.” That was the end of Letterman, as far as I’m concerned, having a consideration at NBC.
You revealed in your book that Carson died alone.
How many big stars have you heard about who never had a funeral? There was no funeral, and there was never a memorial. I think it says a lot.
You attributed Carson’s inner turmoil to the way his mother withheld affection from him.
That’s no longer my point of view because, subsequent to the book, I’ve learned a great deal about Carson’s early life. He was in the Navy in World War II on a battleship that had just been torpedoed.
He gets to the battleship, literally, the evening of the day that it’s been torpedoed, and his first assignment, as the newest lieutenant on the ship, is to supervise a crew to remove 20 dead sailors who were in some compartment that got blown up.
Then, when the war is over, the ship is now in Guam being repaired. He’s in Guam, and on every ship, in those days, they had boxing matches. He decided he’s going to fight in a middleweight division, and he has 10 three-round bouts. He actually won all 10. If you get in the ring and you train, and you have 10 three-round bouts, you get hit in the head pretty good a number of times.
Then, in the beginning days on The Tonight Show, Carson starts developing headaches. He starts going to some doctors and they can’t quite figure out what’s causing the headaches, but they start giving him pain pills like, let’s say, Dean Martin or Jerry Lewis. And he can’t deal with them because he knows Lewis and Martin have a problem with these pills.
So, he doesn’t take the pills, and what cures him of the headaches is drinking. So, he goes from a guy you’d really like being around to, by 1970, sort of a miserable character.
In the course of researching this I talked to and got to know a guy who was with him on the USS Pennsylvania. One of those guys that was on the crew to remove these dead bodies. This guy was a black man from Texas. He joined the Navy at 17. The first boxing match that Carson had on the ship was against him, and he was a real badass. In any event, the fight goes on, Carson, with a lucky punch, knocks this guy down, and wins the fight, and becomes known as “Johnny One Punch” on board the battleship.
You thought Carson was being such a prick, when he had traumatic brain injury. Today it’s a big subject because of football players. Back then Carson was asked to go to psychologists, psychiatrists, he would never go. That was the John Wayne school: “We don’t go to psychiatrists.”
So, there’s empathy that Carson is entitled to that he never got. The fact was that this black man he knew from the Navy became a lifelong friend of his, and Carson put him in business in New York and ultimately bought him a limousine company.
Carson was very generous. For example, he did the Academy Awards for five years. He never took a cent from the network to do the show. I’m wondering, if Johnny Carson were alive today and he was doing the show, what he would charge to do that show. Because it was just awful this year. It was just horrible. Almost unwatchable. That also goes back to celebrity, and true celebrity.
Mass appeal is rarer now. How much of it has to do with the fact that everyone used to watch together when there was maybe one TV per household, and now everyone’s on their own screen and audience are much more segmented?
Absolutely. Not only that, but there were three networks then. And I think the type of humor that was good then is important to bring back because it was so funny. We have some bits on It’s Good to be King we’re doing that if you don’t laugh, there’s something wrong with you. It’s just that funny, and it’s intended to get belly laughs.
Everybody sort of trusted Carson. You inherently trusted what he said, and when he did a good bit about some politician who did something screwy and it was funny, they’d be talking about it the next day. Carson was a high trust type of celebrity, as you called it in one of your recent columns.
I think there’s nostalgia not just for a host you could trust, like Carson, but also for a feeling that there was something important happening, that the show was an event. And whenever there’s a little bit of a ratings bump for something recently like Elon Musk hosting Saturday Night Live, part of that is the audience remembering a time during late-night when it felt like something important was going to happen.
I actually thought Musk was pretty good and it was gutsy of him to do it. I thought it was very cute when he brought his mother on.
When it comes to nostalgia, what I’m trying to do with the new show is base it on real events. Unveiling stories over 15 years involving some of the most famous people in the history of show business. Politics, journalism, sports, the economy, and the underworld. For instance, Frank Costello, who was head of the five families and very big deal in New York, threw a big party for Carson at the Copacabana in 1957. It’s pretty cool stuff.
So, Carson was a unique celebrity and on a level that very few achieve.
He would say the greatest fear he had was being on a plane with Sinatra that crashed. He said, “The headlines would read, ‘Sinatra and others die in plane crash.’” That was his fear, that Sinatra would always get the first rating over him.
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