Book Review: Johnny Carson

 

Johnny-Carson-Book-(2)Almost anyone living on the North American continent in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s who appreciated a good laugh, had access to a television set, and was still awake after prime time can testify to the quick-on-the-draw wit and immense appeal of Johnny Carson.

I paid $28 for my hardcover copy of Henry Bushkin’s book “Johnny Carson” because I wanted to know more about Johnny. What I got for my money was the story of Henry Bushkin, who was Johnny’s personal lawyer and more from 1970 to 1987.

Johnny had a running bit in his monologue about the crazy money-losing ideas pitched by his lawyer, whom he referred to as “Bombastic Bushkin.” If you look that up in your Funk & Wagnall’s, you will find that synonyms for “bombastic” include “pompous” and “pretentious.” You will also see that “well written” is one of the antonyms for “bombastic.”

Johnny was partly right. Mr. Bushkin does come across on the page as perhaps more than a little pompous and pretentious. But, his book is well written and I enjoyed reading his story.

As a lawyer myself I must admit I was a bit uneasy when Bushkin tells us all about private conversations he had with Johnny that were obviously covered by the attorney–client privilege.

However, it’s clear that Bushkin is a skilled attorney. Shortly after he was first retained, his client called him at home at 2 a.m. and directed him to come to Jilly’s New York City saloon, where an intoxicated Johnny launched into a melancholy monologue about his mother, his drinking and what a lousy husband he was to his first two wives. The next day, a sober Johnny called Bushkin for assurance that he can trust his new lawyer not to reveal matters relayed in confidence. His new lawyer replied: “I’m your lawyer; everything that is said between us is confidential and covered by the attorney–client privilege. I would lose my license if, during your lifetime, I repeated it to a soul.”

My standard client engagement letter doesn’t have that “during your lifetime” qualification. Of course, as much as I like and value the clients who have entrusted me with their legal business over many years, none is of sufficient public interest that I could get even a modest advance for a book about any of them.

Bushkin writes that soon after he was introduced to Johnny, he “was acting as his attorney, agent, personal manager, business manager, public relations agent, messenger, enforcer, tennis partner, and drinking and dining companion.” How do you bill for that?

There are some valuable lessons for lawyers to be found in this book. For example, when on the eve of his third wedding, your very wealthy, consistently non-monogamous client instructs you to tear up the pre-nuptial agreement you had carefully drafted to protect him in the event of a divorce, get that in writing.

Bushkin wants us to know that he did a very good job protecting Johnny in the years he handled his business affairs. And he probably did. After giving a cut to his agents, advisers and ex-wives, Johnny was not able to put much money in the bank before he retained Bushkin. But with Bushkin’s assistance, Johnny became one of the richest men in show business.

Nevertheless, Johnny dismissed Bushkin summarily in 1987, when he suspected that Bushkin had put his own interests ahead of his client.

Bushkin, who had by that point founded a successful Los Angeles law firm, continued to enjoy what he says was a very fulfilling career in law and business. Indeed, Bushkin writes about the post-Carson phase of his professional life that he found “working for savings and loans and banks to be as rewarding and fruitful as working for Carson.” I don’t buy it.

It is natural to expect a lawyer’s memoir about a former client who fired the lawyer (and who launched an unsuccessful but expensive and time-consuming malpractice case against his law firm) to be at least a little bitter. And this book has that aspect.

Bushkin offers the reader some sad and sordid details about Johnny’s drinking problem, his neglect of his several wives and three children, and his many casual affairs. (In the book’s index, there are nine separate page references under “infidelity” along with the notation, “see also Las Vegas and specific individuals.”)

But women, and audiences, loved Johnny Carson because he could make people laugh. And that is no small thing.

Bushkin attributes what he regards as Johnny’s personal failings to the fact that his mother was always emotionally distant and often cruel to her son (and to everybody else in the family). But that diagnosis seems too simple. To understand what made Johnny Carson who he was it might be better to consult the works of Dr. Sigmund Freud, and in particular his 1905 book, “Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious.” But I can attest that Bushkin’s book is a more enjoyable read.

 

By Frank Schuchat, who practices international trade and business law and performs stand-up comedy, although not at the same time.

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