Not long ago I was having a conversation with a fellow at work. I suppose that he’s about twenty-four years old. I don’t recall the subject of our talk but for some reason or another I brought up the name Johnny Carson. The young man stared at me blankly for a moment or two and then he said, “Who is Johnny Carson?” I can’t describe to you how old I felt at that moment. I swear, I could literally feel my hair turning gray...okay, I mean I could literally feel my hair turning grayer.
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Johnny Carson belongs to a different era. A time when watching television was a much different experience than it is now. From 1961 to 1991, he was the undisputed “King of Late Night” with his Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on the NBC network. As a result, he was the highest paid television personality of his day. When Carson died in January, 2005, he left an estate valued at 450 million dollars.
Henry “Bombastic” Buskin’s memoir, “Johnny Carson,” recalls many of the events that he was involved in as Carson’s attorney from 1970 to 1988. Mr. Buskin describes his relationship with the enigmatic Carson as very complicated: “I was his attorney,” writes Mr. Buskin, “although that term hardly expresses all I did; more properly, I was his lawyer, counselor, partner, employee, business advisor, earpiece, mouthpiece, enforcer, running buddy, tennis pal, drinking and dinner companion, and foil.” I feel the need to amend Mr. Buskin’s list of responsibilities by adding the fact that he was also Johnny Carson’s ass-kisser, bootlicker, and ego massager. For, you see, Mr. Buskin makes it painfully clear throughout the 279 pages of his book that he was a first-class wimp. Johnny Carson picked up on that fact from the very start.
A graduate of Vanderbilt University, Mr. Buskin was introduced to Carson by a mutual friend in 1970, when he was a twenty-seven year old fledgling attorney at a small entertainment law firm in New York City. Carson was by then at the height of his powers, but behind the scenes he was beset with lots of bad advice. For instance, because of a deal that his accountant had made with NBC to defer most his multimillion dollar salary for tax purposes, Carson was only taking home about 150 thousand dollars a year (he was making only about 200 dollars more a show than his guests were paid). When the accountant handed him the bill of his services, Carson had to take out a bank loan to pay him because he did not have enough cash. He then fired the accountant.
A star-struck Henry Buskin, married with two young children, found himself in Carson’s office one afternoon answering a series of mundane questions. The next night he was summoned to Carson’s palatial apartment and became involved in the break-in of the star’s wife’s Manhattan apartment with a group of strangers, some of them armed. They were searching for evidence of his wife's infidelity- and they found plenty of it (she was involved with Frank Gifford). Carson, who, paradoxically, set the gold standard for philandering, wept.
Thus began the business relationship between Johnny Carson and Henry Buskin. And when, eighteen years later, it inevitably ended, it wasn’t pretty.
Unfortunately, Mr. Buskin's memoir is bogged down by his ego and his distasteful wimp factor. Much of the information about the private Johnny Carson is interesting; but Mr. Buskin takes as many bows as possibly for riding his boss’s coattails. Much of the book is over-written, and Mr. Buskin’s many attempts at being “cutesy” simply come of as effeminate. His descriptions of dating some peripheral television starlets after his divorce from his flong suffering wife, Judy, are just plain embarrassing.
In the final chapter, Mr. Buskin writes,”I do not think he would have wanted a celebration, but I do like to think that he would have been happy with this book.” I believe this sentence proves just how much the author misunderstands his subject; I believe Johnny Carson would have disliked this book. Intensely. I know I did.