It’s probably not out of line to presume certain generations will associate themselves with whoever hosted “The Tonight Show” when they came of age.
For that matter, the same could be said of whoever was portraying James Bond when specific groups came of age, but “The Tonight Show” had begun its weeknight broadcasts about a decade before Sean Connery debuted as 007 in “Dr. No.”
Steve Allen, the founding host, was a successful comedic innovator for the show in the then-new medium of television, and Jack Paar had attempted to intellectualize the show in the five years he was at the helm. However, conversations with guests like William F. Buckley were perceived (understandably) as somewhat soporific at that broadcast hour.
But when Johnny Carson took over in 1962, the show became a national institution for three decades and Carson became one of the highest-paid entertainers of all time — but at what personal price to Carson and others?
The Tallassee Community Library stocks a memoir by Carson’s former personal attorney, Henry “Bombastic” Bushkin (the nickname was bestowed by Carson), but I had wondered to what extent the book was a tacit/in-through-the-side-door violation of attorney-client privilege (although Carson had fired Bushkin in 1988). It also seemed to be possible the 2013 book, titled simply “Johnny Carson”might be a so-called behind-the-scenes exposé; i.e. yet another tabloid-type tome, and Carson wouldn’t have been able to respond because he died in 2005.
As it turns out, Bushkin’s book addresses his subject’s personality traits — including generosities and shortcomings — in a manner that presents itself as refraining from an ultra-lurid chronicle format. To what extent it succeeds is up to an individual reader.
The notion Johnny Carson had craved the attention of his millions of viewers but was aloof in close relationships (including wives and family members) has been proffered before, and Bushkin’s book reiterates such a personality profile.
Bushkin also proclaims Carson was once the target of a hit by organized crime. The attorney also recounts the comedian struggled in his earlier days due to bad information from advisors.
And as one of the persons closest to Carson, Bushkin wasn’t a saint himself, admitting to his own indiscretions. Accordingly, “Johnny Carson”hints at being a catharsis for its author.
Not much is presented about memorable moments or sketches on “The Tonight Show,” but certain segments will be forever branded into the memories of average late-night television viewers.
Carson’s “Carnac the Magnificent” sketches were exemplary. They had a direct link to Steve Allen’s “The Question Man” routine, but Carson’s appearances as “a visitor from the East” bedecked with a gaudy, jewel-laden turban was always eagerly anticipated by the studio audience as well as home viewers.
Some fans had favorite Carnac “answers” and the onomatopoeia-style variants were among the funniest. “Bjorn Borg” was the answer to a hilarious “question” was a hoot, and the gag about “Sis Boom Bah” as the answer to the question “Describe the sound you hear when a sheep explodes” can be found on YouTube (it had the longest laughter of any Carnac gag, according to television lore).
Carson was an icon because he had a conversational Everyman style that wasn’t elitist.
But for all of his success at purveying an average-Midwestern-guy persona, he was hyper-affluent to the point he could abruptly change his business investments and plans to the tune of millions of dollars, according to Bushkin, who recounts Carson canned his successful men’s suit business because he tired of modeling such attire (two days out of the year) for upcoming ad campaigns.
For those of us who recall the glory days of his aegis of “The Tonight Show,” Johnny Carson was one of us — and wasn’t. He was one of a kind, and it isn’t out of line to opine the subsequent lineups of hosts on more than one late-night show confirm such a viewpoint.
When Johnny Carson died in early 2005, he was alone. That’s sad, but somehow it’s not surprising.