It’s difficult to believe, as Henry Bushkin told us for Mediabistro’s latest “So What Do You Do?“, that he had a hard time initially interesting New York publishers in his tell-all memoir Johnny Carson. But in the end, a book first envisioned as a self-published enterprise has arrived at a time that feels just right, framed by Janet Maislin’s rave review in The New York Times.
In one unpublished portion of our Mediabistro conversation, Bushkin addressed Carson’s celebrated falling out with Joan Rivers. He reconfirmed his view that it all came down to some very duplicitous actions by Rivers’ late husband Edgar:
“This guy was as shady as you can possibly imagine, right? When I say “Inspector Clouseau”, that’s who he was. But he was the devious Inspector Clouseau. He clearly said that he called me several times, OK? He never called me once. And I’m certain he told his wife, ‘I tried to tell these guys, but Bushkin wouldn’t return my call.'”
“And here’s the think everyone should know. Johnny never felt this woman could carry a show more than one week at a time. The public would just get too much of her. One week is enough; two weeks in a row, not good. She would do the guest hosting one week at a time, and every time, she rehearsed two weeks for the one week. For those two weeks prior, she was playing little clubs doing her material for the one week. So when she did her one week, she was really well prepared. When she did her own [Fox] show, she had one day to prepare. You get it? Not possible with her, just not possible. And that show lasted a dismal couple of months.”
Bushkin feels that had Rivers not been tripped up by Edgar, Johnny would have given his blessings and she would likely have been back in The Tonight Show fold within a year. Read the Mediabistro Q&A here.
Due to a 2016 redesign of the mediabistro.com website, the “So What Do You Do?” interview with Bushkin was taken offline. For those interested, it has been carried over here in its entirety, including the aforementioned portion that was not in the published version.
In the book’s Acknowledgments, you explain how the impetus for the book came in 2008 from fellow (and subsequent) Carson attorney Ed Hookstratten. Can you explain a bit how you got from there to here?
Some time ago, I was about to self-publish the book. The book that has come out this week is essentially the same book. Frankly, when I was going to do it on my own, with a small staff, it became apparent that Carson wasn’t relevant in the eyes of New York publishers vis-a-vis New York editors. They thought he was just irrelevant.
When I had the manuscript in polished form, I sent it to a friend of mine in New York. She then immediately sent it to a friend of hers at Vanity Fair, and then she asked if she could send it to a friend of hers, an agent in New York. And I said yes. And all of a sudden, there were five publishers bidding for it. So it had quite an evolution that took quite some time, with the book going through several gestation periods.
Did you ever cross paths, in your efforts to get published, with Bill Zehme, who has been working for a long time now on a separate biography of Carson?
Yes. Bill Zehme called me and emailed me countless times, hoping I would help him in his book. To be perfectly honest, he was delightful and smart guy, he writes very well. But I had no interest in participating in his project. As far as I know, the book isn’t even written yet. I’m not sure of the status, but I’ve heard various stories at various times about where it stands.
I’m quite surprised by the amount of attention my book has received. But nonetheless, we talk about it in terms of, ‘OK, now that this book is out, who would want to publish another Carson book?’ What would the other Carson book say?’ Zehme’s book was meant to be the homage to Carson.
One of the most telling chapters in your book is the final one, “The End,” about how your relationship with Carson ended. You write at one point about how inaccurate and one-sided the media coverage was then of your parting and how no reporters bothered to contact you directly. Can you talk a bit more about that?
Well, whatever that moment in time was, journalists just accepted whatever was put out by the sort-of of Carson machinery that was already well in place. I was well aware of that machinery, because I basically helped create it. But that machinery spit out these things that the media picked up upon and they all of a sudden, because they were printed, became true.
And what happened with me, I found it very difficult to combat that. It was almost like sour grapes if you tried to combat it. So when the book was sold to Houghton Mifflin, they bought it as is, they had no right to change any of it. However, some of those last few things about how it ended with Carson, I didn’t have that in the original manuscript. My ending ended with me and Johnny shaking hands after a three-minute conversation. That was my ending.
They insisted because of all this regurgitation of reportage about what happened in 1988-89, ‘Look, this is going to come up, so you better put something in there about what really happened at the end.’ I didn’t the story necessarily gained anything by having at in, but Houghton Mifflin insisted on it. And I didn’t have to put it in, by the way. But ultimately, I agreed.
Another fascinating portion of your book covers Carson’s equally abrupt parting of ways with Joan Rivers. You suggest that her late husband Edgar played a central role by telling Joan she called you with the advance news of her FOX talk show plans, when he in fact never did. That’s wild.
This guy was as shady as you can possibly imagine, right? When I say “Inspector Clouseau”, that’s who he was. But he was the devious Inspector Clouseau. He clearly said that he called me several times, OK? He never called me once. And I’m certain he told his wife, ‘I tried to tell these guys, but Bushkin wouldn’t return my call.’
And here’s the think everyone should know. Johnny never felt this woman could carry a show more than one week at a time. The public would just get too much of her. One week is enough; two weeks in a row, not good. She would do the guest hosting one week at a time, and every time, she rehearsed two weeks for the one week. For those two weeks prior, she was playing little clubs doing her material for the one week. So when she did her one week, she was really well prepared. When she did her own [Fox] show, she had one day to prepare. You get it? Not possible with her, just not possible. And that show lasted a dismal couple of months.
Johnny was right. And all he was saying to me was, ‘Look, I would have said, ‘ Go do it, God bless.” She would have been back in a year. That’s all that would have happened, meaning he would have taken her back. The irritation was me calling him to say, ‘Listen to what I just found out.’ How horrible is that, for me to have to call her to find out?
Another contentious relationship covered in the book is that of Johnny and his second wife, Joanne. Can you frame that aspect a bit for readers?
My job when I came in to Johnny’s life was to get rid of her, you understand? He never spoke to her again since 1970, at least in so far as I know. So maybe from 1988, something happened to Johnny and he decided to call her and speak to her every day, as she said he did. This woman was despised by this man, what she put him through. And it annoys me, when she anoints herself or someone else does, as this sort of quote spokesperson of sorts. But he could not stand this woman.
Your book received a lot of advance attention and coverage in the media in connection with Chapter Two, which recounts you and Carson breaking in to Joanne’s NYC apartment in 1970 to find out who she was cheating with at the time. How was that orchestrated?
I’ll tell you the genesis of that. First of all, it has nothing to do with me. At one point, Vanity Fair, People magazine and some others were talking about running a chapter or chapters of the book. The powers-that-be at the publisher decided that Entertainment Weekly would be the best spot to sell books.
They were given the right of first publication, meaning no other reviews could run until they ran whatever it was they were going to run. Their deal was they got one chapter, pick-the-chapter they want. And they picked that chapter.
That by the way is not the entire story. Because prior to that, I had done a phone interview with Jeffrey Trachtenberg of the Wall Street Journal. The response to the interview was such that the online interview then went to the front page of the online edition, and then it went in the newspaper, which they never do. He called me to tell me this never happens. He was amazed at the reaction at the reaction that his interview was getting, picked up by so many people. The same thing happened with Entertainment Weekly.
And what it proves is that these publishers in New York were idiots, they really were. But maybe the timing is right now. Maybe Johnny is doing his renaissance now, who knows? But I’m happy that the book is attracting attention.
Did you read Kathie Lee Gifford’s reaction to Chapter Two, reported last week in the New York Daily News?
No. As far as the media coverage of Chapter Two, that’s something that happened 43 years ago and the point of me writing that chapter was not to create controversy between Carson fans and myself, or between Frank Gifford and me, or whoever. It was to really show how I met the guy. That’s how I met him! What am I supposed to do, not write it? I don’t know what more to say other than to me, Gifford was not the punchline of the chapter at all. The punchline of that chapter is the bar scene, where we’re sitting in the corner of the place at 3 a.m., and there’s nobody else there “except you and me.” That’s what I thought the telling part of that chapter was. And the fact that the media focused on Joanne Carson and Frank Gifford, to me that was like the “So what?” part of it.
Everybody pays attention to that, and it’s not comforting to me. That’s like sensationalizing something I never intended to be sensational. That’s what they go for and that’s what annoyed me. Because that had really nothing to do with what I intended in the chapter. The controversy bothers me because it’s so ridiculous. What am I supposed to think, that I didn’t go into Joanne’s apartment?
And listen to this. The CEO of Houghton Mifflin gets a communique from Joanne Carson’s personal assistant at the time, saying that Joanne Carson is a liar, please call me, I’ll give you all details if you need them. To the publisher! And I say to myself, ‘How silly is this? Who cares? Why do they care now about this kind of thing?’
Do you have any thoughts on who should be cast as Johnny in that proposed NBC miniseries?
Look, I’m in New York. This week we’re talking about the book, of course. But it was actually mostly devoted to other things. We are in the midst of some very interesting and confidential discussions about a Broadway play with music centered around a particular year, like 1980, in Carson’s life and my life. Like a snippet. All I can say is that there’s compelling interest in that. The Broadway audience is Carson’s sweet spot. The entertainment value of it is going to be significant.
Now as far as the NBC miniseries, it’s based on the Zehme book. Now we don’t know if that book exists, so we don’t know if the miniseries exists. But to the extent that it does, God bless. We have a very appealing way of approaching the subject matter because of the intimacy of the characters, versus showing Carson on The Tonight Show doing Aunt Blabby. That’s fun and funny, but there’s no brilliance there.
Finally, what are your thoughts about Jimmy Fallon taking over The Tonight Show?
I’m not really astute when it comes to that. But what I would say is I think it’s a terrific move coming back to New York. Because when you think about The Tonight Show, most of the energy to that show was derived in New York. When it went to California in 1972, it was very successful. He was very much in command of that show. But the real creative energy, I would say, went into it when it was in New York. So I think Fallon is making the right move.