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#183 Johnny Carson
June 4th, 2021 | E183

What I learned from reading Johnny Carson by Henry Bushkin. 


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[13:50] He often told me that all it took to turn the most electrifying film stars into dullards was to be around them for a while. But he felt that way around everybody. There were very few social scenes in which he was ever really comfortable.

[14:07] Johnny was comfortable in front of twenty million but just as uncomfortable in a gathering of twenty.

[15:44] Carson grasped that he owned the camera the way Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra had grasped that they owned the microphone. That understanding made him more natural, more relaxed, cooler.

[21:29] Johnny continued. “If a doctor opened up my chest right now, he couldn’t find a heart, or any goddamn thing. Just a lot of misery. My mother made sure of that. She deprived us all of any real goddamn warmth."

[23:20] Facts revealed themselves. Curious facts. Disturbing facts. Like the fact that Johnny Carson wasn’t wealthy. Indeed, he had very little money. He had little money because the people around him, whom he trusted, were serving him poorly.

[28:43] I was shocked to realize that he owned no equity interest in the new company. Instead, half was owned by the manufacturer and half by Sonny Werblin. Carson, in effect, was paid a salary to wear clothes from the company that bore his name, while the man he had entrusted with his affairs lined his own pockets.

[29:39] “Look what’s going on,” I said. “His wife is cheating on him. His manager is screwing him, his agents are exploiting him, and his producer’s wife has been conspiring with Joanne to cuckold him. What a goddamn mess.”

[32:46] Johnny Carson lived comfortably in his own skin. He may have been troubled in certain areas, but he was never tormented by insecurity.

[42:57] Carson’s show was earning NBC between $50 and $60 million a year.

[45:45] Being a star in Hollywood was a fabulous thing, but the real money and power went to those who owned the companies that produced the programs. It was Aaron Spelling who called the shots and raked in the dough and lived like the sultan of Brunei. Or to put it another way, Merv Griffin, who was a rival of Carson’s but never his peer, was so much richer than Johnny because he owned the game shows Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune.

[49:14] He had too keen an appreciation for how much work and talent and discipline went into success to be flattered by praise and adulation.

[50:27] Like most oracles, Wasserman gave an opinion that was simple and sensible (but unambiguously presented, thank goodness). “It is not prudent,” replied Wasserman, “to ask people to change their nightly viewing habits. Once they are used to tuning in a given channel, they find it hard to make the move, no matter how good an alternative is being provided elsewhere.” Was that it? All of our thinking and talking and arguing and agonizing came down to the belief that Americans won’t change the dial? Wasserman’s advice sealed our decision.

[54:39] He liked performing. He liked being onstage, being the center of attention, and doing something he did with supreme excellence.

[57:27] To my surprise, the three girls were skinny-dipping in the rooftop swimming pool, while Johnny, wearing nothing but an apron, served them wine from a silver platter.

[1:00:31] Johnny Carson performed on television, but he didn’t watch it.

[1:09:37] Johnny Carson enjoyed the adulation of millions, but his mother could not love him. He carried that pain, and spread it, all his life.

[1:09:56] He has probably been funnier longer and more consistently than any other comedian who ever lived. Johnny just kept rolling on and on, never deviating, seldom surprising, seldom surpassing, but nearly always delivering.

[1:10:35] Once he got control of The Tonight Show he was earning so much that it was like Monopoly money. He was free to do literally whatever he wanted.


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