#183 Johnny Carson

Summary Notes


In "Johnny Carson," author Henry Bushkin provides an intimate look into the life of the iconic talk show host. Bushkin, who served as Carson's attorney, advisor, and friend for 18 years, reveals the complexities of Carson's character: a man who was both loved and feared, capable of deep generosity yet also prone to cold indifference. Despite his on-screen charm, Carson struggled with personal relationships, haunted by a cold and unloving mother. His professional life was a stark contrast—Carson was a master of his craft, meticulously critiquing each show and maintaining a work ethic that ensured his status as an unrivaled television star. However, when it came to business ventures outside of "The Tonight Show," Carson showed little interest, preferring to focus on his passion for performance over additional financial gain. Bushkin's narrative culminates in the dissolution of their relationship, a poignant end to a complex partnership marked by mutual success and personal conflict.

Summary Notes

Johnny Carson's Unhappiness and Mood Swings

  • Johnny Carson is described as the second unhappiest person the speaker has known.
  • His mood is volatile, changing rapidly from high to low.
  • There is a sense of caution advised when dealing with Johnny, emphasizing the need to be discreet and wary of his mood swings.

"Johnny is the second unhappiest person I've ever known. I'm telling you this for a reason. Right here in front of Mr. Carson. Watch your step. Johnny's mood can go up to down in milliseconds."

The quote highlights Johnny Carson's reputation for being deeply unhappy and having unpredictable mood swings, which is a key aspect of his personality and sets the tone for the interactions with him.

Johnny Carson's Marital Concerns and Break-In Plan

  • Johnny Carson suspects his wife of infidelity and identifies Frank Gifford as the other man.
  • He is restless due to his suspicions and seeks to gather evidence by breaking into an apartment.
  • The plan involves a breach of legal and ethical boundaries, but also presents an opportunity for career advancement.

"Henry, Johnny said, finally arriving at the purpose of our meeting, I have reason to believe my wife is cheating on me. I also have an idea who the son of a bitch is that she's shacking up with."

This quote conveys the gravity of Johnny's personal crisis and his determination to uncover the truth about his wife's alleged infidelity.

The Break-In and Emotional Aftermath

  • The group breaks into the apartment and is confronted by the doorman and building manager.
  • Bribes are used to gain access to the apartment, showing a disregard for the law.
  • Johnny discovers personal items from his home in the apartment, confirming his suspicions.
  • The discovery leads to an emotional breakdown, revealing a vulnerable side of Johnny Carson.

"Almost instantly, Carson discovered evidence of his wife's infidelity. The whole living room, in fact almost the entire pad, was furnished with discards from the couple's apartment."

This quote details the moment of revelation for Johnny Carson and underscores the emotional impact of finding proof of his wife's infidelity.

The Importance of Ownership in Johnny Carson's Career

  • Johnny Carson's wealth is tied to his ownership of "The Tonight Show."
  • Initially underpaid, Johnny's financial situation drastically improves once he gains ownership.
  • The concept of ownership is a central theme in the discussion of his career and success.

"The first half of his career, he's underpaid because he doesn't own the show. And the second half he's unbelievably wealthy because he actually owns the show."

This quote explains the significant change in Johnny Carson's financial status once he obtains ownership of his show, highlighting the importance of ownership in the entertainment industry.

Johnny Carson's Public Persona vs. Private Life

  • Johnny Carson is known for his public persona but is a very private person.
  • His introverted and loner tendencies contrast with his celebrity status.
  • The complexities of his personality are a focal point, illustrating the dichotomy between his public and private selves.

"Never have I met a man possessed of a greater abundance of social gifts, intelligence, looks, manners, style, humor. And never have I met a man with less aptitude for or interest in maintaining real relationships."

This quote captures the paradox of Johnny Carson's character, being both gifted in social situations and yet disinterested in forming deep personal connections.

Johnny Carson's Professional Focus and Craft

  • Johnny Carson's dedication to "The Tonight Show" is evident through his focus and effort.
  • He sets the standard for late-night television, creating a blueprint for future hosts.
  • His work ethic and commitment to his craft are emphasized as key factors in his success.

"He's the cream of middle class elegance, and yet not a mannequin. Every night, in front of millions of people, he has to do an aerial somersault performed on a tightrope."

The quote praises Johnny Carson's ability to perform under pressure and his skill in delivering a polished performance night after night.

Financial Aspects of "The Tonight Show"

  • "The Tonight Show" is a highly profitable enterprise, generating significant revenue for NBC.
  • Johnny Carson's financial gains are linked to the show's success, but only after he gains ownership.
  • The financial details of the show are explored to understand the scale of its impact.

"In 1979, NBC was earning $50 to $55 million per year from his show."

This quote provides insight into the financial success of "The Tonight Show" and its contribution to NBC's earnings.

Johnny Carson's Circle of Competence

  • Johnny Carson understands his strengths and stays within his circle of competence.
  • Despite temptations to pursue other opportunities, he remains focused on his talk show.
  • His ability to recognize the diminishing returns of additional ventures is noted.

"He understood that after a certain point, there was a decreased marginal utility to an extra dollar."

This quote reflects Johnny Carson's awareness of his optimal career path and his decision to prioritize his passion over financial incentives.

Johnny Carson's Life Philosophy

  • Johnny Carson viewed life as an adventure and believed in living fully, despite making mistakes.
  • He emphasized the importance of not striving for perfection or rigidity, and instead crafting the life you desire.

"Life can be whatever you want it to be, whatever it is that you want to make it, and you get to the end of the book."

This quote encapsulates Carson's life philosophy, suggesting that life is what you make of it and implying the importance of being active in shaping one's own experiences.

Johnny Carson's Health and Lifestyle

  • Carson was a heavy drinker and smoked four packs of cigarettes a day, which ultimately led to his death from emphysema.
  • His last words on smoking highlight the addictive nature of cigarettes and serve as a cautionary tale.

"These damn cigarettes, these damn cigarettes, these damn cigarettes."

The repetition in this quote underscores the regret and the addictive grip that smoking had on Carson's life.

Personal Regrets and Self-Reflection

  • Johnny Carson expressed deep regret over his personal life, including his marriages and his relationship with his children.
  • He acknowledged his shortcomings as a husband and father, leading to self-loathing and introspection.

"I'm not surprised that Joanne did this to me, he said. But it hurts. It hurts like hell."

This quote reveals Carson's pain and his acknowledgment of his role in the problems within his marriage.

The Illusion of Wealth and Fame

  • Despite Carson's success, wealth, and fame, he experienced deep unhappiness and a sense of emptiness.
  • Carson's discontent was tied to unresolved personal issues, including a lack of warmth from his mother.

"Wealth, success, fame, even if that's really what you want, it's not going to make a great life."

The quote highlights the misconception that external achievements automatically lead to happiness, which is often not the case.

Financial Exploitation

  • Johnny Carson was financially exploited by those around him, including managers and attorneys.
  • Despite earning $100,000 a week, he only received $3,000 due to a deferred compensation arrangement.

"The people around him whom he trusted were serving him poorly."

This quote points to the betrayal Carson felt from those who were supposed to protect his financial interests.

The Importance of Personal Responsibility

  • Carson blamed his failed marriages on his mother but also acknowledged the need for personal responsibility.
  • It's crucial to address and overcome past traumas to avoid lifelong unhappiness.

"You have to have some kind of personal responsibility."

The quote emphasizes the significance of taking charge of one's own healing and happiness rather than blaming external factors.

Deferred Compensation and Financial Planning

  • Carson's deferred compensation was a strategic move to avoid high taxes but resulted in financial constraints.
  • Comparisons are made to other deferred compensation cases, like Bobby Bonilla's, highlighting the real-world benefits over theoretical gains.

"The real value of the deal was a hedge, a bet against Carson's talent."

This quote explains the reasoning behind the deferred compensation, which was to protect Carson's finances against the unpredictability of show business.

Talent and Exploitation in the Entertainment Industry

  • The entertainment industry is notorious for exploiting talent, and Carson experienced this firsthand.
  • Carson's lack of equity in ventures that bore his name exemplifies the importance of understanding contracts and maintaining control over one's work.

"Talent getting taken advantage of by management is the tales all his time."

This quote underscores the common issue of exploitation in the entertainment industry and the need for self-advocacy.

The Importance of Equity and Control

  • Building wealth requires equity ownership, and Carson's case illustrates the pitfalls of not having it.
  • The necessity of reading and understanding contracts is highlighted to avoid exploitation.

"You have to have equity. That's where wealth is built."

The quote stresses the fundamental role of equity in wealth creation and the dangers of neglecting this aspect in business deals.

Personal Life and Relationships

  • Carson's personal life was tumultuous, with failed marriages, estrangement from his children, and a complicated relationship with his mother.
  • His focus on work came at the expense of his personal relationships, reflecting a generational attitude toward paternal responsibility.

"By any standard, Johnny was not a very good father."

This quote bluntly assesses Carson's shortcomings as a father, despite his professional success.

Work Ethic and Dedication

  • Carson was dedicated to his work, which was the one constant in his life.
  • He and his producers critically reviewed every show, striving for excellence.

"Johnny Carson lived comfortably in his own skin."

This quote suggests that Carson's confidence in his professional abilities provided him with a sense of security, despite other personal troubles.

Legacy and Impact

  • Carson's influence and legacy in television are undeniable, with his work still generating interest and revenue.
  • His dedication to his craft made him a standout figure in entertainment, drawing millions of viewers.

"I could see why he drew 20 million people to him."

The quote reflects on Carson's lasting appeal and the reasons behind his enduring popularity.

Divorce Settlements and Mistakes

  • Johnny Carson had to pay his second wife $6,000 a month from 1972 until his death in 2005 due to their divorce agreement.
  • He paid his third wife $35 million after their divorce.
  • Carson acknowledged the potential for repeating mistakes in relationships and warned his lawyer, Henry Bushkin, not to let him make the same mistakes again.

"So he has to pay her $6,000 a month from 1972 until he dies in 2005. His third wife, he's making a lot more money at this point. He winds up paying her, I think, $35 million after their divorce."

This quote outlines the financial implications of Johnny Carson's divorces, highlighting the significant settlements involved and Carson's awareness of his pattern of mistakes in relationships.

Johnny Carson's Personality Traits

  • Johnny Carson was not comfortable performing in front of small groups, preferring larger audiences.
  • He struggled with sustaining fake sociability for long periods, which was taxing for him as an introvert.
  • Carson needed to be the number one priority in his relationships, both personal and professional.
  • His need for being the top priority led to the end of relationships when this was not met.

"For Johnny, sustaining fake sociobility for hours and hours was taxing to the max."

The quote reflects on Johnny Carson's difficulty with maintaining sociability in certain social settings, which was particularly challenging for him as an introvert.

Johnny Carson's Friendships and Loneliness

  • Johnny Carson found it difficult to discern genuine friendships from those seeking personal gain due to his fame.
  • He had few people in his life that he wasn't paying, raising questions about the authenticity of his friendships.
  • Carson considered his lawyer, Henry Bushkin, to be his best friend, although Bushkin did not initially perceive their relationship in the same way.

"Johnny had very few people around him that he wasn't paying, and now I think about maybe none."

This quote emphasizes the isolation Johnny Carson felt despite his fame, as he was surrounded by people who were on his payroll rather than genuine friends.

Johnny Carson's Business Acumen and NBC Negotiations

  • Carson threatened to quit NBC in 1979, which led to him gaining ownership of "The Tonight Show."
  • His decision to quit was influenced by a mix of personal exhaustion and frustrations with NBC.
  • Carson leveraged California law, which limits personal service contracts to seven years, to argue that his contract was null and void.
  • The potential lawsuit against NBC for a breach of contract was settled by a mediator.
  • Carson used interest from ABC as leverage in negotiations with NBC, leading to a highly lucrative deal.

"Carson had, at some point in the beginning of 1979, decided to bail on the most coveted spot in television."

This quote captures the turning point in Johnny Carson's career where he considered leaving his role at NBC, setting the stage for negotiations that would ultimately lead to a better deal for him.

Equity and Ownership in Show Business

  • Johnny Carson learned the importance of equity and ownership in the entertainment industry for financial success.
  • He observed that those who owned production companies, like Aaron Spelling and Merv Griffin, had more wealth and power than stars.
  • The resolution of the contract dispute with NBC allowed Carson to negotiate from a position of strength.

"Equity makes all the difference. Being a star in Hollywood is a fabulous thing, but the real money and power went to those who own the companies that produced the programs."

The quote underscores the key lesson Carson learned about the significance of ownership over mere stardom in the entertainment industry.

Johnny Carson's Work Ethic and Lifestyle

  • Despite his success, Johnny Carson preferred to stay busy and often performed on the road.
  • He enjoyed working and performing, finding domestic life dull in comparison.
  • Carson's work ethic and desire to be the center of attention drove him to continue working even when he could have taken time off.

"But Johnny really preferred to work. He didn't want to go home. Domestic life bored him."

This quote highlights Johnny Carson's preference for work over leisure, illustrating his dedication to his craft and his need for the spotlight.

The Power and Influence of Johnny Carson

  • Johnny Carson's influence was so significant that President Reagan personally called him to apologize for a minor protocol issue.
  • His ego had grown to the extent that only such a high-level gesture could appease him.

"It was truly a testament to the power and prestige that Johnny had had now gained as a performer and a person that the president called him over a minor issue of protocol."

This quote demonstrates the extent of Johnny Carson's influence and status, showing how his position in the entertainment industry commanded attention from the highest levels of government.

Johnny Carson's Perspective on Success and Recognition

  • Carson was skeptical of flattery and valued hard work, talent, and discipline over praise and awards.
  • He related to Steve Jobs' perspective on the craftsmanship required for success, valuing the process over the accolades.

"He had too keen an appreciation for how much work and talent and discipline went into success to be flattered by praise and adulation."

The quote reflects Johnny Carson's understanding of the effort behind success, which made him less susceptible to flattery and more focused on the quality of his work.

Decision Making and Viewing Habits

  • Johnny Carson sought advice from Lou Wasserman on whether to move to ABC or stay with NBC.
  • Wasserman advised that changing viewers' habits was not prudent, influencing Carson's decision to stay with NBC.
  • Carson's decision was guided by the simple yet powerful insight into viewer behavior.

"It's not prudent, Wasserman said, to ask people to change their nightly viewing habits."

The quote captures the crucial piece of advice that influenced Johnny Carson's decision to remain with NBC, highlighting the importance of understanding and respecting viewer habits.

Johnny Carson's Second Career Phase and Ownership

  • After gaining equity, Johnny Carson became the owner and producer of "The Tonight Show," securing a historic deal in television.
  • He also took ownership of all show episodes since 1962, which led to the creation of "Carson's Comedy Classics."

"Carson's salary would be $25 million a year. For that he worked 1 hour a night from 11:30 p.m. To 12:30 a.m. Three nights a week, 37 weeks a year with 15 weeks off."

This quote outlines the terms of Johnny Carson's unprecedented deal with NBC, showcasing the financial and creative control he achieved over "The Tonight Show."

Enjoying Life and Having Fun

  • Johnny Carson's time in Vegas during the 1970s was filled with entertainment and camaraderie among celebrities.
  • These experiences were some of the happiest moments of Carson's life, emphasizing the importance of having fun and creating memories.

"These were the funniest moments of my life, and I'm pretty sure they were among the happiest of Johnny's."

The quote reflects on the joyous and memorable times Johnny Carson experienced in Las Vegas, underscoring the value of enjoying life amidst work.

Entrepreneurship and Concentrated Wealth Creation

  • Successful entrepreneurs often owe their fortunes to a single product or innovation.
  • Concentrated investment in one's own company is a common pattern among the wealthiest individuals.
  • Diversification is not always the key to wealth; focus can be more beneficial.
  • Examples include John D. Rockefeller (oil), Andrew Carnegie (steel), Sam Walton (retail), and Bill Gates (software).

"What is better use of his time and money than dedicating to a show that's going to make him hundreds of millions of dollars?"

This quote emphasizes the importance of focusing on what is most profitable and enjoyable rather than diversifying for the sake of it. It highlights the speaker's belief in concentrated effort over spreading oneself thin.

Time Management and Life Priorities

  • Time is a precious commodity and should be spent on activities that are fulfilling and enjoyable.
  • The speaker questions the logic behind engaging in unenjoyable activities when one has the financial freedom to choose otherwise.
  • The importance of aligning professional activities with personal satisfaction is highlighted.

"Time is literally what life is made up of. Why would you spend it doing things you don't like to do?"

This quote underlines the speaker's philosophy that life should be spent on activities that bring joy and satisfaction, as time is the essence of life.

Johnny Carson's Career and Personal Choices

  • Johnny Carson focused his efforts on "The Tonight Show," which was a major source of his wealth.
  • He was not interested in producing sitcoms or other television series, preferring to concentrate on his successful talk show.
  • Carson's disinterest in diversifying his professional activities is seen as a wise choice by the speaker.

"Johnny Carson performed on tv. He didn't watch it."

The quote illustrates Johnny Carson's professional focus on performance rather than consumption of television, reinforcing his commitment to his own show over other ventures.

Wealth Beyond Necessity and Personal Satisfaction

  • Making money beyond a certain point can become a distraction from what truly matters.
  • Johnny Carson's decisions to close his clothing business and not engage in other ventures are seen as rational, focusing on what he enjoys.
  • The speaker admires individuals who balance their life priorities and do not over-optimize one aspect at the expense of others.

"Making money beyond a point was a distraction."

This quote encapsulates the idea that accumulating wealth beyond what is needed can detract from other important aspects of life, such as personal happiness and fulfillment.

Henry Bushkin's Career and Relationship with Johnny Carson

  • Henry Bushkin experienced growing success partly due to his association with Johnny Carson.
  • The relationship between Bushkin and Carson deteriorated as their professional goals diverged.
  • Bushkin's actions, which prioritized his own interests over Carson's, ultimately led to the end of their partnership.

"Henry didn't keep the main thing the main thing. Johnny did keep the main thing the main thing."

The quote contrasts the focus of Henry Bushkin and Johnny Carson, suggesting that Carson maintained his priorities while Bushkin lost sight of them.

The Complexity of Personal Relationships in Show Business

  • Personal relationships in the entertainment industry can be superficial and transactional.
  • Johnny Carson is described as both generous and difficult, illustrating the complexities of his character.
  • The speaker reflects on the importance of kindness and the impact of personal relationships on one's happiness.

"Joan Rivers was a permanent guest host... She actually takes an opportunity... Johnny never talks to her again when she does this."

This quote demonstrates the fragile nature of relationships in show business, where professional decisions can have personal repercussions.

Johnny Carson's Financial Independence and Life Choices

  • Financial independence allowed Johnny Carson to make choices based on his personal preferences rather than financial necessity.
  • Carson's wealth from "The Tonight Show" gave him the freedom to reject deals that did not align with his interests.
  • The speaker sees Carson's actions as rational and aligned with his desire for a satisfying life.

"Unlike Sinatra or Crosby or Hope... Johnny had to drive to Burbank."

The quote highlights the ease with which Johnny Carson earned his wealth compared to other entertainers, emphasizing his unique position and the freedom it afforded him.

Consequences of Misaligned Goals and Betrayal of Trust

  • Henry Bushkin's pursuit of his own interests led to a betrayal of Johnny Carson's trust.
  • The breakdown of their relationship serves as a cautionary tale about the importance of loyalty and alignment in professional partnerships.
  • The speaker reflects on the loss of friendship and the lasting impact of choices driven by self-interest.

"I did nothing that harmed his interests. But it's true that at some point his goals and my goals, which had always been united, diverge."

This quote from Henry Bushkin attempts to justify his actions but reveals the conflict between his goals and Johnny Carson's, leading to the end of their relationship.

Reflections on Johnny Carson and the Autobiography

  • The speaker finds the autobiography of Johnny Carson's lawyer, Henry Bushkin, to be a revealing and entertaining account.
  • The book prompts reflection on the nature of success, the importance of enjoying one's life, and the complexities of personal relationships.
  • Mark Andreessen's recommendation of the book is acknowledged, and the speaker encourages support for the podcast through purchasing the book.

"My attempt to paint an accurate portrayal of the most thrilling, fun, frustrating and mysterious relationship of my life. A portrait of a man I loved."

This final quote from the autobiography encapsulates the author's intent to provide an honest depiction of his relationship with Johnny Carson and the impact it had on his life.

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