Book Review: Henry Bushkin’s A Hard Act to Follow

Posted November 25, 2012 by Kathy Davie in

I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review: Henry Bushkin’s A Hard Act to Follow

A Hard Act to Follow

in ARC edition on February 12, 2013 and has 240 pages.

Explore it on Goodreads

An excellent biography on Johnny Carson by the lawyer who worked and played (almost twenty-four-seven) with Johnny.

The publisher provided this copy for me to review.

My Take

This was a very well-done story about Johnny Carson, warts and all. Sad for his awful childhood and the influences that followed him into adulthood. The struggles to win a parent’s approval. Beautiful for the laughter he brought to so many people. I remember sitting with my sister at the foot of my parents’ bed when we were kids, watching The Tonight Show and laughing, laughing, laughing. Learning about the world. The day his retirement was announced was a day of mourning in my household. We tried to get excited about Jay Leno, but his Tonight Show was all cheap shots. Not the class act Johnny Carson had.

Bushkin was very even-handed in his portrayal of Johnny nor did he spare himself, although his own antics were played down! The story shows us both the love Bushkin felt for Carson as well as Bushkin’s frustration as to why he allowed himself to get so caught up in all the stupid acts of celebrity. I must confess I don’t understand how Bushkin worked day-to-day, year-to-year, acting as Johnny’s cleaner-upper. Being on-call for eighteen years catering to an adult and the neglect that followed both men’s families.

Are all celebrities like this? Self-centered jerks? Needing handholding twenty-four-seven? Sure, Buskin does talk about the generous and decent things that Carson did, but for the most part, it sounds like he was a bastard to work for. I can understand the attraction of celebrity and the desire to earn a lot of money, but I have to wonder if Bushkin thought it was worthwhile.

It certainly doesn’t sound as though acting (in any of its forms) is an impressive career choice when there are so many people working so hard to cheat an actor. I am impressed with the efforts Bushkin made to protect him. And, an honest and decent Bushkin still made a lot of money working for and with Johnny. Maybe the liars and cheats of the world should take note of that…they’d sleep better. But, then again, if they’re the type of people who can consider lying and cheating, they probably don’t have any trouble sleeping anyway. How sad is that?

I never thought of this until Bushkin points out that none of the actors interviewed by Carson could do what Johnny did for so many years: “taking the stage as himself reliant on his own native gifts…with no rewrites…or do-overs…without a net”. Bringing out each guest’s best qualities on the fly. No script, or as Buskin writes about Rock Hudson refusing to do a talk show, “I can’t order from a menu without two writers working up my lines”. Considering Hudson’s reaction, it’s all the more impressive what Carson achieved for some thirty years.

We hear about his wives and his reasons for marrying them. The reasons they never worked. Although, I don’t understand why what’s good for the gander isn’t allowed for the goose. His children.

Interesting tidbit about the de Havilland Law and how it “undermined the old studio system”. I enjoyed learning the reasoning for Johnny’s show choices as well. The bit about Wayne Newton and the wife “law” in Vegas was certainly interesting.

I do recommend reading A Hard Act to Follow. A beautifully easy read that pulls you in to an effortless journey through Johnny Carson’s effortful life. The glamor, the fellow celebrities behind the curtain, the loyalties, and the betrayals. It certainly provides new insight on decisions and the lives that are behind the scenes.

The Cover and Title

The picture of Johnny Carson for this cover is perfect. Now, if only, it weren’t so distorted. I don’t understand why this particular choice was made. What it’s supposed to represent, because I can’t believe there weren’t better quality photographs of Johnny Carson available. I have learned from the publisher that this is a portrait commissioned especially for the cover by Rupert Garcia.

The title is much too accurate. Even all these years later, I still miss Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. He is definitely A Hard Act to Follow.