It all seemed so simple. On May 22, after an unprecedented 30-year reign, Johnny Carson would abandon the most famous Formica desk in America and step ; aside for the new Mayor of Midnight, Jay Leno. Well, that’s still going to happen, but the succession isn’t going as smoothly as everyone had hoped. According to Tonight Show insiders and NBC sources, Leno’s high-energy manager, Helen Gorman Kushnick, who is also his executive producer, has managed to raise the blood pressure of almost every member of the Carson camp.
It was Kushnick, say insiders — and their claims have been confirmed by high — placed sources in the Carson operation-who wiped away all vestiges of the old show by getting rid of the set, the theme song, the band, the sidekick, and most of the personnel. ”Kushnick wants to clean everybody the hell out,” says one source at Carson Productions. Kushnick, 46, who has worked with Leno as agent, then manager, since 1974, has survived in a business long tolerant of czars but not czarinas, and now she seems to be making up for lost time. ”She’s gone bananas,” says one top Carson adviser. ”Johnny won’t talk to her.”
”I don’t talk to anybody,” Kushnick snaps back. ”We have to have a show on the air May 25. I am trying to be very respectful.” To that end, one of the only Johnny cohorts she has retained is outgoing executive producer Fred de Cordova, who will serve as a consultant. While de Cordova denies that any tensions exist, one Carson insider calls him ”a traitor.” Kushnick sees Cordova instead as a transitional figure. ”Fred’s as responsible as anyone for the show’s longevity,” she says. ”I get a kick out of him. How many people do you know who knew Bugsy Siegel personally?”
Strain between the Carson and Leno camps is not new. It began in ’87, when Leno was first named exclusive guest host. Kushnick ”was always butting in, especially in booking guests,” says the Carson Productions source. Kushnick admits the two staffs weren’t close. ”We never used Johnny’s writers,” she says. ”Jay came in as a self-contained unit.”
But Kushnick isn’t the only speed bump on the road to an easy transition. Carson is rumored to be upset over the clumsy way NBC handled his succession. And further aggravating matters is the letter NBC sent Doc Severinsen, informing the ever-glowing bandleader that after May 22, he can’t mention The Tonight Show when he performs. ”NBC owns the license to The Tonight Show,” a network spokeswoman explains. (Severinsen declined to comment.) Then there’s the worry that the contrast of styles between the $30-million-a-year Carson and the $3- mil-a-year Leno will be too great for The Tonight Show to bear. ”Leno doesn’t have the intelligence or the education or the manners Johnny has,” says a Carson insider. ”He’s a nice guy, but he’s going to bomb.”
Warren Littlefield, head of NBC Entertainment, begs to differ. ”He’s been on the show 330 times; the audience is extremely comfortable with him.” As for the rift, Littlefield says that Kushnick is merely performing ”a face-lift.” But it’s Jim McCawley, a veteran Tonight Show coproducer, who puts the turmoil in perspective. ”This is what happens when there’s a new President — the cabinet resigns,” he says. ”We operated in the Carson mold, but this is the end of an era. Johnny is not the President anymore.”