Goodbye Helen Kushnick -- NBC nixes ''The Tonight Show'''s executive producer

The announcement last Monday was terse, businesslike, as abrupt as the burning out of a GE lightbulb: ”We have determined that a change in the management structure of The Tonight Show is appropriate at this time,” the NBC statement read. ”Effective immediately, Helen Kushnick will no longer be the executive producer.”

With that, Kushnick, Jay Leno’s longtime manager, producer, and close friend, was ousted as head of the most lucrative show in NBC history. Overnight the locks on her office door were changed and her parking space was gone, just four months after her client — her discovery — took over where Johnny Carson had stood for 30 years. Her dismissal distressed Leno, who issued his own statement, saying, ”I feel NBC’s actions are unwarranted in light of the success of the show to date, and I continue to support Mrs. Kushnick.”

But her firing was no surprise, only relief, to the many staffers, publicists, agents, and insiders who finally felt free to come forward with stories of the last tense weeks of Kushnick’s reign and their own tales of Mount Saint Helen Kushnick. (In one last outburst after the dismissal, she hurled an object across her office, smashing a picture frame.)

In fact, one talent manager saw a larger dimension in Kushnick’s departure. According to Ken Kragen, who handles Kenny Rogers, Travis Tritt, and Trisha Yearwood, Kushnick’s firing means this: ”The talk-show wars are over. The real source of tension has been exposed…I talked to Jay and Arsenio (last Monday), and they expressed their desire to renew their friendship. They can now compete on a level playing field.” Kragen told Entertainment Weekly he is already looking to get his clients on both shows.

Indeed, it was Kragen’s on-the-record recital Sept. 15 in the Los Angeles Times of Kushnick’s strong-arm tactics that signaled the beginning of the end for the 46-year-old woman who discovered Leno at The Comedy Store in the ’70s, managed him through the ’80s, and campaigned aggressively for the top-of-the- heap job he has held since May.

From the start of her tenure — but especially toward the end — Kushnick was cited for making big messes in the name of ”booking wars” against The Arsenio Hall Show and the late Dennis Miller Show. Kragen says she blacklisted Tritt because Kragen refused to scratch Tritt’s already-scheduled November performance on Arsenio — and then she dumped previously booked Kragen client Yearwood for good measure. Publicist Lori Jonas says Kushnick booked friendly time-slot competitors (and fellow Jonas clients) Tim Allen and Jerry Seinfeld for the same night, then denied Allen was ever booked; Allen went to Arsenio, and Kushnick bumped Jonas client Sheila Kelley (L.A. Law; Singles) from the show. Tonight Show sources say Kushnick banned Maria Shriver and Rodney Crowell because they had done Arsenio. And, according to one highly placed Tonight Show source, she rejected Elizabeth Taylor for the same reason (although the two share a passionate commitment to AIDS fund-raising; Kushnick’s son, Sam, died of the disease in 1983 at the age of 3). Then she nixed the circus group Cirque du Soleil because they had the nerve to appear at a Taylor-sponsored benefit.

”She pissed everyone off in town in a series of stupid dealings,” says a Tonight Show source. ”Basically, the Ken Kragen thing helped a lot. Finally someone spoke out. A small group of us here were making concerted efforts to plant stories in the press. We thought it was the way to get rid of her. And no one was picking up on them (until Kragen spoke out).”

”I think she hopes she was doing the best for Jay, but I think she has some serious personality disorders,” says former Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinsen, who feels she gave the old Carson guard the bum’s rush. Adds former Tonight Show executive producer Fred DeCordova (who remains a consultant on the show), ”I have never been part of a system that was so offending or irritating to other people. It was not one thing that led to her downfall, it was a growing irritation with her methods and the way she operated.”

Kushnick, for her part, has been unavailable for comment, reportedly contemplating a lawsuit against NBC for sex discrimination.

And what of Leno, torn between loyalty and the future of his plum job? One source says, ”She and Leno have this sick, twisted, Hitchcock mother-son thing going.” Earlier this summer, the source says, Leno received a letter from a viewer chastising the host for excessively ”chewing his tongue” in his monologues. Kushnick insisted that Leno, despite his distaste for the matter, read the letter on the air.

Says another Tonight Show insider, ”Helen didn’t allow Jay to get involved with the production of the show. He wasn’t aware of a lot of (the booking complaints) until he started reading the press. And then he would ask about it and she would lie and say it didn’t happen. Over the weekend he agreed that the show had to go on without her. He agonized — despite his loyalty, he couldn’t throw away the job he worked all his life for.”

For the moment, according to NBC spokeswoman Sue Binford, a troika of Leno, Debbie Vickers, and Bill Royce will run the show, which is booked with guests through next month. (Royce, coproducer and chief talent booker, had quit Sept. 18, saying he wouldn’t return until Kushnick left; Vickers, one of the few staffers on board from the Carson era, may eventually take the sole executive-producer title.)

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