Johnny Carson Bio Collaborator Talks ‘Daunting’ Task of Finishing Bill Zehme’s Book

It’s been decades in the making, but with Bill Zehme’s epic Johnny Carson biography  finally set to hit shelves later this year, the former Chicago Sun-Times journalist tasked with finishing the book after Zehme’s death is speaking out.

In 2002, Zehme earned the distinction of being the sole interview Carson granted in his post-Tonight Show years, profiling the host for Esquire. Upon Carson’s death in 2005, the writer began work on a full-length biography, interviewing scores of Carson’s colleagues and friends, amassing a storage locker’s worth of research.

After Zehme died from cancer in 2023, his friend and former research assistant Mike Thomas took on the monumental task of finishing the book.

In a new interview with The Chicago Tribune, Thomas touches on what it was like to take the reins of Zehme’s book. “Finishing what Bill started has been more than a bit daunting and kind of surreal,” Thomas says. “Daunting because he amassed mountains of Carson research that took me months to wade through and sort before any writing could begin. Also because he and Johnny were beloved in their respective realms and were masters of their domains.”

Thomas also reflects on the emotion involved in bringing the project to fruition. “I started out as Bill’s research assistant in the mid-’90s. We worked on three books together and I learned firsthand how the sausage is made. Now I’m wrapping up my bookmaking mentor’s final project — the one that was closest to his heart. It’s actually been a great way to stay in touch with him.”

Over a three-decade career, Zehme profiled countless comedy legends—including Eddie Murphy, David Letterman and Jerry Seinfeld—in cover stories for Esquire, Rolling Stone and other outlets. He also penned the Andy Kaufman biography “Lost in the Funhouse” and co-authored Jay Leno’s autobiography “Leading with My Chin.”

Thomas’ previous books include the oral history “The Second City Unscripted” and the Phil Hartman biography “You Might Remember Me.”

According to Simon & Schuster, “Carson the Magnificent” will cover not just Carson’s career, but the “turmoil and anguish that accompanied the success: four marriages, troubles with alcohol, and the devastating loss of a child.” The book is due out November 5th.

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