Peerless Carson made indelible mark on TV

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Johnny Carson, who died last week at age 79, "made late-night TV into a big business-and a cultural touchstone." So says Bob Wright, chairman-CEO of NBC, who took over the network while Mr. Carson still presided over one of its biggest profit centers. Mr. Wright remembers Mr. Carson, and his impact on the TV business, in this piece written for Advertising Age.

I met Johnny Carson through Brandon Tartikoff in 1986, when I came to NBC. We met after a "Tonight Show" taping I attended in my first weeks on the job, and then again a couple of nights later at Spago. He was obviously a man of enormous talents and a huge star. But he was also approachable and unassuming. We hit it off right away, and over the next 16 years we had a great deal of fun, often while traveling together to some exotic location.

The vast majority of my time with Johnny was spent away from work-much of it after he retired in 1992. Johnny had a real passion for travel, which he was not fully able to indulge until his retirement. He and his wife, Alex, would always be heading off to some fascinating part of the world, and my wife, Suzanne, and I would frequently find ourselves lucky enough to be invited to join them. Together, we traveled to Russia, Africa, Alaska, Catalina Island, England, the San Juan Islands and Vancouver.

Johnny was no ordinary tourist. For one thing, he had an extraordinary gift for languages and a great deal of self-discipline. In preparation for our trip to Russia, he taught himself Russian. Before we traveled to Africa, he learned Swahili. He worked extremely hard to be knowledgeable about the places we were going. I guess he transferred much of the energy and intelligence that for 30 years went into his nightly show into learning new languages and cultures.

the entertainer

But although by this point he had left "The Tonight Show" behind, he still loved to entertain. I remember one night in particular, when we were on safari in Tanzania, camped in the middle of the Serengeti, pretty far from everything. Suzanne and I heard peals of laughter drifting our way. We left our tent and found Johnny in the middle of a group of natives, entertaining them in Swahili. We had no idea what he was saying but he was clearly telling jokes, and very funny ones at that. It was the most remarkable experience. Here was Johnny Carson, nightly entertainer of millions of Americans for 30 years, replicating the laughter and warmth of "The Tonight Show" in a place as isolated as you can imagine, in Swahili, for an audience of a dozen Tanzanians.

In the days following his passing Johnny was described by some as reclusive and aloof, but that was never my experience with him. He was very private, but he was a great deal of fun to be with. In fact, he was quite extroverted when he was comfortable. He took his work seriously. He'd put on his "game face" every workday and go out and deliver the best show he was capable of. But when the show was over, he wanted to relax.

His impact on the TV world is immeasurable. Although "The Tonight Show" existed before him, with talented figures like Steve Allen and Jack Paar, it was Johnny Carson who made late-night TV into a big business-and a cultural touchstone. An encouraging word from Johnny Carson would-and did-make a young comedian's career. His interviews-with more than 22,000 guests over the course of his career, running the gamut from oddball characters to national statesmen-informed and entertained. His monologue gave millions of Americans a useful frame of reference for the political events of the day that had the extra virtue of being extremely funny. And of course, the show made a lot of money-which Johnny did his best to keep as much of as possible.

With his lightning-quick wit, effortless delivery and immense charm, Johnny was simply without peer in late-night TV. One of his greatest gifts was his ability to make millions of Americans feel like they had a close friendship with him. They welcomed him into their dens and bedrooms night after night-a comfortable and comforting presence. That presence is now gone, and we can't help but feel bereft.

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