While Johnny Carson led a very private life, especially after his retirement, those who knew him best can tell you that he never lost the curiosity that made him such a success throughout the years. “Today” host Matt Lauer talks to Bob Wright, the chairman and CEO of NBC Universal, who spent a lot of time with Johnny Carson in recent years.
Matt Lauer: Hey, Bob, good morning.
Bob Wright: Good morning, Matt.
Lauer: I'm curious, were you aware of how seriously ill he was?
Wright: Well, I wasn't aware that he was seriously ill, as it turned out to be. He has had some issues over the last couple of years, but he never complained and he never let on that he was in this situation.
Lauer: You know, for the last six or seven years of his reign on late night television, you were his boss. I'm curious, because I know in his opening monologues he loved to take shots at the NBC brass. So given that fact, how did you two become such good friends?
Wright: Well, it was during the time that he retired. It was kind of an awkward painful period, because he did want to retire, but he didn't want to be the subject in the press. I spent time with him during that period, and after he actually did retire, we really got to know each other quite well. We had traveled a little bit before that, actually, we had traveled to England and Scotland and to Russia. But afterwards, we traveled some more, we went a lot of places — my wife, Suzanne, and Alex and Johnny — we really enjoyed their company. He was a great deal of fun to be with.
Lauer: You know, so many of us watched him as the host of "The Tonight Show," and he was quick, he was sharp, he was affable. Yet you hear so often, Bob, that in person, he was much more aloof, a little cool and tough to get to know. That wasn't your experience?
Wright: Not at all. We spent a lot of time together. He had a lot of interests. People don't realize he had a real language skill. We traveled to Russia, and he learned to speak Russian in about five months before we went there. We went to Africa on safari, he learned to speak Swahili. I mean, he could really speak it, Matt. One night we were out in the Serengeti, not near anything, and after dinner, Johnny's talking to all the people in this caravan we were in, all of whom were natives, speaking Swahili only. He was good enough to keep them laughing for about 25 or 30 minutes, explaining what we did in America and what he did. He just didn't want to be in the limelight.
Lauer: Well, explain that. Because when he left, he really did go below the radar. Did you ever try to get him to come back to television? You know that we all wanted to interview Johnny Carson and I know you probably intervened on our behalf on a couple of occasions. Why didn't he ever want to do anything like that?
Wright: Well, he just didn't. I called him so many times on behalf of us and others to accept awards or to do interviews and he just wouldn't do it. Only two times [that] I can really remember that he ever agreed to do this, one time he received the Presidential Freedom Award, and we went to Washington, and he was very excited about that. And another time, President Reagan presented him with an award in Las Vegas at a National Association of Broadcasters convention. Those are the only two times that I ever remember that he was willing to either accept anything or appear publicly and receive some recognition. He just didn't want to do it. His view was that he had his time on the stage, and his work would speak for itself. He did not want to become a caricature of himself.
Lauer: Well, let me ask you, then, for viewers who didn't live through his heyday, Bob, and who may have only seen a couple of those highlight tapes that they advertise late at night these days, can you try and describe briefly what place he occupied in our lives back when he was the king of late night?
Wright: Well, for 30 years he was the person who defined the day's events with a comedic tone, and gave us the monologue, which was sort of the comedy news summary of the day. His interviews and skits just made us all laugh and it cut across several generations. He never seemed to tire and he had fresh material all the time. Especially, he was the signature of NBC in good years and bad years. When we had great programming, that was wonderful, and when our programming wasn't quite so great, Johnny was always there.
Lauer: He was an enduring force, no question about it. Bob Wright, thanks so much for your memories. I appreciate it.
Wright: Thank you, Matt.