"Heeeeeere's the Johnny Carson Foundation!" (And Its Recent Big Give)

We now present to you the Johnny Carson Foundation, which just awarded a $20 million gift to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to create an academic program and facility focused on "emerging media." The foundation's vision for the program is pretty cool, but before we take a closer look, let's first provide some background on the Encino, CA-based foundation.

The foundation's official name is the John W. Carson Foundation. It was established in 1981, and according to data for the year ending June 30, 2014, it claimed over $168 million in assets and allotted close to $7.5 million across 158 grants, ranging in amounts from $1,500 to $1 million. It primarily focuses on issues pertaining to children, education, and health services. Previous gifts include $4 million for the Los Angeles Free Clinic and $125,000 for a Planned Parenthood high school sex ed initiative.

If you aren't entirely familiar with the foundation, that's intentional. The foundation keeps a low profile, much like its namesake, whose philanthropic activities flew under the radar for most of his career. Most notably, it wasn't until after his death in 2005 that the general public—thanks to a tax return filed by his foundation—found that Carson gave $156 million from a personal trust to the foundation prior to his passing.

The comedian was born in Iowa, but moved to the Cornhusker State when he was eight, and the foundation's recent gift to the University of Nebraska fits into a broader narrative of support to the school dating back at least a decade. Previous gifts include:

  • $5.3 million to the University of Nebraska Foundation to support the Hixson–Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts' Department of Theater Arts, which created the Johnny Carson School of Theater and Film in 2004.
  • Another $5 million donation was announced by the estate of Carson to the University of Nebraska following his death in 2005.
  • A $1 million donation was announced on November 4, 2011, creating the "Johnny Carson Opportunity Scholarship Fund."

The foundation's most recent gift will renovate and transform about 30,000 square feet of the former Nebraska Bookstore building into the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts, which is slated to open in 2018. Inside the building is where the magic will happen. According to Nebraska's Journal Star, graduates who complete coursework in the new program will be "prepared with media arts skills that can be used in filmmaking, game design, television production, theater, advertising, social media, business, architecture, science, education and agriculture, among others."

If this doesn't sound like your typical college media center, that's precisely the point. "Johnny Carson was an innovator of television, which was certainly the emerging medium of his era," said Allan Alexander, president of the Carson Foundation. "Because of this and his legacy at Nebraska, we are especially pleased to support the education endeavors of many future generations who wish to follow in his footsteps as media innovators."

Or to quote comedian Dana Carvey doing his best Johnny Carson impression: "That's wild stuff."