“It was the easiest job I ever got and the hardest job I ever had,” writes Dave Berg in his new book, Behind the Curtain: An Insider’s View of Jay Leno’s Tonight Show.
The easy part Berg refers to is his interview with the late Helen Kushnick, Leno’s manager and former executive producer on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. She was a combative figure known for her abrasive tactics, especially when it came to securing guests. Leno wanted a producer with a news background, and Berg had been a writer for NBC News and the L.A. bureau chief for CNBC. So Kushnick hired him the next day. The hard part Berg refers to is the 22 tumultuous years he spent on The Tonight Show (and the short-lived The Jay Leno Show), witnessing its highs and lows, wrangling celebrities and their egos and chasing after one very erratic basketball star.
The show was in a ratings slump its first few years until, Berg writes, “the talk-show gods blessed us.” After his arrest for lewd conduct with a hooker in 1995, a sheepish-looking Hugh Grant sat across from Leno, who asked him the question heard around the world: “What the hell were you thinking?”
One of the biggest TV mea culpas garnered nearly 11 million viewers. The show maintained its ratings superiority over Late Show with David Letterman for the remainder of its run.
But there’s more to the story. According to Berg, also booked that day was Dee Dee Myers, the former White House Press Secretary, who canceled her spot after she was arrested for a DUI in Washington, D.C.
Of course, a book this extensive about one of TV’s oldest and biggest institutions has loads of behind-the-scenes tidbits, some surprising (Jesse Jackson had stage fright), some not-so surprising (Christian Bale was difficult) and some really not surprising (Paula Abdul was a ditz). And some go unnamed, including a presidential candidate and his wife, who looked as if they had sex in the dressing room just minutes before he walked onto the set.
The show’s highest-rated episode (the Cheers cast reunion in 1993) was also, as Berg writes it, “the greatest train wreck in the history of The Tonight Show,” because nearly the entire cast was drunk.
The producer had to contend with a lot of stars’ demands, from Jessica Simpson’s $18,000 request for hair and makeup to Eddie Murphy’s bizarre rider, which included Juicy Fruit gum and York Peppermint Patties. Though none came close to Dennis Rodman. Berg devotes an entire chapter to the former NBA bad boy, who was habitually late for each of his 28 appearances.
“At one point I thought, ‘I’m too young to get a heart attack,’” Berg says during a phone interview from his home in Valencia. “‘I can’t take this.’” So Berg would send a helicopter to pick up Rodman at his house in Newport Beach. One time, he even followed Rodman to Nashville to ensure he would return to L.A. and not miss an appearance. “It might be hard to imagine now, but in his halcyon days, next to Michael Jordan, he was one of the most recognizable guys in the world. I loved him. The whole staff loved him. He would spend thousands of dollars on these outrageous outfits just to put on a great show for us.”
But not everyone was eager to be invited. Berg spent a decade trying to book former President Bill Clinton.
“I did everything,” Berg recalls. “I jumped through hoops. We really wanted him in the worst way. But it just never happened. There’s others on that list. Warren Buffett would be another.”
And it took him six years to book John F. Kennedy, Jr., which Berg says was both his and Leno’s favorite guest.
“He represented the closest thing that we had to royalty in America,” Berg recounts. “He also meant something to me and Jay and our generation, because we remember when his father, President Kennedy, was assassinated. We remember JFK Jr. when he was three-years-old in his little sailor suit in front of his father’s casket saluting him. It was very touching and moving for us.”
Another coup was President Barack Obama’s visit in March 2009, the first time a sitting president had been on a late-night show. Obama’s arrival came complete with dozens of Secret Service guys, including eight snipers, and an agent whose responsibility it was to refill the president’s water cup in case it was poisoned.
Though The Tonight Show was a ratings winner, the critics, according to Berg, always made Leno out to be a blue-collar comic inferior to Letterman, a comedian other comedians love to hate. “They tend to favor David, and I might as well acknowledge the elephant in the room,” says Berg. “That’s one reason why I wrote the book is to acknowledge Jay’s contributions. He’s not as middle of the rode and milquetoast as he’s been portrayed. Some people might be surprised to find out how driven he is, how obsessive he is in achieving a certain level of success with the monologues and would let noting get in the way.”
Berg obviously paints a very generous portrait of the host, a denim-shirt-and-jeans guy with dyslexia and a short attention span, who always created a family atmosphere on set, even during the various “late-night wars” with Letterman and Conan O’Brien, and despite being fired twice by NBC executives. In 2012, Leno offered to take a 50 percent pay cut to save 20 of his staffers from losing their jobs.
“That’s walking the walk,” Berg says.
As for The Jay Leno Show debacle, in which the show was moved to primetime, Berg calls it “a noble experiment” that “just didn't work out.”
“None of us were clear on what the actual purpose of the show was,” adds Berg. “It was demoralizing for all of us.”
With new hosts on late night, Berg talks about the changing tastes of viewers, who favor watching online clips of comedy bits over an hour-long show.
“New media is coming into play so much,” Berg says. “I think a perfect example is Chelsea Handler. She’s was doing a daily show, but now she’s doing Netflix. I actually think it’s gonna work. But who would’ve imagined a traditional late-night show on Netflix?”
Though he still keeps in touch with his old boss, Berg can only proffer what Leno will do in the future.
“I believe if the opportunity comes up that gives Jay the chance to do topical humor on a daily basis, I think he would seriously consider it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he does something along the lines of Chelsea Handler on Netflix or some other place. There are a lot of suitors out there. I just wanna make a plea to Jay to please do something. I think people miss his monologues. He made it unique, he made it his own. There’s a void there for what Jay does.”
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