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Gretna 2014

Copyright © 2014

By Dave Berg

All rights reserved

The word “Pelican” and the depiction of a pelican are

trademarks of Pelican Publishing Company, Inc., and are

registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Berg, Dave, 1948-

Behind the curtain : an insider’s view of Jay Leno’s Tonight show / by Dave Berg ; foreword by Jay Leno.

pages cm

ISBN 978-1-4556-1996-2 (hardcover) — ISBN 978-1-4556-1997-9 (e-book) 1. Tonight show (Television program) 2. Celebrities—Anecdotes. I. Title.

PN1992.77.T63B47 2014



Print version printed in the United States of America

Published by Pelican Publishing Company, Inc.

1000 Burmaster Street, Gretna, Louisiana 70053

For Beverly Berg, my mom (1924-2012)

Thank you for teaching me to appreciate

the wondrous art of storytelling.



Chapter One: James Douglas Muir “Jay” Leno

Chapter Two: Funny Is Funny

Chapter Three: The Dangerous Art of Booking Guests

Chapter Four: Guests

Chapter Five: The Real Reality Show

Chapter Six: Gets I Didn’t Get

Chapter Seven: Spying on Dennis Rodman in Nashville

Chapter Eight: John F. Kennedy Jr., the Favorite Guest

Chapter Nine: Mr. Sitting President

Chapter Ten: Political Moments

Chapter Eleven: News People

Chapter Twelve: Sports Greats

Chapter Thirteen: The Audience

Chapter Fourteen: Jay Leno’s Garage

Chapter Fifteen: Trying Times

Chapter Sixteen: The Future



I met Dave Berg the day we hired him as a segment producer for
The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,
which would soon be debuting. He was nervous that he wouldn’t fit in because he had no experience in show business. He had been a journalist for NBC News.

I told him not to worry and that we were actually looking for someone who had worked in news. In general, we were seeking out people with diverse backgrounds. I’m not sure that made him feel better, but it was true.

We wanted to bring a little more variety to
The Tonight Show’s
lineup of guests. The show was known for its popular entertainers, but we were hoping to add more journalists, commentators, politicos, and others to the mix. We assigned Dave to help us book and produce the segments that would feature some of those guests. As a veteran journalist, he had worked with them.

But it would take a while for Dave to feel comfortable in his new gig. The lead guest on our first show was Billy Crystal, who was very funny. The second guest was Dave’s responsibility. He was an economics reporter who had anecdotes about Alan Greenspan, then chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. He didn’t exactly kill after Billy’s performance.

It was a rough start for Dave, but eventually he would get the idea. During his eighteen years with the show, he booked some of our most memorable guests, including Barack Obama
, the first sitting president ever to do a late-night show.

Dave was passionate about politics, an interest that goes back to his days as a news producer. As time went on, he encouraged us to get more and more politicians, both Democrats and Republicans. He was always professional while working with the guests. None of them had any idea about his political views—or mine, for that matter.

Among his colleagues at the show, though, he made it very clear where he stood politically. He was a conservative and was very vocal about his beliefs. I didn’t always agree with him, and we had many spirited discussions, which I really enjoyed. Sometimes I shared his opinion but would play devil’s advocate just to get him going. It was great fun.

Dave wasn’t the only conservative at the show. He was joined by other Republican and Libertarian writers. We also had our share of liberal writers, including a former Democratic speechwriter. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I think our friendly disagreements helped us relate to our viewing audience, which held a wide spectrum of political views.

On the pages that follow, Dave has written about his experiences at the show as well as his thoughts about what it all meant. To be honest, I haven’t read it. I’ll read it when everyone else does. Who knows, I might even disagree with some of his points. It wouldn’t be the first time.

But I trust Dave, and I’m certain he’ll do right by the show. We both grew up watching Johnny Carson. Being part of
The Tonight Show,
one of television’s few icons, meant something to me, and I know it did to Dave, as well.

Jay Leno

Burbank, Ca.

Chapter One

James Douglas Muir
“Jay” Leno

In all my years at
The Tonight Show,
Jay Leno never raised his voice to me or anyone else. He was generous, fair and loyal. And, of course, he was always good for a joke—no matter what the circumstances. Did he have a big ego? Of course. So does every prominent person in show business, politics, sports, business, religion—you name it. But ego is not what drives Jay Leno.

What drives—and defines—Jay is an amazingly short attention span. It’s about ten seconds long. Thirty seconds, tops. He’s very intelligent and professionally successful but is simply incapable of paying attention for a long period of time; he gets fidgety and can’t sit still. One knee is constantly bouncing up and down to a staccato rhythm. I believe this is because he has some form of ADHD. I don’t claim to be an expert on the condition, but I’m very familiar with its symptoms. Many people in show business have it.

Jay’s condition—whatever it is—affects almost everything he does. It may have even been a blessing in disguise for the show. Whenever I had to brief Jay or pitch an idea to him, I had to keep it short or risk the danger of losing his attention and not getting it back. This was good because I often tell long, meandering stories. With Jay I had no choice but to stay on topic and keep it simple.

His restlessness was perfect for the monologue. Each joke was short enough to keep his attention but long enough to keep him challenged to the point of obsession. He and his writers turned out hundreds of jokes daily, up to as many as 1,500, but only the twenty-five or so funniest ones made it into the twelve-minute monologue. The strategy was to keep throwing pasta on the wall until some of it stuck.

Consistently delivering relevant and funny jokes was a relentless, demanding, and tireless task, although Jay never looked at it that way. Whenever someone asked him how he was able to do it, he would say: “Write joke. Tell joke. Get paid.” Of course, his answer was a joke in itself that always got a laugh because, obviously, there was more to it than that. But in a way, his glib answer was true. He did his job by making it into a routine.

Jay usually began crafting his monologue at his home in Beverly Hills the night before a show. While his approach appeared to be casual and relaxed, it was actually quite regimented. In fact, it was the same almost every night. He wanted it that way so nothing interfered with his job.

A typical day for Jay actually began in the evening. Driving himself, he would leave the NBC lot after the show, usually about 6 p.m., and head for his home in Beverly Hills, where he would heat up lasagna for dinner. Then he would begin the work of putting the next day’s monologue together by reading
through hundreds of jokes. When he had enough material for at least half the monologue, he would go to bed, usually about 2:00 a.m., and get up the next morning about 6:00.

After arriving at the studio around 8:15, often before anyone else, he would work out with a trainer—usually with little enthusiasm. Then he and his head writer would go over the jokes that came in from the writers overnight. Jay’s search for material would continue off and on throughout the day until show time at 4 p.m. He would try out jokes on as many people as possible. Anyone caught near his office, where the door was usually open, was fair game.

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