A Visit With Former Tonight Show Producer Dave Berg


Q: Why write a book now?
A: Now that The Tonight Show with Jay Leno has run its course, I thought a memoir about this iconic American institution would be interesting for people who watched the show. While the show was running, such a book would not have been appropriate for competitive reasons. But now that the show is over, I thought people would want to know how it got put together, and what it was like to be backstage. I also didn't want television critics and pundits to have the last word about Jay. They favor David Letterman. They've never been kind to Jay, and they've never given him credit for the great comedic genius he is. The Kennedy Center recently announced that Jay will receive its 2014 Mark Twain Prize for American humor. No other late-night host has ever been the recipient of this high honor. But most people don't even know about it because the major critics had no reaction to this story. Can you imagine if Dave had gotten the prize? We'd be hearing about it from now until Dave goes off the air in 2015. By the way, I happen to like Dave. I'm only talking about the critics here.

Q: What is the most surprising thing about Jay Leno that most of us don't know about?
A: I suppose it's no secret that Jay fostered a true family environment at the show, despite all of the tensions and problems we dealt with over the years. But people might not know that after the Northridge earthquake in 1994 staff members received financial help from Jay if they needed it. One person even got a new house. When NBC decided to cut the show's budget by 20 percent in 2013, Jay offered to give up his entire salary--reportedly $30-million--to save jobs. NBC wouldn't let him do it, but he did take a 50 percent pay cut. Jay also insisted that all staffers get a six-month severance when the show ended in February.

Q: How did you get your start in the business?
A: I worked as a farm reporter for television stations in Wichita, Green Bay, Sioux City and Omaha. My colleagues called me "Mr. Moo." I went on to become a news reporter and eventually a writer-producer for the NBC News bureau in Burbank, but I never worked in entertainment before The Tonight Show hired me.

Q: What was your role at the Tonight Show?
A: I was a co-producer. I booked guests and produced their segments.

Q: You must have some amusing stories about guests who were on the show.
A: Actually, my favorite story is about Jay and his legendary expertise about cars. He routinely helped staffers get the best deal on any car, and also diagnosed their cars' mechanical problems and was hardly ever wrong. I once owned a beat-up old van that was stalling one day as I was driving to NBC. By the time I got to the parking lot, the van died. I was upset because I had just spent a lot of money to replace a faulty starter. I would never have imposed on Jay by asking him for help, but he overheard me telling my colleagues about my car problems, and immediately identified the starter as the cause. When I told him I had just put a new one in, he said it was probably a rebuilt starter, which are not always reliable. I dismissed his diagnosis because I was certain my mechanic had told me he put in a new starter. Then he offered to take a look at my van, and immediately took off for the parking lot. As we approached the vehicle, I wondered what Jay would say about my junker, which was sitting next to a Mercedes, a BMW and a late-model SUV, all owned by my colleagues. He took one look at the van and paused. I knew a joke was coming: "Where did you get this piece of sh--? Don't I pay you enough?" He went to work on the van, looking under the hood and poking around the floorboard area on the driver's side. The next thing I noticed were his feet sticking straight up from behind the steering wheel. I wish I had taken a picture. Jay got out of the car and said: "Yeah, it's a bad starter." I paid to have my car towed to the shop, and the next day my mechanic told me he would cover the cost of the tow and the new starter he was installing to replace the defective rebuilt starter he had originally put in. He also asked me if Jay wanted a job at his garage.

Q: What about the time that Vice President Biden mistook a Bush impersonator for the real thing?
A: Sometimes the most unforgettable appearances happened backstage. Biden came to the studio for an appearance as Barack Obama's running mate in his first presidential bid in October 2008. I greeted Biden as he arrived. As I began escorting him to his dressing room, the late Steve Bridges, a comedian who often parodied President Bush on our show, came into view. He was there to appear in a comedy sketch as the president. Fully made up, Bridges looked strikingly similar to Bush. Trouble is, I hadn't yet told Biden about the bit, and he mistook the comedian for the president himself: "g--d--, is that you, George?" he yelled out. Bridges reacted in character: "Well, why wouldn't it be me, Senator Biden?" Still in character, Bridges did an exaggerated laugh, pumping his shoulders up and down, just the way Bush does. Biden loved the performance and couldn't stop talking about it. He even brought it up during his interview with Jay.


Q: Do guests get nervous? Can you share some stories?
A: Stage fright was a common occurrence, even for celebrities. Jesse Jackson had the worst case of it. I never would have guessed this prominent civil rights activist and one-time presidential candidate would be a nervous Nellie. One time he was shaking so hard backstage, he had to hold onto me for support. But when he made his on-camera appearance with Jay, Jackson looked perfectly calm and in control.

Q: What are the most important lessons you learned from doing your job?
A: Since I didn't have a background in entertainment, I never gave much thought to the role humor plays in human relationships. But after working for Jay almost two decades, I learned the true value of a good joke. I believe we seriously need to laugh. It has to do with the old saying that "life is too short." We never think much about that phrase. We just say it and smile. But deep down in our bones we all know that we're not going to get out of this life alive. It's the ultimate irony, and that's why irony is the essence of comedy. I quickly gained a new respect for comedians and comedy writers. These are people who've thought about life, and have tried to figure it out. They've had to. You can't write funny jokes unless you have a consistent point of view, which makes you a philosopher, sometimes a good one.

Q: What is Jay's best characteristic?
A: He's the same guy, no matter what the circumstances. A reporter for GQ magazine once asked him if he could be any of the many engines he owned, which would it be? Jay said it would most likely be his 1866 steam engine: "Steam engines are probably my favorite, because they chug along at the same speed. They don't get too up. They don't get too down." That short answer revealed more about his character and personality than anything else I've ever heard him say. I think it could be his epitaph.

Q: His worst?
A: He has a short attention span. It's probably related to his dyslexia, which he has always been open about. This condition may have been a blessing in disguise for the show. 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, but only 25 or so of the funniest ones made it into the 12-to-14 minute monologue. Since a typical joke was the perfect length for Jay's ability to concentrate, he never got bored with the process of going through hundreds of jokes a day.

Q: Why do you think the heartland took to Leno over Letterman?
A: I believe Jay's true comedic genius was that he was better than any of his competitors at reaching out to his entire audience, especially people in the so-called flyover states where huge numbers of late-night viewers live. After all, The Tonight Show airs at 10:30 pm in the Central Time Zone. People there didn't have to stay up that late to watch the show. Since Jay continued doing stand-up performances throughout the country during his tenure at the show, he stayed in touch with his audience and knew what they liked, including folks in the red states.

Q: Did Jay and Dave personally communicate?
A: Not much. They got together with Oprah Winfrey to make the famous Super Bowl commercial in 2010. And recently they talked on the phone. I have a feeling that at some point before Dave steps down from his hosting job in 2015 that Jay will make an appearance on The Late Show. I'm looking forward to that day because I like happy endings.

Q: What did the Leno era tell us about America in relation to what Carson and Parr told us about their times?
A: I don't know much about Jack Parr, but I do know that Johnny Carson appealed to mainstream America. Narrowcasting wasn't even part of the lexicon then. Jay faithfully carried out that tradition. He was perhaps the last late-night host to do so. Dave's humor appeals primarily to the urban audience and the blue states. And today's late night hosts are deliberately doing comedy bits and performances they know will be watched in segments on YouTube. People are no longer watching the entire Tonight Show. As viewers, we're really no longer one nation. That's a profound change in our culture.

Q: Do you have favorites among the new crop?
A: Jimmy Fallon is my favorite, which surprises even me. I didn't want to like him at first because Jay had to make way for Fallon. But his positive personality and uplifting humor have won me over. As a talented performer he has brought late night to a new level, and he has redefined the genre on his own terms. It's now all about the guests doing performances and comedy sketches. It's no longer about the monologue or the guest interviews. Watching Fallon is almost like watching a mini-version of Saturday Night Live every night. I believe Fallon has already established himself as the new Late-Night King. I also like Kimmel, and I like that he's on the west coast, but I don't know if he can match Fallon. Still, Kimmel's humor is very appealing to many people, and he's now the number two guy in 18-49 viewers. Both Jimmys draw incredible numbers of hits on YouTube. We'll have to see how Stephen Colbert does, once he takes over for Dave. Colbert's humor is more cerebral than the two Jimmys, but I think Colbert will be a niche act at best. A big niche, but still a niche. One thing is certain. The late-night war is far from over, despite the fact that the hosts seem to like each other.

Q: Have any of them called you for help?
A: No one has called me, nor should they. They know what they're doing.

Q: What's next for Jay? Would he ever do a late-night show again?
A: I understand there are a number of suitors out there who want to talk to Jay about various opportunities, but they'll have to wait until his contract with NBCUniversal expires in September. Jay has said that he has come to terms with the idea of moving on from late night, and that there's no way he can recreate something like The Tonight Show. He says he's happy doing stand-up appearances worldwide. But I think Jay's absence from late night has left a real void, which many of us miss. His monologue was his signature contribution to the show. It ran about 14 minutes, and was characterized by a political sensibility unmatched by anyone else in late-night. Today's hosts, Fallon and Kimmel, do essentially obligatory monologues, which run about 5 minutes. Their jokes are mostly about pop culture. Neither one seems to be particularly interested in politics. In fact, I'd say they're apolitical. Fallon and to a lesser extent Kimmel really don't even do actual interviews any more. It's mostly performance and schtick. I like to see people tell actual stories once in a while, as they once did on Leno and continue to do on Letterman. And I don't think I'm the only one who feels that way. I believe many people would love to see Jay return to a show which would allow him to do topical, observational humor and perhaps interview a guest, or maybe even do a round-table discussion. The opportunities aren't as limited as one might think. We're not just talking about a program on the FOX network, CNN or even a syndicated show. There's also new media, such as Fandor, Amazon, Hulu or even Netflix, which just signed Chelsea Handler to do a late-night show.