For decades, The Tonight Show has served as a barometer for the country. Johnny Carson’s monologue was used to skewer politicians and celebrities every night. Appearing on The Tonight Show was the pinnacle of national celebrity.
When Jay Leno succeeded Carson in 1992, he not only had big shoes to fill, but also had increased competition that Carson never faced. While David Letterman, the host of Late Night left NBC for CBS after being denied The Tonight Show position, other talk show hosts like Arsenio Hall hit the airwaves.
Dave Berg, one of Leno’s top producers, chronicles this transition and Leno’s rise to ratings dominance in his entertaining and informative new book, Behind the Curtain: An Insider’s View of Jay Leno’s Tonight Show [Pelican Publishing, 2014]. Berg describes himself as the “token conservative” on the production staff. Unlike his colleagues, Berg had a background in news production rather than entertainment.
Behind the Curtain begins with a chapter about Jay Leno (who also wrote the book’s Foreword). Leno is described as a hardworking boss who rarely took time off, who battled to overcome dyslexia, and only lived off income he earned as a stand-up comedian. Subsequent chapters cover the delicate art of booking high-profile guests, the guests he could not book, and the interview with President Obama, the first by a sitting president on a late-night talk show.
Like many Hollywood memoirs the author is happy to dish about personality quirks of the many guests that have sat in the guest chair. Berg nicknamed actress Teri Hatcher “Teri One” and “Teri Two.” Teri One was sweet. Teri Two would call Berg the night before her appearance and scream at him for not planning a better segment. Flamboyant Chicago Bulls star Dennis Rodman was late for nearly every appearance on The Tonight Show. Berg had to arrange for a helicopter to be standing by in case he was in danger of missing his interview.
[Disclosure: Shirley & Banister Public Afairs, the firm that employs this writer, worked with Dave Berg while he was a producer of The Tonight Show]
When Berg began working for The Tonight Show in 1992, he wanted to book Bill Clinton as a guest. Helen Kushnick, the executive producer vetoed the idea because Clinton was viewed as a longshot candidate. Several months later, Clinton played the saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show and gained huge ratings.