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.
After Bill Clinton became President, and even after he left the White House, Berg could not get him to appear on the show. His sources close to Clinton said it was because of Leno’s endless stream of Monica Lewinsky jokes in his nightly monologue.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, did appear on the show during her 2000 campaign for the U.S. Senate. She made it clear there was one subject she would not discuss: baseball. She had previously professed her allegiance to the Chicago Cubs, but was now trying to curry favor with New York Yankee fans.
Berg is frank about which candidates helped their cause by appearing on the show and which ones could not pull it off. Despite being a conservative, Berg reveals that his favorite guest was a famous Democrat and he had a good working relationship with liberal comedian Bill Maher.
As a news producer, Berg enjoyed booking journalists and commentators. They are, according to the author, “natural story tellers.” Berg eagerly wanted to book Rush Limbaugh on the show. His colleagues balked calling him “too polarizing, too bigoted.” Berg notes that the rest of the staff never listened to Limbaugh’s show. They relied on the opinions of those in the mainstream media.
It was not easy to land Limbaugh. He viewed Leno as part of the mainstream media. Roger Ailes, the producer of Limbaugh’s short-lived television show who would go on to launch FOX News Channel, urged him to appear. The interview generated a great deal of coverage, and encouraged the producers to book guests with whom they disagreed.
Berg gives a sober account of the ill-conceived decision to move Jay Leno to primetime, and to install Conan O’Brien as the host of The Tonight Show, only to have Leno return several months later.
There is a chapter on Jay Leno’s classic car collection, which can be skipped by those who are only looking for behind-the-scenes stories on entertainment.
Behind the Curtain is an excellent insider’s account. The reader gets the sense that Berg gained satisfaction from his work. He enjoyed working with celebrities, but does not seem to envy their lifestyle.
Berg concludes the acknowledgments with: “I have to say Amen to God for showering me with blessings beyond belief. May any good that comes from this book be to His glory.” He clearly had a substantial impact in Hollywood without selling his soul.