Longtime Leno Producer Says America Would Embrace Conservative Late Night Host
America may be ready for a conservative-leaning late night host, but the networks would never allow it, argues a longtime producer of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno”
“I absolutely think America would welcome a conservative late night host with open arms,” Dave Berg, who worked on Leno’s “Tonight Show” for 18 of the 21 years it was on the air, told The Daily Caller in an interview about his new book, “Behind the Curtain: An Insider’s View of Jay Leno’s Tonight Show.”
“The critics would despise it, which would give it even more credibility,” he continued. “However, you won’t see this show on one of the major networks, with the possible exception of Fox broadcast, but who cares! There are all kinds of possibilities today with new media, including Amazon, Netflix, Fandor and Hulu. Does anyone really care that ‘House of Cards’ is not on a network, but instead is carried by Netflix?” (RELATED: Is Jimmy Kimmel Now The Safest Couch for Conservatives On Late Night Television?)
In his new book, Berg provides details of what happened behind the scenes of Leno’s “Tonight Show,” including what former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin demanded to appear on the show.
“After the [2008 presidential] campaign, she had a book to promote, and wanted to do the show, but it was difficult to work out the logistics because she didn’t like to be away from her family for long periods of time,” Berg explained. “Finally, the only way we could get her to come to Burbank was to book a charter jet from Anchorage for $35,000. The jet was big enough to accommodate all of her family members.”
Despite Palin’s diva-sounding request, Berg said Palin was “a pleasure to work with” and that the $35,000 was “money well spent.” (RELATED: Adam Carolla Explains What It Is Like To Be A Conservative In Hollywood)
“The audience was interested in her, even Democrats,” he said of her appearance.
The one guest Berg says he was unable to book on the “Tonight Show” was Bill Clinton.
“I tried for ten years to get him, which was particularly daunting because we prided ourselves on booking all of the major political figures,” he said. “But I think Mr. Clinton didn’t appreciate Jay’s Monica Lewinsky jokes. The fact that he appeared on Letterman even though he was also doing Lewinsky jokes just confirms for me that Jay’s Lewinsky jokes were better.”
See the rest of TheDC’s interview with Berg about his book, Newt Gingrich and much more below:
What’s the key to a funny political joke?
For Jay, the key was to be an equal opportunity abuser. He did political jokes in the great tradition established by Johnny Carson. Jay went after whoever was in power. He never favored one side over the other, and he never made the jokes personal. He also never went after family members, just the political figures.
Jay never forgot who his audience was, even with political humor. He knew that his viewers were not happy with Obamacare, and that’s why he was doing jokes about it long before his competitors, including David Letterman. In my opinion, that was pretty edgy.
Was Jay a political person? Did he lean more left or right?
Next to cars, politics was Jay’s favorite subject. He did more political humor in his monologue than any other late night host. And he loved having political guests on the show, no matter what party they represented. Almost every major political figure from 1996 forward appeared as a guest, and Jay was very proud of that. In fact, I believe the political sensibility he brought to “The Tonight Show” will be his enduring legacy to late night television.
Jay tried very hard to be evenhanded in his approach to politics. But if you asked him about his political beliefs, he would answer that he was a social liberal and a fiscal conservative.
Now that Jay is gone, who do you think is the most conservative late night show host — or at least, the host most welcoming of conservative politicians and willing to make fun of liberals?
I think the two leading late night hosts, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, are smart enough to know that at least half of their audience is conservative, and they’ve done their fair share of zingers against liberals. Fallon even did “dad dancing” with Chris Christie. I think that appearance alone helped Christie immensely in his efforts to put his tarnished reputation behind him. But honestly, I think both Jimmys are essentially apolitical. They’re more interested in pop culture.
Certainly David Letterman, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert lean left, even though I personally enjoy their humor. I know Colbert is playing a character, but he so heavily invested in that character, I don’t see him becoming evenhanded in his humor when he takes over for Letterman.
Is it imaginable for a late night host to be a political conservative? Could you imagine one of the networks hiring a host who is personally pro-life or against gay marriage?
I absolutely think America would welcome a conservative late night host with open arms. The critics would despise it, which would give it even more credibility. However, you won’t see this show on one of the major networks, with the possible exception of Fox broadcast, but who cares! There are all kinds of possibilities today with new media, including Amazon, Netflix, Fandor and Hulu. Does anyone really care that “House of Cards” is not on a network, but instead is carried by Netflix?
Who was the most difficult guest to book? Who is the one guest you were never able to book?
Sarah Palin was the most difficult guest to book, which is not to say that she was the most difficult guest to work with. She was actually a pleasure to work with. First of all, I wanted to get her when she was presidential candidate John McCain’s running mate. There’s no reason she shouldn’t have come on “The Tonight Show” after her successful debate with Joe Biden. But the McCain campaign wouldn’t allow it, which was a huge mistake, one of many in that campaign.
After the campaign, she had a book to promote, and wanted to do the show, but it was difficult to work out the logistics because she didn’t like to be away from her family for long periods of time. Finally, the only way we could get her to come to Burbank was to book a charter jet from Anchorage for $35,000. The jet was big enough to accommodate all of her family members. It turned out to be money well spent. The audience was interested in her, even Democrats.
The one guest I was never able to book was Bill Clinton. I tried for ten years to get him, which was particularly daunting because we prided ourselves on booking all of the major political figures. But I think Mr. Clinton didn’t appreciate Jay’s Monica Lewinsky jokes. The fact that he appeared on Letterman even though he was also doing Lewinsky jokes just confirms for me that Jay’s Lewinsky jokes were better.
Can you give us an interesting behind-the-scenes story of a politician who appeared on the show? Were any of them particularly demanding or particularly friendly?
Everyone says Newt Gingrich is the smartest guy in the room. I think it’s true in ways that I never anticipated. I first booked him in 1996 when he was leading the Republican charge as the Speaker of the House. He has always had an interest in zoology, so we planned to feature him as an animal expert, along with a newt, a donkey and two piglets (one for Jay and one for Newt).
Before Newt arrived, we did a rehearsal with the animals, so the director could plan camera angles. I stood in for Newt at the rehearsal, which went fairly smoothly, except that Jay’s piglet squealed whenever he picked it up. He told the animal handler to make sure Newt got that piglet. Then he winked, meaning, “Don’t tell Newt about this.”
When we did the show, Newt’s piglet began squealing, as if on cue, while Jay’s piglet remained calm. “It thinks you’re going to eat him, Newt,” Jay said. Then Jay exchanged piglets with Newt, just to show the audience that Newt’s piglet was a squealer by nature, and that the Speaker wasn’t hurting it. But the little porker calmed down as soon as he got into Jay’s arms. I don’t know why that happened, but Jay did have a way with animals. Whatever it was, the audience loved it, and Newt seemed to take it in good stride.
About a year later, the Speaker returned to appear on the show again. When I welcomed him back, he looked me straight in the eye, and said: “You sabotaged me.” I had no idea what he was talking about until he reminded me: “You deliberately gave me that squealing pig,” he said.
I was stunned that he knew he had been set up, and that he cared a year later. At first I tried to deny that we were guilty as charged, but then I owned up to it. Much to my surprise, Newt wasn’t really upset about it. He was just letting me know that no one puts one over on “Newt Gingrich.”
As a rule, I found the political figures much easier to work with than entertainers. They rarely imposed conditions on interviews, and were the least demanding of all the guests. And they always seemed happy to be there. For many actors, “The Tonight Show” was just another stop.
What is the funniest story you have from your years working with Jay?
As you might expect, this story has to do with Jay’s legendary knowledge about cars. 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 be asking him for help, but he overheard me telling me colleagues about my car’s problems.
He 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, and they’re not always reliable. I dismissed his diagnosis because I was certain my mechanic had told me he had put in a new starter. Then Jay offered to take a look at my van, and immediately took off for the parking lot. I wondered what he 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: “When 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. 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.