The rich, the famous, and the powerful, those on the way up and those on the way down, met at a crossroads known as The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. What the public witnessed each night was a carefully crafted image of what these celebrities and politicos wanted them to see, packaged and sanitized for an audience that was willing to consume the mirage of fame.
But the view behind the curtain was altogether different. This was where the masks were not yet in place, where people's real personas were abundantly clear. Perhaps too clear.
This is the topic of a fascinating new book from Dave Berg, the former producer of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Aptly titled Behind the Curtain, An Insider's View of Jay Leno's Tonight Show, Mr. Berg reveals celebrities and politicos as they really are. It details events that made Howard Stern untrustworthy as a guest, the challenge in dealing with Teri Hatcher's "double personality," and the shock of discovering that Jesse Jackson can suffer from serious stage fright.
Each and every paragraph of this book is filled with valuable gold nuggets polished to enlighten. And nothing is more enlightening than the way people behave when the public isn't watching. It's also refreshing that some personas are exactly the same off camera as they appear on camera. This includes Paula Abdul's ditzy behavior, Dennis Rodman's unpredictability, and Billy Crystal's good humor. But even when revealing these insights, Mr. Berg provides fresh takes, using incidents both big and small, richly detailed.
Berg is also a deft storyteller. You cannot help but laugh when Berg details the crazy trip he took to Nashville to spy on Dennis Rodman to be sure he got to The Tonight Show on time for his appearance. Berg makes you feel the excitement he experienced when he landed the biggest "get" in late night, that being the first interview with a sitting president named Barack Obama. You can feel the exhilaration when he finally convinced John F. Kennedy Jr. to be a guest, and you can experience the angst in the room when Jay Leno was trying to decide on an appropriate time to return to the air after 9/11. The book also details the fight that took place with NBC executives who wanted Leno out long before the public did. It was a smack down that could only be told by someone like Berg, a man who was in the ring.
Berg's book is stuffed with dozens of stories just like these. Many are no bigger than a paragraph but they contain big insights into people and events. Other tales are a chapter long and take the reader on a roller coaster ride.
But it's easy for the media to highlight the stories of those who behave badly while overlooking something far more important, the down-to-earth persona of Jay Leno. Dave Berg describes Jay as a hardworking, loyal man-of-the-people who means what he says and says what he means, a man who puts the audience and his staff first and himself second. Jay stands in stark contrast with the egos with which he had to contend. And Berg credits Jay's common approach as the reason why Mr. Leno was the #1 ratings champ for many, many years, besting David Letterman where it counted most...audience appeal.
And there's another story here that should not get lost, and it's about Dave Berg. Berg, like The Tonight Show, was at the crossroads of where the famous, rich and powerful met. With never before recounted tales of the Bush vs. Gore campaign to Berg's potential role in Sarah Palin's nomination as John McCain's running mate for the Republican party, Berg was not only a witness to history, but he and The Tonight Show helped shape history. As you read of his herculean efforts to get the biggest movie stars, athletes, and politicos, you also learn something about what it takes to be a great producer in this incredibly chaotic business. It requires both aggressiveness and politeness, patience and impatience, the ability to make peace and to go to war, all at the right time and in the right proportion.
In full disclosure, I must admit that I have known Dave Berg for years, but I never knew the full depth of his experience at The Tonight Show, nor the extent of his writing ability...until now. That speaks to his understated, modest persona.
Mr. Berg states in the book that all great shows start with a great idea, but not all great ideas lead to great shows. Mr. Berg's opus is both a great idea and a great book. A must read.