Monday, May 08, 2006

Late Night Wars

The whole Leno vs. Letterman debate is really a non-issue nowadays. Pretty much everyone in California and New York under the age of 40 agrees that Letterman is better, edgier and cooler. Everyone else in the known universe thinks Jay Leno is "such a nice man." In other words, in the "War of the Funny" Letterman wins but in the "Nice Guy Department" Leno is clearly the victor.

I agree with that assesment 100%.

I always have a little arguement with myself when I am thinking of writing about a celebrity encounter. I CANNOT STAND name droppers and I fear I will sound like one. On the other hand, this is my job. This is what I do. I don't brag about being buddies or playing golf with them (I don't). I am just relaying what am I experiencing.


I have been a huge Letterman fan for as long as I can remember. At 4 or 5 my grandfather gave me a T.V. for my birthday and that was it - I could "go to bed" anytime my parents made me. I had my own entertainment.

I am always amazed that as a 35 year old, workaholic father of two I have to be in bed by 10pm or I cannot function the next day. I went to bed at 12:30AM last night and literally fell asleep while driving to work this morning. How then, from the age of 10 to 23 did I watch Johnny Carson at 11:30 and Letterman at 12:30 every night and still be in homeroom by 7:45am.

But I digress...

I was a Letterman superfan. I saw his NBC show live in the studio audience 7 times - and those are all stories in and of themselves. I wasn't until 1998 that I met him. Well, I officially was introduced to him but I hardly "met" him.

I was working for MTV at the time and we were getting ready to launch our brand new Times Square Studios. Taking a cue from then-Major Guliani's clean up of NYC we wrapped the entire building in a huge yellow banner that read, "Time Square's Last Peep Show." See our studios were made of windows so...well, you get it.

I was on a pretty good streak at work and was getting my choice of some very cool projects so I jumped at the chance to produce a promo teasing the debut of our new studios...featuring David Letterman.

Well, I didn't actually jump, because I was on crutches with a broken foot. More on that later.

We came up with a concept. Shoot Dave against a green screen Godzilla style and then composite it with other footage I would shoot to make it look like a 500 foot tall Letterman marches down Broadway from his studio to ours and knocks on the windows, smiling that famous gap toothed grin.

The Letterman people agreed to the concept. Or so I thought.

I hobbled (remember the crutches) into the Ed Sullivan Theater and was escorted down two flights to the control room. There I sat, next to the Assistant Director, and watched my favorite show from the control room. It was a dream come true and it solidified in my mind where I want to end up in television - Executive Producing a late night comedy/variety show.

But again I digress...

The show ended and Dave went backstage to change into "something more comfortable." I remained downstairs in the control room and explained the concept to the director, Jerry. Everyone was on board. It would take 5 minutes tops.

Moments later Letterman strolled back onto the set and stood infront of the giant green screen the grips erected in his absence. I watched on the control monitors as the E.P., Rob Burnett, approached Dave. I read Rob's lips as I watched him convey the concept to Dave. Why was it taking so long?

Then a voice came over the P.A., "Dave wants the producer." My heart raced. I was going to meet Letterman. He was asking for me! My first clue should have been when everyone in the control turned to me and said, "OOOOOooooooo. You've been...summoned."

I hobbled back up two flights of steps, one hop at a time and made my way to the stage. I had never been in the Ed Sullivan Theater and I was suprised how much bigger it felt compared to his old Rock address. Standing center stage was Letterman and Burnett. I "crutched" my way over. I shook Rob's hand. Letterman's were in his pockets so I kept it to a hello and my name.

"So what are we doing here?" Rob asked. I turned to address he and Dave.

"Well, what I would like to do Mr. Letterman is have you walk in front of the screen like Godzilla, bend down into the camera lense and knock on it like you are knocking on the studio glass. That's it."

This is where one of the most surreal experiences of my professional life began. Rob turned 3 inches to Dave and said, "What he would like to do is have you walk in front of the screen like Godzilla, bend down into the camera lense and knock on it like you are knocking on the studio glass. "

Keep in mind the three of us were standing in a triangle about two feet away from each other. Oh! That's funny. The comedy writer/EP is acting like a translator. Letterman is so clever. I laughed and addressed Dave again.

"It should only take a minute," I said.

Sure as shit Burnett turned to Dave and said, "He says it should only take a minute."

What the fuck was going on here? Was Letterman actually ignoring I even existed? Dave, never meeting my eyes turned to Burnett and said, "Tell him I want to work the dog into the bit."

Sure as shit Burnett turned to me and said, "Dave - "

I interrupted, "- would like to put the dog in it?" The look on face was like, 'Oh my God. THIS KID READS MINDS!!!' He was probably mentally slotting me in for a Stupid Human Tricks segment.

So basically I stood two feet from Letterman but never spoke to him directly and he never answered me directly. It takes a lot to phase me but I was crushed.

To make matters worse, I edited the piece all night, rushed back to the office in a cab, the cab driver fell asleep and plowed into a parked car, I jumped out and while crossing the street a van missed hitting me by inches and knocked one of my crutches half way down Broadway. On top of that MTV hated the promo and it never aired. Not one of my best days.

Flash forward to 2003. I am now the Executive Producer of "On Air with Ryan Seacrest" and his defacto head writer. When I first got to LA I was living alone while Krissy and Ella were back east so I basically went everywhere Ryan went, wrote jokes for all of his interviews and appearences etc.

One day Ryan was scheduled to appear on Leno, where he was a frequent contributor, and he asked me to come along. Sure, why not?

Ryan and I were in a dressing room backstage when I saw Leno pass by in his trademark jeans and denim shirt. A few moments later he reappeared in the dressing room door in his suit and greeted Ryan warmly. He then turned to me, "Hey pal, I'm Jay."

Was he actually talking to me? Directly to me? I shook his hand and the three of us talked for about 10 minutes. I watched the show from the wings, found it incredibly unfunny but I mentally forgave him because I was still impressed with what a nice guy he was.

Flash forward to 2006. I am now the Executive Producer of the "Chelsea Handler Show." Chelsea is scheduled to appear on Leno and asks me to come along, write some jokes etc.

We got backstage (to the same exact dressing room Ryan had three years earlier). Chelsea and I ate and drank, killing time, when Jay appeared in the door way. "Hey Chelse!" Hugs were exchanged. Jay turned to me, (2 FOR 2!), "Hey pal, I'm Jay."

For the next half hour, Chelsea, Jay and I sat in her dressing room and talked. We talked about her show, about stand-up, about what networks were good to work for, and general b.s. It was completely comfortable and natural and I quickly forgot I was talking to the host of the "Tonight Show." After the show he came back and hung out for another 10 minutes.

As Chelsea and I drove home I played the scene over in my head and compared it my Letterman experience years earlier. I turned to Chelsea but stopped mid thought. "What?" she asked?

"Well, I was about to say that I was pleasantly surprised that Jay talked to me like an equal - but I realized, that IS how he should talk to he should talk to everyone." Chelsea smiled.

I still watch Letterman every night but on a whole other plane, based on a whole different set of criteria, Jay Leno truly won my Late Night war.


CJ Fish said...

Isn't it obvious Letterman was a hologram and Rob had a direct communication link to Dave's frozen lair near the South Pole?

Adam Freeman said...

You know, you might be right.