Former ‘Tonight Show’ producer writing book about life behind the scenes06-15-2012 11:49 am
If not for divine intervention — and a persistent wife — Dave Berg wouldn’t be where he is today.
Thanks to both, the Chicago native spent 18 years as a writer and producer for “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and “The Jay Leno Show.”
Now he’s writing a book about life behind the scenes of the show that has been a late-night tradition for more than 50 years.
The show that shined a light on entertainers, politicians and even the common man.
The show that, at least among Northeast Nebraskans, is still associated with the late Johnny Carson, the Norfolk native who hosted it for 30 years.
Berg arrived in Norfolk on Thursday from Valencia, Calif., to participate in the Viaero Great American Comedy Festival, which continues through Sunday. Berg will be the featured guest of a question-and-answer session on Saturday, June 16, at 2 p.m. at the Norfolk Arts Center.
Berg talks about Carson with the same reverence and respect that most entertainers do. And although Berg never worked with Carson, he and others associated with “Tonight Show” always felt his presence.
“He cast a long shadow,” Berg said. “You hear about competition among late-night hosts . . . we were competing with Johnny’s memory and the high standards he set.”
Even though Carson has been gone from the show for 20 years, people still want to talk and read about him. In fact, Berg said he recently pitched an opinion piece about the show to a number of publications and was turned down by some — even though this is Leno’s 20th anniversary of hosting the show.
That’s because the big story, Berg said, isn’t that it’s Leno’s anniversary. The story is that it’s been 20 years since Carson was on the show.
Despite his humble beginnings, Carson influenced the entertainment world like few others. And he expected the best from his guests.
“Once they got their suit pressed, they wouldn’t sit down because they didn’t want to wrinkle their suits,” Berg said.
Their work reflected that attitude, too, he added.
“I always knew if I worked with a guest who worked with Johnny, their segments would be good,” Berg said.
Working as a producer on a late-night talk show was about the last thing Berg expected to do with his life.
With a bachelor’s degree in political science from Northwestern University in Chicago and a master’s degree in journalism from Kansas State University in hand, Berg pursued a career in broadcasting with the goal of working for NBC News.
Stints as a reporter, anchor and producer for various news organizations took him around the Midwest and eventually landed him in Los Angeles where he set up the CNBC bureau there.
Then one day in 1992, he was fired.
Only then did he realize that the new office “The Tonight Show” was just down the hall from his, he said. His wife, Mary, “suggested” that he go down and apply for a job.
“I knew all about ‘The Tonight Show.’ I had seen Johnny pulling up in his Corvette . . . but I was a journalist. I had done assignments for the Today Show and the Nightly News. I don’t do entertainment . . . ,” he told his wife.
After some gentle persuading, Berg gave in.
“I finally said, ‘OK, fine.’ Two hours later, she called and said, ‘Have you been down there yet?’ ”
Berg made the walk down the hall late that afternoon and was the last person to apply for a position that was going to close five minutes later.
That same day, he talked to the show’s producer and the next day talked to Leno. It seems Leno wanted someone with news experience to book politicians and newsmakers outside the entertainment world. Berg was hired and went on to spend 18 years as a writer and producer for the show.
He credits divine intervention for opening the door.
“I had my entire church praying for me,” he said. One friend in particular prayed that he “would not lose any income.”
It so happens that the starting wage with “The Tonight Show” was within $5 a week of what he was making at NBC News.
Berg quickly learned that producing an entertainment show was not always fun and games.
“I thought it wouldn’t be as intense,” he said. “But it’s still a high pressure business, and at the end of the day, you have to put out a show. It was not acceptable to have B-grade jokes or B-grade guests. It was not an option to do an OK job.”
While Berg booked hundreds of notable guests, he’s pleased to have been the first person to book a sitting president to a late-night show.
“The process started when (President) Obama was just a senator. Five years later, he appeared on the show,” Berg said. “That was one of my biggest accomplishments.”
Berg left “The Tonight Show” two years ago and is now focused on writing the book and doing other writing and producing.
Although it’s not a “tell-all,” it will have personal stories, he said. It will also look at how guests are chosen and booked, how the monologue is developed and much more. At this point, Berg doesn’t know when it will be released as he is still looking for a publisher.
After spending a few days in Norfolk, visiting Johnny Carson Theatre and other Carson-related facilities, he may have enough material to fill a chapter in his book.
After all, Berg considers Carson “one of the greatest performers the country has produced” who deserves respect and recognition.
“If they can name the Burbank airport after Bob Hope, they can name LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) after Johnny,” he said.