Dave Berg is the author of Behind the Curtain: An Insider’s View of Jay Leno’s Tonight Show (Pelican Publishing Company, Incorporated, $24.95) and has served as a writer and co-producer for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Jay Leno Show, The O'Reilly Factor, and NBC News. A former reporter, anchor, executive producer, and bureau chief for local and network news, he has written for numerous publications, including Reader's Digest, National Review, Christianity Today, The Washington Times, The Daily Caller, and Crisis Magazine. He holds BA in political science from Northwestern University and an MS in journalism from Kansas State University. Mr. Berg makes his home in Valencia, California.
Behind the Curtain was published last month. Gene Del Vecchio of The Huffington Post praised, “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.” Further, Bill Maher noted, “The fact that Dave Berg’s politics were mostly the opposite of mine and yet he never let that affect the encouragement of my comedy on the Tonight Show is reason enough to recommend this book. The other is, when I was asked for a blurb, I requested a chapter to read, and after that wanted to read the whole book. Because Jay Leno is somehow Everyman and simultaneously the most idiosyncratic guy in the world and Dave Berg tells you how.”
From the publisher:
Jay Leno's Tonight Show comes alive in this book by insider Dave Berg, who spent 18 years as Jay's co-producer. There were always two shows: the one on stage and the one behind the curtain. This narrative weaves both together, featuring the show's most legendary moments, including Hugh Grant's game-changing mea culpa, Arnold Schwarzenegger's shocking political announcement, and the historic booking of Barack Obama as the first sitting president ever to do a late-night show. But it doesn't stop there. Every page is full of zany, wacky and serious moments with celebrities, political and sports figures at The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Foreword by Jay Leno and endorsements by Laura Bush, Bill O'Reilly, Bill Maher, Gary Sinise, James Carville & Mary Matalin, Larry the Cable Guy and more.
Now, Dave Berg takes readers Behind the Curtain …
1) What inspired you to write BEHIND THE CURTAIN – and what do you hope the book might contribute to Jay Leno’s legacy?
I thought a memoir about the iconic Tonight Show, now in its 60th year on NBC, during the tenure of its brilliant, everyman host, Jay Leno, would be interesting for the people who watched the show. A book like this by an insider has never been written. People know more about what happens in the CIA and a presidential administration than they do about what goes on backstage at The Tonight Show.
I also didn’t want television critics and pundits to have the last word about Jay. They’ve always favored David Letterman, and have never given Jay the credit for the comedic genius he is. The Kennedy Center recently announced that Jay will receive its 2014 Mark Twain Prize for American humor. No other late-night host has ever been the recipient of this high honor, but most people don’t even know about it because the major critics had no reaction to this story.
2) Tell us about the role of co-producer on The Tonight Show. What were your responsibilities-and how did those experiences provide you with a unique perspective from which to offer a memoir?
The duties of a “producer” in Hollywood are often very nebulous. A producer credit on a television show or a film is sometimes given to the boyfriend or girlfriend of a star. But at The Tonight Show, a producer booked and was in charge of the segments of the show’s guests. The producer would work with Jay to come up with questions and ideas for the segments.
I took part in meetings to come up with guest ideas for our shows, and was often involved in coming up with ideas for comedic bits. My colleagues and I briefed Jay every day about the show’s rundown, while having lunch with him. We also brainstormed with the guests about ideas for their upcoming appearances. I was either a participant or an eyewitness to almost every major event that happened on Jay’s watch at the show.
3) You relive both the highs and lows of the show. How did you endeavor to balance candor with discretion – and what was Mr. Leno’s response when he heard that you intended to write a book?
First and foremost, I was adamant that I didn’t want this book to be a tell-all full of celebrity gossip. I have no interest in badmouthing celebrities. There are plenty of tabloids already doing that. Besides, I count many of the guests who appeared on the show as my friends. Next to Jay and the band, they were the most important part of the show.
I wanted the book to read like a memoir similar to that of a former presidential press secretary writing about the administration. I am unabashedly a Jay Leno fan, and I have enormous respect for The Tonight Show. However, everything that happened at the show wasn’t peachy keen, and I didn’t want to suggest that it was. I’ve tried to be fairly forthright about the challenges we faced without being too judgmental of the people who were responsible for those challenges.
Jay had mixed feelings when I told him I was writing a book about his watch on The Tonight Show. I understood that because I had mixed feelings, as well. First of all, it’s not his book. It’s my book, written from my point of view, but there’s always a danger that people will assume that what I’m saying is coming from Jay, which is definitely not the case.
Eventually, Jay was kind enough to write the foreword, which I’m very proud of. Jay has his own take on the show, and I hope someday he will write his own book about it, but for now the only book out there covering the Jay Leno years is mine.
4) You have a background in journalism and extensive writing credits. How did those serve you throughout the creative process – and did you find it more challenging to write a full-length book or was it merely an extension of your earlier works?
Having a background in journalism was very helpful, both in producing the show and in writing the book. As a journalist I had been conditioned to check and re-check the facts and accuracy of my stories. When I worked with guests on the show, I tried to apply the same standards to the stories and anecdotes they told. There’s an old satirical saying that you should never let the facts get in the way of a good story.
I always believed that the facts mattered, even when you’re telling entertaining anecdotes on The Tonight Show. You can imagine how that went over with some of the actors who appeared as guests. I did find it interesting that some of the best, and even funniest, guests were journalists and commentators. They know how to tell a good story with a beginning, a middle and an end.
When I wrote the book, I approached each chapter as if it were just a longer opinion piece of which I have written many. As always, I wanted to be as factually correct as possible, but I also wanted to be fun and interesting. I tried to make each chapter read like a narrative. Of course, a book isn’t just a longer opinion piece, and it took me a while to get the hang of it. I re-wrote each chapter at least five times. One was re-written 20 times.
5) In looking back, what would you say is both your greatest achievement and your greatest regret throughout your tenure at the show – and how did writing BEHIND THE CURTAIN influence your opinion, if at all?
I think my greatest achievement is that I was able to see my vision for the show come to life. I believed that Jay brought a greater political sensibility and topicality to the monologue than Johnny had, and that the guest bookings should reflect that sensibility. Overall, we achieved those goals by booking more political figures, news commentators, star athletes and news makers. We essentially booked every major presidential candidate from 1996 going forward.
My greatest regret is that I didn’t enjoy it more while it was happening. You’re always focusing on the most pressing details at the moment. I wish I had been able to sit back and just take in the big picture. But when you’re in the picture, you can’t see it. Writing the book helped me to not only see the picture, but also to analyze it.
With thanks to David Berg for so generously sharing of his reflections and to Jessica Quinn of Jessica Quinn Public Relations for facilitating this interview.