EW talked to The Late Show executive producer Rob Burnett about David Letterman’s surprising decision to include Jay Leno in a promotional spot during the Super Bowl.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you decide to do this?
ROB BURNETT: Well, the 10 seconds we did with Dave and Oprah for the Super Bowl in 2007 went pretty well and CBS came back and said we got 10 seconds again for this one. Nothing is more simultaneously exhilarating and fear-inducing than hearing you have 10 seconds in the Super Bowl. We were banging heads together. How do we come close to topping the last one? Then Dave got this idea. My first call was to Oprah — she got it right away — and then I called [CBS Corp. Chairman] Les Moonves to make sure he was OK with Jay being on CBS. I have to give Les credit … he got it immediately. And then I called [Leno’s executive producer] Debbie Vickers … who said, ‘Dave and Jay, in the same room?’ She laughed for a good minute and said Jay would want to call. I hung up, and two minutes later it was Jay. He said ‘This is the way show business should be.’ Debbie then cleared it with NBC Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin and NBC-Universal CEO Jeff Zucker.
How did you manage to pull it off without the press catching wind of it?
We began having logistical meetings that would make the CIA proud. We had to figure out a way to keep it a surprise. NBC arranged to have Jay fly on the NBC jet at 7:30 in morning on Feb. 2 and he was at the Teterboro Airport [in New Jersey] at 3:30 p.m. We snuck him through the front door on Broadway. Jay wore a disguise …a hooded sweatshirt, dark sunglasses and a mustache. Fifteen minutes later, Oprah arrived … but not in a disguise. We shot it in the balcony of the Ed Sullivan Theater.
What was it like when Leno and Letterman first saw each other?
It was great, very professional, very cordial. We shot it in 25 minutes, and it went really, really well. It felt like one of those things where you wake up and say, “I had the strangest dream.” There was no frostiness. We were focused on trying to execute the joke. It would have been a more taxing event had it been us all going out to dinner. If anything was awkward, it was how it wasn’t awkward. It’s interesting… there was a lot of internal conversation about whether this was a good thing to be doing from a PR standpoint. Are we rehabilitating Jay’s image? Dave has a simple edict: If it’s funny, we do it. When CBS says it needs 10 seconds, it’s incumbent upon you to do the funniest bit you can do. Then we learned we had another five seconds. That may not sound like a really big deal but let’s face it … that’s someone’s college education [given how much the typical per-second spot goes for during the Super Bowl], so we were really thrilled about that.
You and Dave must have realized you had the potential to upstage the Super Bowl.
Well, that’s not our problem! [He laughs]. I’ve been asked the question more than once about all these advertisers who spent millions of dollars on their ads. My response is: They had a year, millions of dollars, and 30 seconds! We had one week, no money, and 15 seconds. The bottom line is, if you’re a comedian and you have the chance to do something funny in front of 100 million people, you should do it.