Making The Laughs Last
Latenight comedy may look like easy, but the Tufts graduate behindthe “Late Show with David Letterman” says findingthe formula for success requires a lot of work.NewYork City
Medford/Somerville, Mass. [10.18.04] Late night comedy shows may looklike a bunch of laughs, but the process of creating a funny showevery night is a lot harder than it looks. After 19 years in thebusiness, Tufts graduate Rob Burnett has learned that the secretis finding the right host and huge amounts of planning and hardwork.
“Atone end of the day, it all relies on the person behind the desk,”Burnett, the executive producer of the “Late Show with DavidLetterman” told National Public Radio’s (NPR) MorningEdition. “You’ll quickly learn, if you’re doingthis night in and night out, it’s very difficult to maintainthat level of energy and intensity that’s necessary to keepthis giant ship moving forward.”
Since joining“Late Show” in 1985 – the year after he graduatedfrom Tufts – Burnett has risen through the ranks. Duringhis tenure, he helped the comedy show win 5 Emmys for “OutstandingVariety Music or Comedy Series.”
Acceptingthe awards is easy. But creating a show that people like requiresmore than a formula.
“[Whenpeople in the TV business try to launch a late night show] theygo out and they get themselves the talk-show starter kit, youknow, where you get a big box and you open it up and 12 guys fromHarvard run out and make bad coffee and sit around a table andstart writing comedy,” Burnett told NPR. “And thenyou get the talent department who starts booking all the guests,and before you know it, you have this little infrastructure ofa show.”
But infrastructuredoesn’t produce laughs. The host does.
“Listeningis everything. I mean, that’s the first piece of adviceI would give anyone trying to host one of these shows,”Burnett said. “You can almost always see when new peoplestart, especially if they’re comics, sitting back, waitingto get in a punch line or a joke or trying to find something theycan pounce on.”
Hosts alsostruggle with their focus.
“Iremember hearing some kind of quote [from a host] before his showstarted up about how you know, ‘Oh it’s going to begreat. I’m going to go do the show but I’m still goingto do movies.’ ‘I’ll be able to keep my seatsat the Knicks’ game’ or something” Burnett said.“And the minute I heard that, I knew [the show] was notgoing to work.”
Ultimately,Burnett says, a good host just has an intangible quality thatmakes him a late night star.
“That’sa certain kind of quality that someone like Johnny Carson hadin spades,” Burnett told NPR. “I think Dave, thoughhe is a little bit more caustic than Johnny, has that.”