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Jay Leno Producer David Berg Visits Regent

By Amanda Morad | August 7, 2014

Dave Berg, former co-producer of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno
Photo by Tim Kay

Though Regent University's School of Communication & the Arts has brought in its share of esteemed guests working in film and television, not many have been able to give students an inside look at the fast-paced world of late night talk shows.

Dave Berg, former producer on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, visited campus on Wednesday, July 30, as he began promotion for his book, "Behind the Curtain: An Insider's View of Jay Leno's Tonight Show."

"When I went to The Tonight Show, I had no background in entertainment," he said. Eighteen years later, he's become an expert. "The truth resonates better than anything else," he said. "The goal of the show was to reflect the culture. ... We went out of our way to test and research jokes based on relevant culture."

Berg shared with students and faculty in attendance about his most cherished and challenging moments as a producer.

"My favorite guest was John F. Kennedy Jr.," Berg said. "Took me six years to get him, but he represented American royalty better than any other figure of our time."

At the other end of the spectrum was NBA Hall of Famer, Dennis Rodman. Though Berg is a fan and a friend of Rodman (he devotes an entire chapter of Behind the Curtain to Rodman), getting the sports and culture icon to his 50-plus appearances on time was always a challenge.

"Actors were always harder to work with because they're used to being someone else on camera; they're not used to 'playing' themselves," he noted. "I loved booking news reporters and political commentators because there's a comedian in those guys just dying to get out."

In his role as co-producer, Berg thoroughly researched each guest, then spent time with them in pre-interviews and in the green room before shows. Sometimes, he had the happy experience of being impressed by the faith commitment of a guest and even got to pray with a few.

"Garth Brooks always prayed before he went on with Jay," Berg recalled. "He was invited back many times and was the last guest of the last show Jay did."

As a Christian working in a very secular arena, Berg said he "tried not to rant, but show by example" what he stood for. "I tried to be an encouragement to other Christians I worked with," Berg said. "That was a big part of the job, lifting each other up."

His faith was certainly not the norm for co-workers, but Berg said he was never made to feel ostracized because of it.

"It was a privilege to work in a secular place where my beliefs were respected," Berg said. "It was a rare opportunity I deeply appreciated."

Berg praised Leno's character both on and off camera. "We truly worked in a family environment," he said. He also noted Leno's generosity, explaining that when the network demanded cutbacks and layoffs, Leno took a 50 percent pay cut for the sake of the staff.

Leno had an illustrious career in late night television, and Berg had a ringside seat for most of it. "What distinguished Jay's career in late night was his move into politics," Berg explained. "He always welcomed political conversation across the spectrum."

Leno had the first sitting president on late night television with Barack Obama (2013) and had every major presidential candidate on the show since 1996.

After 18 years, Berg nearly perfected the art of getting the right guest on the show at the right time. "We took the role of being a mainstream show very seriously," Berg said. "We looked at overnight analysis every morning and we treated it like a true business. ... Jay's motto was 'the customer comes first.' He didn't think of himself as an artist, though he is; he thought of himself as a salesman."

As the discussion concluded, Berg offered advice to students interested in television production.

"It's very important that before you go into the world, know who you are and know what you believe, because you will be challenged," he said. "And once you get into media, don't hide behind your faith. Be a consummate professional."

Learn more about the School of Communication & the Arts.


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