Book Review: “Behind the Curtain: An Insider’s View of Jay Leno’s Tonight Show”

Jay Leno Tonight Show Book, Behind the Curtain by Dave Berg

Long overdue on my “to read” list was Dave Berg’s “Behind the Curtain: An Insider’s View of Jay Leno’s Tonight Show.” Berg published the book in July 2014, months following Leno signing off as host of the franchise (for the second time). Having served as a co-producer of the show during Leno’s entire run with NBC, the book promised to share interested insight into the behind the scenes aspect of the show.

Though I have never been a religious viewer of late night television, my interest in broadcast media carries over to the inner happenings of late night television, including Leno’s tumultuous circumstances involving David Letterman and Conan O’Brien. And while “Behind the Curtain” does go over those moments near the end of the book, the vast majority of the book pertains to the inner-workings of Leno’s “Tonight Show,” which is exactly what I had been expecting prior to reading it.

Berg goes into the early days of Leno’s “Tonight Show,” how they largely stuck with Johnny Carson’s format and slowly tweaked it to make it more of their own. One of the most interesting parts of the book was where Berg described the process for booking guests and how they meticulously reviewed television ratings (where as Letterman’s “Late Show” team had not, according to Berg), which played a huge factor towards deciding which guests were invited back or not. Going further, Berg described the intricacies when it came to booking hard-to-get guests and the putting up with demanding guests.

As for the details about Leno acquiring the job over Letterman and the entire situation involving Conan, I felt Berg brushed too lightly over some significant happenings, though at the same time, I realize those uncomfortable aspects surrounding his former boss were not the sole point of the book. Berg does a good job at describing how tumultuous things became among “Tonight Show” staff when NBC seemingly came close to giving the show to Letterman in 1993, when Leno was removed the first time as host, during the Leno/Conan debacle and when Leno was removed as host for the second time. As being interested in all of those aspects, I felt I learned some interesting things, including how the overall vibe changed backstage at the “Tonight Show” once Comcast took over NBC. Going back to the Leno/Conan situation, the entire narrative throughout the media at the time centered on how Leno was the bad guy and that Conan was 100% the victim. It was interesting to revisit that time from the point-of-view from Leno’s side.

It is important to remember that the narrative of this book comes from a longtime loyal Leno employee. When discussing Leno vs. Letterman, Leno vs. Conan, Leno vs. Jeff Zucker (NBC President during the Leno/Conan controversy) or Leno vs. Comcast executives, Berg remains loyal to his former boss by continually portraying Leno as the nice guy who is willing to outwork his competitors.

Overall, I highly enjoyed the book. Berg’s storytelling is superb, even for someone like me who did not regularly watch Leno or late night television. Anyone who was a regular fan of Leno or is a regular viewer of late night television, or just has an interested in broadcast media will enjoy this book.

I had devoured David Carter’s “The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy” shortly after it came out in 2011. Next up on my “to read” list is Carter’s original book on late night, “The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night.”

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