Wednesday night will mark the end of an era for late-night TV: The David Letterman Decades.
But as Dave waves goodbye after 33 years on TV, so will his executive producer, former head writer, production company president, CEO and longtime collaborator. By the way, those are all the same guy: Rob Burnett.
Burnett began his career with Letterman in 1985 as a 22-year-old intern. In 1988, he joined the writing staff of “Late Night with David Letterman,” becoming head writer four years later. He moved with Letterman from NBC to CBS, where he continued as top scribe through 1996. That year, the five-time Emmy winner became executive producer of “The Late Show” and assumed the top roles at Letterman’s shingle, Worldwide Pants Inc.
But as Letterman signs off, Burnett sits down with TheWrap for an Office With a View Q&A about the host’s legacy and details about Wednesday’s final show.
TheWrap: With late night in such transition right now, what is Dave’s legacy?
Rob Burnett: It’s undeniable that Dave changed the form of not just talk shows, but of television and American comedy. That sentence sounds overblown, but I think it’s in fact true.
[Johnny] Carson, I think, invented this in some way — or at least popularized it — and then Dave took it and turned it on its head. And those two pieces of the puzzle account for nearly 100 percent of what goes on between 11:30 and 1:30 at night in the world today.
Outside of Dave personally, what impact has the show had overall?
This show went through a lot of phases. We had a big party last Saturday night and it was like five high school reunions at once for me. I saw people from the early-’80s all the way up to the present.
The very early years … created a sensibility that had never before been seen. It was incredibly smart people applying themselves to utter silliness, in such an ingenious way that it seemed to break open all the comedy rules.
What are some of your favorite jokes from the early years, before you were a writer?
I remember there was something on the morning show [which aired on NBC from June to October 1980], when the show went off the air … It was a tribute to the show that was taking over for the morning show. It was some cheesy morning show — I think it was called “Vegas Gambit,” I may have that slightly wrong.
And then they did this big musical number. There were a thousand things to love about this, but I very distinctly remember there were song lyrics and … they were all hilarious, but at one point it was, “You’ll win a boat/You’ll win a furniture.”
That little turn of phrase is amazing if you think about it. It just made you feel like people had broken into the studio and were doing a show. This was a time when television was utterly professional, and then suddenly these very smart, very funny people were doing something that was intentionally unprofessional — and was incredible.
So much of what you see today came from that irony, that silliness, making fun of everything, looking at everything and turning it 15 percent to the right. There’s a lot in comedy today that I see from that time.
What about when you were head writer as the show transitioned from NBC to CBS at 11:30 p.m.?
When I was the head writer at NBC, it was easier for me to put on material that I thought would get you points in heaven but would not necessarily make an audience laugh. A great example of this was … an answer to a viewer letter that was, “Dave, what did you do last weekend?”
The answer was, “Oh, just the usual. I had a meeting with my Silent Fake Beard Club.” And it was a flashback of Dave sitting at a long table with all these people with fake beards, and they just sat there in complete silence, and then someone banged a gavel and everyone said, “Good job!” and shook hands and walked away.
I loved this joke, and I knew full well that when I put this joke on television, it would play to dead silence — and it did play to dead silence. But I knew smart people would like that joke.
How has the show evolved with changes in the cast and network and timeslots?
In the early years at CBS, we did some great stuff. We’re running a lot of this stuff now: “Fun With Rupert,” where Dave talks into the walkie-talkie and [local deli owner] Rupert Jee repeats what he says . You get unadulterated Dave in a lot of different versions of things that we did.
Now in the later years, Dave evolved to yet another level of being an incredible broadcaster: when he came on after his heart surgery, dealing with 9/11. He’s trusted and in today’s world, a guy who’s been on television for 33 years — you know, you don’t have Tom Brokaw regularly in that seat anymore, you don’t have Dan Rather, and of course not Peter Jennings.
Yes, he’s still hilarious and yes, the writers come up with lots of funny things, but most of the highlights now are Dave as a broadcaster reaching out and touching people.
What can you tell us about the Letterman finale?
We’ve put a lot of thought into the last show. Last shows in my opinion — for something like this — are near impossible. In my opinion, you can’t go too right and you can’t go too wrong. It’s really the body of work that ultimately speaks for itself.
There’s no way in an hour to capture all of it. In large part it comes down to Dave saying “good night.” There’ll be some great old clips, there’s a beautiful piece at the end of the show that Barbara Gaines — one of our executive producers — largely marshaled and put together that I think is beautiful and touching. There’s a couple of TV surprises, but this is really about just spending one last hour with Dave.
What about the future of the production company Worldwide Pants?
I honestly don’t know. Dave and I haven’t had a lot of conversations about what it is that he wants to do going forward. I’m a little bit of a hybrid in that I can function as an executive, but I also come at this from a writing, directing standpoint. I want to spend time writing and dealing with my own projects as opposed to overseeing other projects.
For the success of the production company, you’ll probably need someone in there that can develop other people’s work, and I think for me, I have a little less interest in doing that now. Also, after 29 years of this, I don’t know that I’m super-eager to be in a position where I have to be at a certain place at a certain time anymore.
Some of this will depend on what Dave decides to do — the world is his oyster. He’s living in a world where brands couldn’t be more important and he is a very definite brand — and that extends to the production company.
I’m very proud of the work we did here with this production company. Because, look, most production companies, if we’re honest — of this nature — are vanity companies that get set up when celebrities make big deals. That don’t really do anything. But we did produce quite a lot of stuff.
Sounds like you’re stepping down as president and CEO.
I think it’s unlikely that I will continue in that role when things wrap up here.