David Letterman stole the Super Bowl commercial spotlight on Sunday — with a little help from old friend-turned-rival Jay Leno.
The spot opened with Letterman watching the game, complaining that “this is the worst Super Bowl party ever.” The camera pulled back, showing him next to Oprah Winfrey (who had also made a surprise cameo in Letterman’s 2007 Super Bowl ad).
“Oh Dave, be nice,” admonished Winfrey — who, it turns out, was sitting next to Leno on the same couch.
“He’s just saying that because I’m here,” said a disgusted Leno — who’s then immediately imitated by Letterman (in his best, whiny Leno impersonation).
Leno and Winfrey flew to New York on Tuesday (when “The Jay Leno Show” was dark, due to a “Biggest Loser” episode) and secretly taped the ad at Letterman’s Ed Sullivan Theatre digs.
“Logistically, it was no easy task to get everyone in the room at the same time,” said “Late Show” exec producer Rob Burnett.
Burnett said Winfrey, given her history with the 2007 spot, signed on immediately. Burnett then called “Tonight Show” exec producer Debbie Vickers, who got the Burnett in touch with Leno.
One late night host who didn’t make the taping: Conan O’Brien. Burnett said he contacted O’Brien’s exec producer, Jeff Ross, but Ross said that the timing wasn’t right.
Burnett said he was also amazed at how quickly CBS boss Leslie Moonves signed off on the spot.
“Without hesitation, he said, ‘I love it — go for it. It’s hilarious,'” Burnett said. “A different exec might have had a knee-jerk response, not to let this happen.”
At CBS, Eye marketing topper George Schweitzer said, “We wanted to top that Dave/ Oprah 2007 spot” — which came after years of frosty relations between Letterman and Winfrey.
Eye was so pleased with the idea, Burnett said, that what was a 10 second spot was allowed to go on for 16 seconds.
“In the Super Bowl, that’s somebody’s college education,” Burnett said.
An NBC insider said the Peacock was completely on board — and loved the idea.
“We flew Jay to New York and smuggled him into the Ed Sullivan Theatre in disguise,” one source said. “It was amazing. No one knew.”
NBC’s Jeff Zucker and Jeff Gaspin even gave Leno use of the Peacock jet — which means NBC even helped subsidize the spot.
Leno came dressed in a fake moustache and in a sweatshirt and was shuttled in via a side entrance. After Letterman finished taping that night’s show, the spot was filmed.
The promo was an even bigger surprise given the war of words that erupted between Letterman and Leno during the recent Late Night Crisis — in which Letterman accused Leno of stealing the “Tonight Show” from both Johnny Carson and Conan O’Brien and Leno shot back by cracking wise at Letterman’s marriage.
“In no way was it awkward or frosty,” Burnett said. “It was absolutely cordial, it was professional. We were on a tight schedule, so it’s not like we all went out to dinner. But Dave had a funny idea, Jay recognized that and they both came together.”
Even though the spot was meant to promote Letterman, it was Leno — now on an image rehab tour — who probably benefitted the most. Spot practically gives Letterman’s tacit approval that Leno’s still an OK guy, even though he was generally painted as the villain (including by Letterman) in the recent NBC late night turn of events.
“There was a lot of conversation about that,” Burnett said. “And ultimately it is a great thing for Jay. What I admire about Dave is he runs his career by one simple motto: If it’s funny, then let’s do it.
“(Letterman) had no interest in any conversation (about whether Leno benefitted more),” Burnett said. “He doesn’t think that way. He’s not strategic. It’s simply if CBS gives you time on the Super Bowl, you owe it to yourself and the network to try to do the funniest thing you can come up with.”
CBS, meanwhile, clearly knew there would be more than a passing interest in the ad — the Eye had a press release ready to send just minutes after the spot ran (during the second quarter).
“They upped their cool quotient from bettering their last Super Bowl promo,” said one insider who watched it all come into place.