Rick Ludwin was reading about “The Tonight Show” getting its sixth host in 60 years this week when it hit him: He might be the only living exec to have worked with them all — from Allen (Steve) to Fallon (Jimmy).
NBC’s former latenight and specials chief, who ended a more than 30-year run at the network in 2012, enjoyed what amounts to a front-row seat to latenight history, having started on the job in 1980.
Soft spoken and thoughtful, the Cleveland native’s host-whispering obviously doesn’t extend to “The Tonight Show’s” infancy. But his first assignment at NBC involved “The Steve Allen Comedy Hour,” a 1980 series that then-NBC prez Fred Silverman ordered as variety programming during a Screen Actors Guild strike.
Ludwin later oversaw a pair of Jack Paar specials featuring footage from his “Tonight” days, and was around for the last dozen years of Johnny Carson’s legendary career. Moreover, it fell to Ludwin to continue courting Carson to stage a TV return, something the host more or less steadfastly refused.
Ludwin recalls meeting with Carson once or twice a year, bearing proposals that ranged from a 15-minute monologue on the eve of elections to a special Carson proposed that would have featured actors discussing their failed pilots. An enthusiastic Ludwin sent over a box of tapes, only to have Carson conclude, as he recalls, “They’re not that funny.”
From his perch, Ludwin also witnessed NBC’s various succession dramas, enduring the “great and unpleasant debate” over who should inherit the “Tonight Show” mantle when Carson left — David Letterman or Jay Leno.
Ludwin was “very much in Jay’s camp,” he says, noting, “It seemed Jay was perfectly suited to step into the role of the nation’s monologist.” That said, he credits Letterman with having changed latenight, influencing all who have followed.
“We had two people who were both supremely qualified,” he says, “and we knew the one who didn’t get it was going to leave. You’ve got to put down your bet and spin the roulette wheel.”
For two years, it looked like NBC had lost its bet, with Letterman dominating the head-to-head matchup. Yet while Leno’s “What the hell were you thinking?” interview with a post-arrest Hugh Grant is often cited as a turning point, Ludwin notes that around that time the show had taped a number of episodes in New York, and stumbled onto a more intimate, comedy club-like setting in which Leno felt more comfortable. That design was brought back to Burbank, and when viewers gave the program a second look, more liked what they saw.
Despite the prickly nature of some of the “Tonight Show” hosts — they didn’t call Carson the “king of latenight” for nothing — Ludwin says he had no trouble dealing with them in his capacity as the network’s rep. “If you gave the impression you were on their side, and you understood what they were doing and watched every show … they would listen,” he notes.
As for the perception that latenight’s latest baton pass might be another step toward narrower, more niche-oriented programming, Ludwin, who does some consulting, disagrees, citing the durability of “Saturday Night Live.” “These are still the big-tent shows,” he says.
Perhaps that’s why on those rare occasions when change comes to “Tonight,” it always feels like a three-ring circus.