You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

From Allen to Fallon, Exec Has Worked With All 6 ‘Tonight Show’ Hosts

NBC’s former latenight and specials chief Rick Ludwin reflects on his tenure

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.

More TV

  • rachel brosnahan Variety Cover Story

    Rachel Brosnahan Signs First-Look Deal With Amazon Studios

    Rachel Brosnahan is deepening her relationship with Amazon. The “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” star has signed a first-look deal with Amazon Studios, under which she and her Scrap Paper Pictures production company will develop TV series exclusively for Amazon’s streaming platform. Brosnahan has won several awards for her performance as Midge Maisel, including an Emmy Award [...]

  • Kevin Costner stars as John Dutton

    'Yellowstone' Season 2 Premiere Ratings More Than Double in Delayed Viewing

    The Season 2 premiere of “Yellowstone” more than doubled its Live+Same Day numbers in Live+3. According to Nielsen data, the premiere last Wednesday rose to a 0.98 rating in adults 18-49 and just over 5 million total viewers after three days of playback. That is up 115% in the demo and 109% in viewers from [...]

  • Malaka

    Conecta Fiction 2019: 10 Takeaways

    MADRID  —  The 3rd Conecta Fiction, Europe’s biggest Latin American TV co-production forum, wrapped last week in Pamplona after four days of dealing, debate and gastronomic delectation. Following 10 Takeaways from an intense and buoyant event, driven by the unfaltering growth of high-end production in Spain and most of Latin America: 1.PLATFORM PIVOT  The writing [...]


    'L Word' Follow Up at Showtime Adds Four Series Regulars

    The upcoming “L Word” sequel series at Showtime is rounding out its main cast. Arienne Mandi, Leo Sheng, Jacqueline Toboni, and Rosanny Zayas have all been cast in series regular roles. They join returning original series stars and executive producers Jennifer Beals, Katherine Moennig, and Leisha Hailey. Mandi will play Dani Nùñez, described as a [...]

  • Comic-Con 2019 TV Schedule

    Comic-Con 2019 TV Schedule: When Are Your Favorite Shows Taking Over San Diego?

    This year’s San Diego Comic-Con has a feast of TV show panels and special screenings for fans. To keep you updated on the happenings this year, Variety is compiling a master list of the experiences for the July 17 to July 21 pop culture convention. Warner Bros. Television Studios was the first to announce its schedule, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content