Welcome to Episode 51.1!
Our guest for STIMY Episode 51 Part 1 is Nick Bernstein.
Nick Bernstein is the Senior Vice President of Late Night Programming (West Coast) at ViacomCBS & is the executive in charge of the Late Late Show with James Corden.
In Part 1 of this STIMY episode with Nick, we explore what it was like growing up in Maryland and how he would spend 4 hours every Sunday morning charting America’s Top 40 biggest hits on radio, the impact that Camp Taconic had & continues to have in his life, and how he ended up being an NBC page and working with legendary late night television executive, Rick Ludwin.
This is Part 1 of Episode 51. To listen to Part 2, CLICK HERE!
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You don’t want to miss out!!
Who is Nick Bernstein?
Nick was born & raised in the suburbs of Maryland, some 50 minutes away from Washington DC.
As a child, Nick was always curious as to what people were watching & would spend 4 hours every Sunday morning listing the 40 biggest hits on the radio!
- 7:04: Why summer camps were & continue to be so important to Nick
- 15:13: Majoring in broadcast journalism at Syracuse University
Working in Television
Wanting to work in television, Nick decided to get in his car and drive 3000 miles from the East Coast to the West Coast in hopes of landing a job in the industry.
He shares how he ended up working as a NBC page, what that was like and how that led him to working with Rick Ludwin for the next 11 years!
- 19:28: How Nick became a NBC page
- 24:39: How Nick ended up working for Rick Ludwin, who’s worked with every The Tonight Show host from Steve Allen to Jimmy Fallon
- 30:28: What makes a good host
- 33:11: Why Rick was a “man of conviction” who stood behind hosts like Conan O’Brien when no one else would
Inner Workings of Late Night Shows
Nick shares his thoughts on some of the biggest names on the US late night television circuit, and flirting with danger as a television network executive.
- 39:05: Believing that Conan O’Brien & Jimmy Fallon were the future of late night back in 2002
- 42:41: Replacing late night hosts
- 48:41: The Conan/Jay Leno debacle
- 56:00: Giving as much runway to shows as possible or… not?
You can watch the YouTube version of Part 1 here:
If you’re looking for more inspirational stories, check out:
- Nick Bernstein’s Episode 51 Part 2 story – on being the executive producer of the Pete Holmes & Big Boss of the Late Late Show with James Corden
- Richard Lui: MSNBC & NBC TV News Anchor & Peabody Team Award winner
- Guy Kawasaki: Chief Evangelist of Canva & Apple
- Oz Pearlman: Mentalist & Magician, Runner-up in Season 10 of America’s Got Talent & multiple ultra marathon champion
If you enjoyed this episode with Nick Bernstein you can:
- Tweet your thoughts & takeaways to Nick here!
- Tweet your thoughts & takeaways from the episode to Ling Yah here!
Leave a Review
If you enjoy listening to the podcast, we’d love for you to leave a review on iTunes / Apple Podcasts. The link works even if you aren’t on an iPhone. 😉
Send an Audio Message
I’d love to include more listener comments & thoughts into future STIMY episodes! If you have any thoughts to share, a person you’d like me to invite, or a question you’d like answered, send an audio file / voice note to email@example.com
Some of the things we talked about in this STIMY Episode can be found below:
- Nick Bernstein: IMDb, LinkedIn, Twitter
- Rick Ludwin: A Remembrance – by Nick Bernstein (guest columnist)
- Late Late Show with James Corden: CBS Website, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter
- Subscribe to the STIMY Podcast for alerts on future episodes at Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher & RadioPublic
- Leave a review on what you thought of this episode HERE or the comment section of this post below
- Want to be a part of our exclusive private Facebook group & chat with our previous STIMY episode guests? CLICK HERE.
STIMY Ep 51.1 - Nick Bernstein - Senior Vice President, Late Night Programming (West Coast), ViacomCBS
Nick Bernstein: There was a moment of time and I was, gosh, I can't remember if I had started working at CBS at that point. I might, I don't think I was there yet where uh, occasionally there are some challenging songs to clear. To play on television because you have to get permission from the artist in order to play a song and often you have to pay for that song.
There was a night where Letterman just wouldn't stop talking about the Eagles and kept on making Paul in the band play Eagle songs. And you could see on the corner of the screen, one of the producers of Letterman talking to the music clearance person and letting them know as it's happening, this is going to air at night.
And uh, I could just feel the sweat coming down the poor person's face from the music clearance side when this was going on, but my goodness was it fun television to watch.
And so it's hard for me not to enjoy some of that, even if I'm on the other side. Cause you know, that's like a slight peek behind the scenes is really enjoyable.
Ling Yah: Hey everyone!
Welcome to episode 51 part one of the So This Is My Why podcast. I'm your host and producer, Ling Yah, and today's guest is Nick Bernstein. Senior Vice President, to no vice-president, of late night programming west coast at CBS and currently the big cheese in charge of the Late Late Show with James Corden.
In this episode with Nick, which is split into two parts, you'll hear about what Nick was like as a child, where he would spend four hours every Sunday morning listing the 40 biggest hits on radio, why summer camp was and continues to have such a major impact in his life, how he ended up working as an NBC page then specifically for Rick Ludwin, a legendary television executive who knew every the Tonight Show host from Steve Allen to Jimmy Fallon and who never hesitated to stand up for hosts he believed in even when no one else did. And finally Nick's perspective of that whole Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien drama.
So are you ready for part one of Nick's story?
Nick Bernstein: I grew up in the suburbs of Maryland. So we were only about 50 minutes away from Washington DC.
And it was in a really nice community. A lot of my friends' parents worked in some form of government, whether that was the labor relations board or there were a handful of people who worked in Congress or in the news. Sort of like the typical business happens to be government.
Not everybody worked in there, but a lot of people did.
I have a younger brother who's three years younger than me. And we grew up, we were close. I grew up like really enjoying television. I, I was one of those kids who, I would look at the newspaper on Wednesdays because I can go to the style section, which was sort of the entertainment section of the newspaper.
And the reason I would go there is because that's when they would list the ratings for the most watched television programs of the week. And I was always really curious about what was popular, what were people watching and was that the same things that I enjoyed.
And I never really thought about it going forward as like this could be a job one day. But when I looked back at sort of how I grew up and what I just enjoyed, it was like, it was looking at things like the television ratings and looking to see, like, I used to wake up in the mornings on Sundays very early, not for any reason other than there was a program called America's Top 40, which played the 40 biggest hits on the radio.
I think it was an international show. And I used to write down in a little notebook, the biggest songs of the week until I realized one day when I went to a bookstore, there's already a magazine called billboard that does that. So you don't have to spend four hours of your morning writing down all these songs.
I think I still have it in a notebook somewhere in like a bin of my old memorabilia.
I grew up able to walk to school, which was kind of a cool luxury. Um, so there's a little bit of that freedom that you get from hanging out with friends in the neighborhood and being able to go back and forth and sometimes it's just like sitting down and hanging out at the tree stump for 30 minutes after school and catching up that way.
And I always did also like being part of shows and productions at the school. Whether that was like school choirs or once a year they did a musical and I would participate in those and a lot of my friend base came from that too.
And I was never like,
uh, I never thought of performing as something that was a passion, but it was just an enjoyable experience and a way to hang out with sort of like-minded friends.
Ling Yah: Didn't you also enjoy Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and you watched that moment when he went to visit the Hulk and he was putting on his makeup?
Nick Bernstein: Yeah. I don't know why that always stuck with me, but I found it fascinating. I'm sure there's like millions of views on it.
I can't be the only person who was just astonished when they showed you on a kid's program, what TV was like. Yeah, that always stuck with me. I always, um, I always just thought that was an amazing thing to peek behind the scenes and see what it's like to have someone transform into the Incredible Hulk on what arguably is probably a pretty silly television show.
But at the time growing up, I thought it was everything. It was, it was so cool.
Ling Yah: When you were young as well, your mother passed away and then your father remarried, and I wonder how that impacted you, because I believe your stepmom, she had quite a lot of infighting in her part of the family. You had to once duck under a car?
Nick Bernstein: That's true. So my mom died when I was five. She had cancer. So she passed away. I have a handful of memories of her and certainly learned a lot about her from my dad. And from my grandmother.
My dad remarried a few years after that. I was still pretty young.
But yeah, my step-mom came from the south. Mississippi is where she grew up and it was sort of like when you think of classic soap operas or primetime soap operas from the seventies or eighties. Even shows like Dallas where there's always big fights and then all of a sudden people are best friends and someone else is fighting. Like it was not anywhere near that bad, but there were hints of that that were real, that were a part of this family. So you never knew which aunt was fighting with my mom at the time until we would be down in Mississippi and accidentally in this relatively small town in the Biloxi area, you might, you might accidentally have parked very close to where they were also having dinner.
And for some reason we weren't allowed, I don't even know if they realized that we were in town at that point. Two years later, we're staying at their house.
So these are things that uh, you kind of just sort of fly past you and they just become part of your life.
It doesn't seem any different than anything else. And I think if you learn any lessons from that, if I learned any lessons from that, it's uh, there's no reason to hold a grudge for very long because family's with you forever.
Ling Yah: I think one of the things that was also a part of you was going to summer camps? I think it's the one that your father also went to.
Was it Camp Taconic?
Nick Bernstein: It's still a really important part of, my life. So on the east coast, and again, I don't know if this is anything that you've talked about with anyone else or experienced, but um, the summer camps are a pretty big deal on the east coast.
And a lot of kids from the New York, New Jersey, Connecticut area that will spend seven or eight weeks often at a sleep-away camp.
I grew up in Maryland, like I said, and like you said, it was not quite as common then, but my father had grown up in the New York area. And when he, I think started probably at seven or eight years old, instead of spending the summer in the city, his parents sent them to the Berkshires, which is sort of the mountain area in Western Massachusetts.
It's where James Taylor sings about the Burke shows a lot and songs.
A beautiful place. And he's spent quite formative years of his life there. Same with my uncle. They were there from probably ages of seven or eight till they were late teens, early twenties. So they would go as kids and then they essentially graduate to being counselors.
And, uh, and so when I got to be a little bit older, when both my brother and I could go at the same time, my dad thought it would be something beneficial for us to do.
I started going when I was 12 years old and I spent 10 summers there as a camper and a counselor.
but I didn't know anybody at all there when I went, which is fairly unique because quite a few kids started earlier than me. They'll start when they're seven or eight years old or nine, nine years old. And so they'll know these kids from that age, and a lot of times they'll go to camp with those kids for a very long time.
I had to make friends out of a whole cloth, basically. I didn't know. I never even heard of the cities that they were growing up in and, we'd find commonality. And a lot of times that just happened from living in a bunk with nine or 10 other people in these cots, basically. You know, where you had very little separation from them. So everyone knew what everyone else is doing a lot.
But the thing that was kind of cool about the summer is you have a real opportunity to reinvent yourself. No one knows what you were like at school. So if you wanted to explore things that you never thought possible, like camp was a really good place to do that.
And this was one of those camps that, it wasn't particularly amazing at any one thing. So it wasn't an all sports camp run, all theater camp or all tennis camp. They had all of those activities, they still have a lake. And so you could do pretty much anything that you were interested in or figure out what you really liked and do it there.
So I got a lot out of being at camp and I actually now my older daughter also goes to that camp.
You know, they were closed last year because of the pandemic. So it's been, it'll have been two years, which in camp terms is a lifetime. So everyone's very excited for the end of this month in June there'll be able to go back and also because so many kids now from 12 and up are able to get vaccinated. I think it's opening up a lot of other opportunities to have a summer experience. I think that's very similar to what they would have remembered from the pre pandemic times.
And I actually still spend quite a lot of time back at Taconic.
I don't know if this is something maybe you'd seen as well in my background, but the thing that I got the most out of when I was at camp, when I was around 14 or 15, we got to do sort of special secret projects at camp where your entire age group. So all of the 14 year olds. They get to put on a banquet. They call it senior banquet for the entire camp, which consists of like this big meal that is a themed meal followed by a big sketch with a giant centerpiece in the Playhouse.
And they presented this to the entire camp and everybody dresses up, like it's a formal event. And so. You know, sometimes the theme might be like Willy Wonka and the chocolate factory, or Dr. Seuss or space, or just something big and epic and they tease what it might be, but it's not revealed until that night.
So it's this massive project and it's an incredibly creative and exciting time for, 14 year olds and even their counselors. And that was one of the first times where I got to sort of present something that felt major. That you kind of like can put your stamp on something at a place that's meaningful for you.
So that five ever 10 years later people might be like, oh, remember that senior banquet, the space one, that was a really special one.
And the performance that happens there is it's mostly sketch comedy based. So there's maybe 50 or 60 kids per group.
Impossible to put that many kids into one show. So they split them up into whoever wants to be on stage and they get to um, do some fun performance and they write it themselves and sometimes they make a song parodies real camp stuff.
And so that was sort of one of the first times that I got to experience something that was real comedic and I always found that that was the age 14 and 15, that you start to really get your sense of what you find funny and what comedy is.
So that was for me you know junior high grade, so seventh and eighth grade, that 12, 13, 14 was when I started to obsessively watch Saturday night live.
When I started to like stay up late during Friday nights or on vacations to watch the late night shows. There was a show called in living color. It was a really, really big deal. It was a sketch comedy show that Mondays after it aired, I would spend, my entire lunch period going over every show with friends.
So that was imbued in me as to like, that's what's funny and let's try and do things like that, but I didn't know how to do it. I just knew what I liked.
When I go back to summer camp now, I help the oldest kids who are 15. So they're going into their second year of high school, sophomore year of high school.
And I help them create a complete sketch comedy show. No themes, no secrets. Just real hard comedy sketches. And to me, it's like the show that I always wanted to do when I was at that age. But now that I have sort of the experience of work and having worked in comedy I get to uh, bring a little bit of, life experience to that.
And sometimes it's the first opportunity for these kids to really get a sense of what they find funny, or if they like working in comedy or even what type of comedy they in part of comedy, they enjoy it or entertaining. Some people really like writing better. Sometimes they enjoyed shooting little short films. I'm sure they do all the time and on Tik Tok and on Instagram and wherever else, like it's very easy to do that now.
But the amount of thought and time that it takes to put it together and also the speed of which something can come together before they um, then get to present it to all of their friends and peers and the people they really want to impress are the 18 to 25 year old counselors who if they can make them laugh, then it makes them really feel like, you know, there's stuffed it up adult wise.
And it's a great experience. And you know, my kids, like two years away from doing it uh, which will be really wild. We'll see if she listens to me if I ever do that, we get to work together.
Ling Yah: So when you were at the camp for so many years, were you in different positions for that sketch, just to figure out whether you liked acting, you liked writing, you liked producing. Was that how you figured out what you really enjoyed?
Nick Bernstein: I think it certainly had a little bit to do with it. It was like, you know, I think the seedlings were there. There were a couple of things like the camp had uh, the camp newspaper that they put out once a week. And I worked on that when I was a camper and when I was a counselor and I oversaw kids, my activity was the Tatler, which is the camp newspaper.
I think that really did help to form like things that I liked. That I kind of knew I like. I like structure. I like having deadlines and goals. I liked the idea of creating something sort of a little fun and unique and helping kids.
I would say, I think a lot of it came in my later teen years and as I started to get into college , that age where I knew I liked helping others achieve their goals. And like one of those things that I always thought was in the summer time, especially if you can get kids to write, not force them to write, but get them to want to write, like that is, it doesn't matter what they do.
It doesn't matter what it's looks like or sounds like, like if they're coming to an activity and they're going to spend an hour writing about the talent show or coming up with some improvised piece of nonsense, I'll print it. I'll print it for you. You can show your friends what you've done outside of that.
You know, it's really something beyond just you know, hanging out and sneaking candy in the bunk with your friends.
Ling Yah: So how did you end up deciding you would major in broadcast journalism at Syracuse University?
Nick Bernstein: I think as I went into high school, and as I was looking at university, I was hoping to do something in television. And the thing that I thought it was the most feasible was to go to communications school. Cause I had a sort of general sense of what I liked and what I thought was possible.
Broadcast journalism was one of those things. I enjoyed watching sports. I liked the idea that you could work in sports. I know that the Syracuse has a lot of alumni who graduated go on to places like ESPN or any of the major broadcast networks, and I know you can learn a lot there.
The longer I was there, the more I gravitated towards television, radio, and film more so than I did broadcast journalism. So I actually switched my major into um, television radio and film. Part of that was some of the classes that I took on the television end that were different than the broadcast ends.
So we spent a lot of time in those early days in those first classes learning more about how to do a 90 second story for a local news. And I thought that was a little bit constructing. In my brain, it's really hard to tell a story in that sort of period of time, especially when you have all sorts of ideas.
And on that end, you have to tell the truth. That's at least that's the hope and news. And so when I got to do some of the other television classes, you got to just completely come up with pitches for new shows.
I really enjoyed working for the college radio station at Syracuse.
So it was called Z89. Still is called Z89 and they mirrored what a pop radio was like. And so it, wasn't just- A lot of typical college radio stations are, anyone can have two hours, they can play anything they want, they can talk anytime they want.
Z89 was this is what an hour is long like. We're going to produce it like they do at Z 100 in New York city. And so, you know, we're gonna play 10 songs. You're going to talk every three songs. You're going to play ads here. You're gonna play PSA's here. And you can only talk out to you know, 20 seconds because that's when the song starts.
So when you start, you have to do the overnights, which are the 2:00 AM slots or the 4:00 AM slots, which are death uh, . They are so hard even for an 18 year old who uh, you know, you think can stay up all night and do anything like even when you still have to go to classes the next day, that is a challenge.
But that type of broadcasting, I really enjoyed.
The more I was there, the more I worked on stuff like the morning shows, which is one of the key time periods for radio.
uh, friends and I, Some of my friends still work in radio. They ended up professionally going to be DJs or programmers. And a lot of them came from Z89. And and, that really helped to inform what I enjoyed which was for that era, the show south park, it was a massive, massive hit in 1998.
And I think it must have been every Thursday cause the show has been on Wednesdays every, I think since then. So the next day we would talk about what happened on south park, do trivia about it. People would call into the station or college station, where people still called into it, usually junior high kids probably.
So whatever was happening in the news, a lot of it was Y2K related. So we did a lot of like Y2K jokes. It didn't matter what it was. Whatever was going on, we were trying to figure it out. All right, can we make four hours out of this? What else are we going to talk about? What else are we going to do?
And that's what I liked about late night also. So the, I. Like the idea that, oh, people do this. People do this for a living. And the things that you've always liked from your days of looking at the style section and listening to America's top 40, people do that for a living all the time in all these different platforms.
So that really took me into a space where I thought I know I want to move to LA. and I was Going to give television a go and hopefully I can find something that fits the thing that I like.
But I mean, ultimately, eventually it worked out that way, but it wasn't, I didn't have a great plan for how to do it.
I just uh, I had a car and I drove the 3000 miles from the east coast to the west coast and stayed with my one family member who lived out here. It was not a particularly close family member, but became a really good, I mean, they were, they were the reason I was able to live out here with no job at first.
But I credit Z89 a lot for helping to sort of shape the things that I liked the most about broadcast.
Ling Yah: So you drove that 3000 miles without a job. How did you end up being an NBC page?
Nick Bernstein: So that kind of goes back to camp a little bit. The people who ran the camp knew that I wanted to work in television.
They were very kind. We were close from all the years that I'd been there and they introduced me to another person who had been the newspaper counselor at camp and also had gone to Syracuse, probably 10 years before I had, and they introduced me to him on email.
His name is Rob. And Rob worked at NBC as an executive. I think a development executive.
And Rob helped me to get my resume to the page program.
So when I had officially moved out there, I was able to get an interview and, you know, you sit down and like, I have very little on my resume.
It's the school I went to. And then I did this cross-country trip for a really long time because of my love of camp, another summer at camp even after I graduated. So I'd traveled for almost nine months around the country, around the US, before I officially moved out to LA.
I had that on my resume.
I don't know if anyone looks at that as something like, wow, but I thought it was at least a talking point. And then I get to say, wherever you lived, if you've lived in the US or grew up in the US, chances are, you've been pretty close to your hometown.
And so I had what I thought was a pretty good meeting with the people at the page program who ran it, and they said, you know, check back in about eight weeks and see what you have. We'll see if we have an opening because the way the page program works is they don't actually know how many people they need to hire. Certainly at least at the time. that
It's based in part on it's a year long program. So if you've reached your year uh, you have to leave.
But also um, jobs open up often at NBC. And a lot of times for those entry level positions, they like hiring pages. And so you never know how many people will end up getting jobs at a certain point. And so the number of losses equals the number of openings. So that's why they often say like, you know, we don't know, so check back in a couple of weeks and we'll see, you know, we'll see where you are.
And I was like, okay, great. Well, I guess I gotta find a PA position somewhere and try and, you know, run and grab coffee for somebody on a set if I can, not knowing anybody in town.
So I'm driving back to my cousin's place. And there's a call on the- they have a landline only at the time. I'm a little old.
They had a landline at the time and then they had an answering machine. And so on the answering machine was a message from the page program and they said uh, we'd actually like you to start next week.
And so it was just a great relief. It was exciting for me. It was a great piece of luck that they wanted to squeeze me into the next new page class and they could. And so I started, it was October of 1999.
And that really did set me on the career that I'm at.
Ling Yah: So was the page program structured in the sense that they will make sure you were exposed to many different parts of NBC or were they just slotting you in wherever they needed your help.
Nick Bernstein: It was a little bit of both.
The more you told them, the people who ran it, the more you sort of gave a sense of what you were hoping to accomplish, the more they gave you opportunities to at least meet people in that field.
So at the time, so this is LA, like I said. It's the Burbank is where NBC was located. That was the campus at the time.
The things that they made all the pages do, you had to give tours of the lot. You worked whatever shows were on the lot at the time that had audiences. So it was always the tonight show with Jay Leno. It was often game shows just depending on the era that you were at would depend on the game show.
And then you could apply for assignments after a certain point. So if you'd been at the page program for a couple of months and sort of putting your time, then you can apply to work as a page in maybe the development office for comedy or the primetime programming department or there was publicity, there was people who did ad sales, who made the promos.
And then there was also a physical production group also. So there was always different assignments that you could do.
Sometimes you did really well in your assignment and you got a chance to and there was an opening somewhere in that world. And they liked taking the page, cause the pages, they put some time into that person.
They knew the lay of the land a little bit and they could hire them and bring them along.
That didn't happen for everybody, but there were so many pages who got jobs working on shows also that someone a couple of years removed from us might be like, hey, we're going to hire three PA's. We want to see, are there any pages who are interested in doing that?
And so everybody would put their uh, resumes over there and hope that they get into those jobs. So it could be a little bit competitive sometimes, but the era that I was in, there were people who had like a real varied uh, desires of what they wanted to do in the industry.
So there were some that wanted to be writers. There were some that wanted to work in journalism or entertainment journalism. And so there was a path to places like entertainment tonight or access Hollywood, or even the local news here which was, can BC, like was the major Los Angeles affiliate, that we were associated with.
Or sometimes the positions would open up at the tonight show and uh, people could get onto that, um, onto that show.
My first job out of the page program was again, sort of a bit of luck. I, uh, I really enjoyed getting to meet and talk to people. So I was curious about what happened in the, on the soap operas in the daytime world, and sort of saw how they worked and same thing with like the tonight show writers' room. I mean, dozens and dozens of places that I was able to start just have informational conversations and meetings with people, which is also like a great, great opportunity, which it's almost like a graduate program, the page program, for people who are particularly interested in in the field.
Sometimes if an assistant took a week off, instead of hiring a temp, executives would ask pages to work that desk for a week or two. So that gave you also exposure to working and seeing what it's like to work on a desk. So that happened to me once in the late night department where I'd never like worked a desk before, so I was incredibly nervous answering the phone, not wanting to make a mistake.
The person who was in charge of uh, late night at NBC was a man named Rick Ludwin. And he passed away a few years ago sadly but he had been- he was just encyclopediac of late night and television knowledge and I just didn't want to disappoint him. So I said very little during that one week that I was there.
And uh, he must have found that charming cause he was always very nice to me in the hallways after that week. And uh, I always remember my name. I don't know, he, he saw something.
A few months after that, I did have an assignment I've worked. I was working in a different area at NBC.
But I had to call Rick's office. There was a Conan question that I didn't know the answer to, but I knew that Rick and his assistant Lisa one of them would know. So I call and Lisa is like, again, gotta realize this is 2000. Nobody had cell phones that like, no one texted then. So if you're out of sight, you're out of mind.
Uh, And she's as I called her, and Lisa's like, I'm so glad. I'm so glad you called. I'm moving to Hawaii. And if you want this job, I think you could get it. Um, Rick liked it when you were here. And and I was like, oh, wow, that's really interesting. In part, because I was still deciding is a, is a nice way to put it.
Like I still wasn't sure of whether or not it made sense to try to get a job in an office working in the executive wings or to try to get a job on a show which would be a more production driven job. I just, I wasn't sure yet I hadn't really had that much exposure to either one.
In my head, even after almost having been at a page for a year, I was just sort of in search of the idea that could I have an impact on shows? How they get made how they look, anything good, What type of comedy might be on it?
Is there a way that I can have an impact on the show? I love late nights so much and even like working as a page on the tonight show, getting to see just what the day was like and how efficient it was and how much joy it brought to people. How much do I brought that to the audience that was there?
What it was like when they'd have a massive, massive guests on, you know, which at the time was like, the biggest was NSYNC when NYSNC was on 2000. The year 2000, people camped out for days just to get tickets to a free talk show um, where they would play one song. And these were real moments that they were creating.
And I thought like, let's try this. Let's see what it's like to work in the late night office.
And then I ended up spending the next, I think, 11 years there.
Ling Yah: I came across this wonderful memorial paper that you wrote for Rick, and he just strikes me as such an incredible person.
I think when you were just starting, he was already bringing you into big meetings, like with, Howard West and George Shapiro, even though you didn't really know what you were doing at the time as well?
Nick Bernstein: No, it was ridiculous. Um, he, uh, I was granted access to people and experiences that just were so beyond me for my age and the amount that I've worked in TV. But the thing that Ric really valued was, he was about 30 years older than me. And we'd watch whether it was Jay Leno or Conan O'Brien or Saturday night live. Um, Those were three of the bigger shows at the time where we would be reading sketches and, watching either cuts or watching rehearsals.
And then before they would tape them or air them life.
And um, he always thought if we both like something, we're both laughing out loud and we come from two very distinct eras. And we're a generation removed from me. And if we both like it, then for broadcast television, like this has a chance to be pretty good and get some attention.
And so you know, that was happening on a weekly basis or daily basis because of the types of shows we did. He was always willing to answer questions about any era of TV because he'd been working at NBC since 1981, I think was when he started. He worked in TV since the seventies. He'd been a producer on shows before he became an executive.
But during all those times, he had worked with anyone who had ever hosted the tonight show. And I think he's probably the only person who can say that. So he didn't work with Steve Allen on the tonight show, but he worked with Steve Allen on specials and Jack Paar on specials. And so you know, the people who created laugh and like iconic, iconic shows from the fifties through the two thousands.
And it was just a tremendous amount of exposure and to people who, for me for everybody, but exposure to people who helped essentially create the genre that we all just came to love. And I mean, it was such a unique experience. There was literally no one else that I know who's ever done exactly what Rick did.
Ling Yah: Did you get a sense of what would make a good host just being around Rick because he had worked with all the different hosts?
Nick Bernstein: Yeah.
Definitely. There was a lot to to glean from that, especially as we started to and, the longer I was there, I got to sort of experience it firsthand as well.
You know, these shows are both comedy shows and talk shows. And so the people who, who host them have to be really versatile in terms of how they approach a show. And that is both in terms of like the tone of the comedy that they do. Their interests. Having a wide amount of a variety of interests and wanting to talk to people and being interested in people and being good listeners.
You know, there is something really interesting right now about working at a time where so many people have opportunities to showcase what they would do, were they to host a show. Podcasts obviously are a big part of that. You know, YouTube and Tik Tok have created opportunities to do short form comedy and long form comedy um, in ways that were never really possible even 20 years ago.
And so you get a chance to see a lot of what someone might be like were they to get their own show based on the types of things that they want to do and are interested in and even how they what they decide to joke about on something like Twitter and how they deal with current events.
They can do it instantaneously now.
So we were always looking at those things when we were talking about hosts in the two thousands era. And also when it came to the idea of exposure to more people at an earlier time period, which again, in today's modern era, has a little less urgency to it probably than it did certainly in the early nineties and even in the mid two thousands.
But um, being on it, say 1130 at night, when you are following the late local news, there was a different expectation as to what you were supposed to talk about and how you presented yourself then say the 1230 show or later shows, which had at that time, a more of a wild, maybe anarchic feeling sometimes depending on who it was, what they were doing.
But. And even same thing with something like Saturday Night Live, the later it gets in that hour or the 90 minutes, the stranger, the sketches get. So.
And that's done, you know, on purpose, it's, uh, you know, the. That sort of uh, the way that clock goes has always been really interesting.
So that was all sort of like imbued and some of it, you kind of know, based on just being a fan and watching them and, and a lot of it, you learn while you're, or a lot of it I learned from Rick when we talked about what we thought, what he thought made a good host.
Ling Yah: It was very interesting for me that, you have described him as being a man of conviction and he knew what made a good host, even though everyone else said otherwise.
Nick Bernstein: Yeah. He um, it's really easy to be dismissive of shows and hosts early on in a life cycle. When more people are watching with a very keen eye and the expectations are pretty massive.
And you know, you are up against what bosses think of the show and what stations might think of a show? What advertisers think about that show, what the audience thinks about the show?
I think most importantly. Um, certainly like again, in those earlier years, which includes the nineties and even sometimes like into the two thousands, there might be a blog here or there that tells you something pretty instantaneously, but a lot of it was, a lot of stock was put into things like focus groups and or people who were tourists in Vegas, who if they wanted to get out of the sun, they would go into a little room and watch the show and then tell you their thoughts about a show.
So it was a different type of focus group.
And relying on those people solely is often not really getting a sense of looking at a sort of a longer period of time, because as a host, you grow into that role. You're not necessarily fully formed on day one. And even if you are, even if you're a professional and you've had that experience, who you are day one, is not who you are day 100, day 1000.
That changes based on, you know, that sort of 10,000 hours philosophy where the longer you do it, the more people get comfortable with you as a host and the better you get as a host and the show.
So, people are quick to want to make changes in television. It's, uh, I think this has actually changed a little bit and people have gotten a little bit more patient over the years, but, you know, you can pull a show after three weeks after six weeks in primetime, if it's not holding up. um,
You are looking for potential in late night a lot.
And so, with Rick, he always stood behind Conan O'Brien especially, which was such an out of the box idea at the time, because he'd never been on television. Certainly in any hosting capacity.
He'd written for the Simpsons, he'd written for Saturday night live.
He was on the Simpsons when he got the job to host the late night. And on top of that, it's following David Letterman who not only was iconic for how he handled television at 1230 at night and just created a generation of followers. But also he was moving into this incredibly high level position at CBS at 1130, which is like a real, it was a real competition.
And so the pressures that were felt from on high at the network, which again, you know, I was in high school and college at the time, so I was just watching it from afar. But the pressures were enormous. And so the easiest thing to do in that situation is to say yes to whatever your boss wants and depending on the boss, they were ready to, I think, pull the plug on some of these shows and, you know, hit the reset button.
And Rick was always, he stood behind Conan and he was the one who like, He just didn't miss a day. He never, he always worked. Um, And so he knew everything. He just knew everything that happened on that show. He knew how it was growing. He could watch the growth, he could see the progression.
It is his job. That's his responsibility. That was what he was hired to do. But it would be so easy to skip a Thursday to go home early, to keep your eye on something else. And he never did that. Um. And he always had smart notes and thoughts to give on shows, but also I think he had a loyalty also because he, getting a little choked up thinking about this, Uh, he just had a real belief.
He had a real belief in what Conan and Jeff Ross and that group wanted to do and what they were trying to accomplish that was different. And sometimes different takes a little while to come across on television and to be accepted. And I mean, not just television but certainly there, and, when it pays off, as it really did there and in a lot of places, but Conan, I think the best example, it's they'll talk about him forever at the Conan show. They never forgot it.
And they still don't, you know, they're wrapping up their TBS show and, at the end of this month and then they're going to go on to do another show. I'm just a fan at this point. I'm not, I don't work with them anymore.
But they uh, you know, I just anytime one of these things happens, whether it's like an anniversary moment or you know, a lot of them came to uh, to celebrate Rick's life when we had a Memorial or even just something like now.
I'll just give you one example. So do you watch Saturday night live or are you familiar with Saturday night live at all?
So there's a comedian on the show. Her name is Melissa Villaseñor. And she's been on the show for probably five or six years, and she does a lot of impressions.
She was a guest on Conan and on the show, she did an impression of uh, this old show from the fifties sixties called the little Rascals. I'm not going to try to do it. I, I'm not a performer. Um, But she did all these little voices of all the little Rascals and it was hilarious.
The first person I thought of was Rick, because he would have found that absolutely hysterical. He loved old television. He loved classic TV. He loved that sort of like quirky thing where you could bring something from the sixties and it could still be relevant now, even if you didn't recognize the show. And it tickled Conan in the interview as well.
And after I watched it, I sent an email to, uh, to Jeff Ross, who's the executive reassert Conan, and a friend. And I just thought like, Rick would love that. Like he just sort of loved it. And he wrote back something very similar, like, yeah, you're right. Yeah. It was one I thought of it too.
And uh, so it was just like, they're never too far away from our thoughts. I think. That's how much of an impact he had on all of us.
Ling Yah: I mean, you mentioned briefly about how Rick, you know, was really firmly behind Conan. I think was it 2002 where Rick was the first guy at NBC to say that's the future of late night.
Conan and Fallon.
Nick Bernstein: Yeah. Yeah. It was really, it was wild. It was um, I'm pretty sure it was the same week. I'm sure someone can fact check this, but Jimmy Fallon had hosted uh, MTV video music awards and like a week or so later, Conan hosted the primetime Emmy awards.
And it was the first sort of massive awards show for both of them.
And so, you know, they were both well-known comedy entities at the time, but this is one of those opportunities where it's like exposure to a new audience and a big platform. And like, I don't know exactly where it was, but I'm sure like the VMs were at radio city music hall and the Emmy's are at the shrine auditorium.
It's these massive 7,000 seat venues. And they both commanded those rooms and had really great monologues. It just felt like the future. And we, we knew them both and Rick knew them way better than I did at the time.
We were like, well, that's it. I mean, this is the future of late night right here.
Uh, these are two people who are ready and had the capability to sort of jump to that next level, which is beyond just being sort of the smaller, quirkier comedian. Um, they can play the bigger room and uh, that was exciting to see. It just took a really long time from that point to exposing them to those bigger platforms.
Ling Yah: You said long time, it took seven years. Why did it take so long?
Nick Bernstein: Well, the good thing that was happening at NBC was shows were very successful and continued to be successful all through that period of time. So it wasn't like people were clamoring for necessarily the next new thing. They were enjoying the current situations.
The other thing about late night is certainly at the time, you're coming off of a window where the same person, Johnny Carson hosted the tonight show for 30 years. So in 2002, Jay Leno had only been hosting the show for 10 years. Only 10, you know. That is uh, he'd only done 2000 episodes at that point.
So, you know, he was in a prime position. He was doing uh, great.
Same anything with Conan, you know uh, after that sort of more challenged start, he was both the cult hero. And then, you know beyond that for in the 1230 window and J Fallon was still a part of Saturday night live at the time, which was in this incredibly robust period of critical and commercial success.
Uh, And he had opportunities also to try his hand in movies.
That was the most logical next step for almost anybody at that window who was a Saturday night live star. So that's, you know, we weren't very far removed from Adam Sandler and Will Farrell was just starting that next phase.
And Jimmy was sort of a naturally the next person to do that. So late night doesn't move as fast as a lot of other time periods. It's a lot of effort and input that we have in to trying to sort of will these things to happen for the next changes. But, uh, But I think we were sort of self-aware enough.
Certainly Rick was that uh, that nothing had to happen too soon, but everybody really liked all of those people who were either currently hosting or were hoped to host. And so it was a lot of, it was like, how do we keep them engaged and interested in and thinking about the future in the same way that we are.
Ling Yah: I mean, I find that it's very interesting how you determined firstly, that it might be time to find new hosts and that whole process of getting them ready to head one of those major late night shows.
Jay was saying, I want to avoid all this infighting.
I'm going to announce in five years, that Conan is going to take over. So I wonder if you could share a little bit about that process of when you decide to start looking for someone where you look for them and just preparing them for that launch.
Nick Bernstein: You know I was still a relatively junior executive in that window.
And so it wouldn't be fair for me to say that I had a lot of say in the timings that anything would be happening. I, I think people listened to my input, which was both nice of them. And I think spoke to um, how much they recognized my interest and attention to late night also.
There's sort of two things that were happening at the time. One was you never necessarily knew when someone was going to say they'd had enough of a show and I never experienced that directly, but you gotta remember, like for someone like Rick, he was there when Johnny Carson surprised everybody uh, by saying, I'm gonna retire in a year when he said this.
And that wasn't something that was just widely known and well known. When that happened, that sets all of these wheels in motion for people to figure out, okay, who can host uh, who's ready to do this. And that's not just an 1130 conversation. That's also a 1230 conversation.
So once that happened, for us at NBC at the time, we were like, just keep a running list of people you like.
Of people that you think maybe have the chops to host and have the want. And there's a lot of talented people out there, but it's, what they say, I think don't know who said this originally. I heard it from Rick, but it was probably Johnny Carson. Who said like use everything you've ever learned in your life when you host one of these shows.
Ling Yah: Everything up your sleeve and you pull it out, I think.
Nick Bernstein: Yeah. And so, you know, if feel like magic when you were a kid, you're, you're probably gonna do some magic tricks if you're hosting one of these shows. You know, if you can sing, you're singing. If you can dance, they like put on your tap shoes.
All those things are important and could be used for something. So that well-rounded nature is really important in these situations. When it comes to timing, some of that is up to you. And some of it is not up to you.
For NBC at the time, they had started talking and thinking about the future of the tonight show because they didn't want to be caught, in some ways, off guard. And they didn't want to lose the people who were there who they knew were capable and ready and deserving. So at that point that was Conan.
And it was also, I think part of the idea just that some of the thought process was when is it time to sort of hand over the Baton and who, who has the say? Who should be saying this? Depending on who you ask, there's a different answer to that.
But NBC in news had pretty successfully transitioned at the time from Tom broke out at Brian Williams with a relatively long, I think at that point it was like an 18 month window of time where Brockhoff had announced his retirement, that he was going, he even didn't really retire, but then he was moving on from hosting the main news the 6:00 PM news and that Brian Williams would take over.
That went well. Everybody liked both people. They were both involved. Uh, Brooke hall was still part of NBC and still came back to do a documentary and political coverage and election coverage.
So I think with that sort of mindset a lot of the NBC folks were thinking, can we do this at late night as well? But with a longer period, a longer lead time was also you know.
In the moment, it seemed like it was a very successful concept. That in 2004, we can make announcements that we know we're so confident in ourselves.
So we know both that these two giants of late-night are going to be in their roles for the next five years. And at that point they will transition. Conan into hosting the tonight show.
But five years is a really long time. And from 2004 to 2009, there were also many different people who had held the role of president at NBC.
And so you might have a plan, I'm sure lots of people have gone through this. You have a plan, a plan gets green lit, and then someone new comes in and you have to get that plan greenlit once again. And then another new person comes in and you have to convince them that that's also the right plan.
Somehow it worked out so that this transition continued to happen. But even by 2008 there was still a real strong desire to keep Jay Leno at NBC however they could so that he wouldn't compete against Conan from another place.
And they were able to figure that out by giving him the 10 o'clock slot, which was an unprecedented situation that was never done before and has not been done since.
And it was a really, really difficult position for Jay, for Conan, for Rick and me. It was so radical at the time. And people who host these shows are, creatures of habit. You know, they, they go to the same spot to tell their monologue jokes. They go to the, their desk is one place. Their band is been one place.
They have a rhythm and when you disrupt that rhythm you know, whether that's moving a show 3000 miles or moving a show, a hundred yards to another studio on the same lot, which is what the Jay Leno show did. It's still really challenging to get up and start going again.
But the expectations at that point are well, just be as good as you were before. I've known you for 10 years or 15 years. I've watched you on TV all the time. I might not watch it every day, but my memories are the absolute highlights of your career. So do that every night. And uh, and that, that's a massive undertaking with an incredible amount of exposure of eyes on you.
And so I just think that clearly even with the most capable and smartest people that I've ever worked with, you can still sometimes make decisions that don't turn out the way you hoped.
Ling Yah: Do you think that, you know, with the power of retrospection that giving him that 10:00 PM slot was the right choice, if you will.
When it debuted, it was fantastic, but then by November, the ratings started falling significantly.
Nick Bernstein: Yeah. You know, I always thought that it was a little bit unfair, the way that they presented 10 o'clock to Jay. It was unfair also to Conan that they left him so exposed as well.
You know, the idea that NBC had at the time was that the efficiencies of doing a strip show five nights a week at 10 o'clock was such a cost saving effort compared to what it costs to do the law and orders of the world or, or any of those big budget dramas that were typically on at 10 o'clock at night, at the time that your show didn't have to have the same type of ratings and viewership numbers.
When you had the Jay Leno show at 10 o'clock, you could still be very successful. Could still make money for the network and make money for the show and protect Conan. And as much as he now, he doesn't have to compete against both David Letterman and Jay Leno when he's at 1130.
What they thought about less was, how was that 10 o'clock show, even the less successful rating, how does that affect news?
How matter station is going to be? What's that going to do to 1130 and Conan who will never really had an exposure opportunity to reap the benefits of like it was a little bit removed, but there was must-see TV was a big deal at NBC on Thursday nights, which I'm not sure how much that sort of resonates for you all, but like before DVRs you watched TV when it aired. And that was the only time you watched it.
So they had friends on at eight o'clock. They had Seinfeld on at nine o'clock. They had ER on at 10 o'clock and 35 million people would watch that night. And then from that group, there'd be another 8 million people that would watch the tonight show at 11 1130, I should say, because they'd see the promo on during ER or whatever, and they'd still just stay up and they'd keep their television on NBC.
And that's just what happened. That was just how they worked. How people watch television.
So you know, the idea that like viewers also we're creatures of habit sometimes, and they liked their local news program that they've watched them. And they liked their late night shows that they watched and they want to tune in every night, like that's still happened as well.
But there was a sort of a, descending into chaos, ultimately that happened because the network realized pretty quickly their best hopes and dreams for what could be achieved with a 10 o'clock strips late night show in the Jay Leno show, could not sustain and they had to make changes.
And then they opted to make that change by putting Jay back at 1130.
And so, that's when it hurts to spend seven years thinking about something and five months having these hoped for plans sort of change on you without being able to have a whole lot of say into the process, because, we all have bosses and the bosses are the ones who get to make those decisions.
Ling Yah: I mean, five months is really, really short. And as you said, it takes time for the show to gain momentum. So that urgency, I wonder how much of it was because there was this acquisition that Comcast was doing over NBC universe at the same time.
Nick Bernstein: Yeah. I mean, there's, there's no question that that had to weigh on the people who were making decisions at the time.
I also think that you know, when I talk about sort of the patients and the time that it takes to sort of to set yourself as a host, the people who don't often have that same type of luxury of time are the ones who have been doing it for awhile. And so that type of scrutiny I think is much higher on the Jay Leno's of the world when they changed their type of show. And they are put in a position where they're supposed to be, you know, now the savior for the network you know, taking up five hours of primetime real estate.
And same thing with Conan taking over this night show where you know, where you're almost daring somebody to watch your show uh, and they've already made decisions, ultimately often about whether they like you or not. So if they're going to give you a second chance, that window is very small.
At the same time though, Jimmy Fallon at 1230 did have more of an opportunity to grow into the role. He already started as a strong performer. But he is reintroducing himself to viewers and as himself, which he was sort of you know, you have a little bit of an opportunity to do that in a weekend update scenario where you're telling jokes about the news, but it's not really about who you are as an individual.
Certainly not the same way that a talk show can be uh, and often is. So there was more of that opportunity to sort of grow into the role in that later time period. And just less so in the earliest time periods.
Ling Yah: Speaking of Jimmy Fallon, wasn't he considered an odd choice by NBC and the public predicted it would be a failure and he even dealt with that with his opening as well.
Nick Bernstein: Well, I guess it depends on what you've read. I mean, certainly we didn't think that um, otherwise we wouldn't have ever uh, you know, put him in that position. I do think that again like that element of surprise was really there for Jimmy in that you know, he, we used to joke a lot about like, you know, you might know me as the guy who laughed through his sketch on Saturday Night Live or, that guy from that movie.
But he had so much to offer that hadn't been on TV in awhile and it's also, I was talking about 1230 being sort of more of an anarchy situation and he turned that on its head a little bit by being very much a like pop culture driven of the moment internet understanding show.
And so part of that was like the honesty that he brought to how he described himself to people and, you know, he spent like several months before the show made it on the air of just sort of doing a much shorter, smaller, low fi version of the talk show.
Every night they'd upload videos onto nbc.com. And he'd, you know, sometimes they do fake interviews or not fake, but like short interviews with people. Staff members, or maybe someone from SNL that was a friend that stopped by. And sometimes it was answering audience questions people would send in.
And it was just all sort of getting as many reps as you can in that situation before moving on to the big show onto the late night show. But I think like pretty early on, he established a couple of things that ended up being like real signature pieces for the show.
One of those things that he did was like, he's such a good sketch performer. And he is, you know, truly a good actor. And he did all these like very extensive parodies of shows, like Lost and the Real Housewives and the Hills and no one else was doing that at late night at the time.
And he made it a running series. They put on like once a week basically. And they were like these really extensive, short films that did not happen in late night at that point. It's a little more common these days.
Even like his voice of bringing the roots with him and, you know, the Rootz are going to be the band is, you know, having that amount of hip hop, which really that's pop culture now, but that is not what late night band culture was at that point.
Well, I remember when they brought it up in a room and I was like, well, good luck. Oh yeah. It would be great if they wanted to be the band. Well, like why would you ever expect that to happen? And then it happened. And I mean, it's, you know, it's- a, it's, it will forever be a signature part of the show and, just I think like a lot of those things really helped him to sort of plant his flag as an important part of late night.
Ling Yah: I believe Ric used to say, you know, you want to give as much freedom as possible to the shows. This runway for them to try out. To what extent do you give it to them? And yet you come in as well as the executives and pulling them back. How do you find that balance?
Nick Bernstein: Well, I'm finding it more and more difficult every day. Um, I think for 1230, especially for the later show, if you can't experiment at that hour of night, there's nowhere on television that you can really do that. Certainly not in broadcast. And so you know, there are certain words you can't say there's certain things you can't show on television.
But outside of those things, as long as you're not like harming someone else or, you know, I think bullying is a, is really ugly and has happened on TV before. But I don't think happens now, like as long as you're still coming across, when you're the host as having fun and the audience is in on the joke with you, then I think that that runway really is very large.
And once again, I am learning every day through the pandemic and the type of shows that are being made now just how far one can go on on TV. Whether it's literally me or just the types of moments we talk about that are otherwise would have been sort of private conversations that are now more public.
But that's also a time honored tradition of late night. And so I think some of the fun, most fun things that happen in this space is when there's a little bit of that element of danger and you don't really know what's going to happen next, but you are glued to your screen cause you can't wait to find out what that is.
And that's happened for decades on end where it's certainly like with a show, like in living color and the sketch comedy, like that was always the case, no matter what sketch they had on for me in the late eighties, early nineties when someone like Chris Farley was on Saturday Night Live and he would come on in character, it was like, I don't know what's gonna happen next.
But like, I'm already laughing. When, you know Letterman would make fun of the bosses. Like that was always something that was fun.
There was a moment of time and I was, gosh, I can't remember if I had started working at CBS at that point. I might, I don't think I was there yet where uh, occasionally there are some challenging songs to clear. To play on television because you have to get permission from the artist in order to play a song and often you have to pay for that song.
There was a night where Letterman just wouldn't stop talking about the Eagles and kept on making Paul in the band play Eagle songs. And you could see on the corner of the screen, one of the producers of Letterman talking to the music clearance person and letting them know as it's happening, this is going to air the night.
And uh, I could just feel the sweat coming down the poor person's face from the music clearance side when this was going on, but my goodness was it fun television to watch.
And so it's hard for me not to enjoy some of that, even if I'm on the other side. Cause you know, that's like slight peek behind the scenes is really enjoyable.
Ling Yah: And that was the end of part one of episode 51.
The show notes and transcript can be found at www.sothisismywhy.com/51-1 alongside a link to subscribe to this podcast's weekly newsletter.
If you want to find out how the rest of Nick's journey goes, check back this Wednesday for part two.
Where we cover the impact that Comcast's acquisition had on Nick and his NBC colleagues, how he ended up being the executive producer for the Pete Holmes show before he ended up working on the Late Late Show with James Corden, where we cover everything from why Nick initially hesitated to jump on board, to the mad dash to launch the show, his reaction to the first time James told him he wanted to jump out of a plane, how he ended up in front of the cameras, that athleisure wear episode and cruise ship updates?
To hear part two of Nick's story, check back this Wednesday.
Fins up, baby!