The story behind that Leno-Letterman-Oprah Super Bowl promo

The late-night TV skirmish continues: Jay Leno and David Letterman, who traded sharp barbs last month over NBC‘s late-night maneuvering, appeared on camera in a short promo for CBS’Late Show with David Letterman during Sunday’s Super Bowl— with Oprah Winfrey as the referee.

The 15-second spot, a sequel to a similar commercial featuring Letterman and Winfrey that aired in 2007, opens as Letterman, munching on chips on a couch, decrees this “the worst Super Bowl party ever.” The camera pans next to Winfrey, who admonishes “Now Dave, be nice!” and then to Leno, sitting on on the other side of Winfrey who says “Aw, he’s just sayin’ that because I’m here!” Letterman then mimics Leno’s voice in repeating the phrase, then Winfrey throws up her hands in resignation.

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The spot was conceived two weeks ago, and shot only last Tuesday at Letterman’s Manhattan studio.

“This was Dave’s idea,” says Late Show executive producer Rob Burnett of the super-secret promo shoot. “He wrote the script, then we called Oprah, who thankfully had a good enough time doing it the last time. She was in right away.”

The next call went to CBS chief Leslie Moonves, “to make sure he was OK with Jay being on our network during the Super Bowl. He thought it was hilarious and said ‘Go for it.’ “

Then Burnett phoned his counterpart, Leno producer Debbie Vickers, describing the concept and that Letterman would essentially be making fun of his rival. Leno — who took heat from critics and Conan O’Brien fans for seemingly enabling NBC to force O’Brien from his time slot — -called back within minutes: “Jay got it; he thought it was really funny and said ‘Let’s do it.’ “

What followed was a series of “logistical meetings that would make the CIA proud. We had to try to get Jay into the theater without anyone seeing him, and Oprah as well,” Burnett says.

Days earlier, Leno had abruptly canceled last Tuesday’s soon-to-end prime-time Jay Leno Show, and he flew to New York on a 7:30 a.m. flight. It was decided he’d best enter the Ed Sullivan Theater during the taping of Letterman’s show, when there’s often commotion from fans on Broadway, but Leno wore a disguise: “A hooded sweatshirt, dark sunglasses and a fake moustache,” says Burnett. “He snuck into Broadway into the back lobby,” and from there, to a 10th-floor office.

As soon as the show ended, Leno, Letterman and Winfrey made their way to the theater’s balcony, which is sometimes used as a production area, and the commercial was filmed quickly: “The whole thing took 25 or 30 minutes,” he says.

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Leno was “very professional, very cordial, friendly. They both got that this was funny and a good thing for everybody.”

Good for Letterman, because it helps draw attention to his show — even as Leno prepares to face him anew starting March 1. Good for Winfrey because it portrayed her as a “skilled comedian,” Burnett says. And good for Leno’s image rehabilitation.

“There was a lot of conversation internally: ‘Is it good for Jay, does it help him?’ ” Burnett recalls. “Dave had no interest in any of those conversations.” To him, CBS’ promo time was “this is 15 seconds in the Super Bowl; it has to be funny.”

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