Skip to content

Late Show producer tells all about Letterman-Leno Super Bowl ad

Feb 8, 2010, 1:00 PM EDT

Sean Payton wasn’t the only one who made a great call under pressure during the Super Bowl. Faced with the task of coming up with a funny 15-second spot to promote his show during the game, David Letterman went for the comedy equivalent of an onside kick, and came up big (Hank Baskett not involved this time). Letterman, Oprah Winfrey and Jay Leno, on the same sofa for a commercial, with no CGI? That’s unpossible. But somehow it happened, and Late Show executive producer Rob Burnett is talking today about the biggest moment of Sunday’s Super Bowl commercials. It’s no surprise that Letterman was behind the whole thing. But why?

“Dave has a simple edict: If it’s funny, we do it,” Burnett told Entertainment Weekly. “When CBS says it needs 10 seconds, it’s incumbent upon you to do the funniest bit you can do.”

“Then we learned we had another five seconds. That may not sound like a really big deal but let’s face it … that’s someone’s college education [given how much the typical per-second spot goes for during the Super Bowl], so we were really thrilled about that.”

San Francisco Chronicle TV writer Tim Goodman was just as shocked as anyone by the sudden pairing of the late-night rivals.

“It was a well-kept secret and therefore a pretty big surprise when it popped up,” Goodman told Out of Bounds. “I’m not sure it helped Leno all that much given that Letterman was able to mock him again, but it probably didn’t hurt that he was willing to do it. And it also effectively ended the two of them sniping at each other going forward. It was funny as well, but not nearly funny enough for me to ever watch Leno again.”

The spot was filmed in New York right after a taping of Letterman’s show, and the bringing together of the three talk giants included more confusing logistics and intrigue than a Robert Ludlum novel. Leno flew in from Los Angeles on the NBC corporate jet, and had to be smuggled into the Ed Sullivan Theater in disguise (including fake mustache). Winfrey was also ushered in in secret. It was all due to a brainstorm by Letterman.

We were banging heads together,” Burnett said. “How do we come close to topping the last one? Then Dave got this idea. My first call was to Oprah — she got it right away — and then I called [CBS Corp. Chairman] Les Moonves to make sure he was OK with Jay being on CBS.

“I have to give Les credit … he got it immediately. And then I called [Leno's executive producer] Debbie Vickers … who said, ‘Dave and Jay, in the same room?’ She laughed for a good minute and said Jay would want to call. I hung up, and two minutes later it was Jay. He said ‘This is the way show business should be.’ Debbie then cleared it with NBC Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin and NBC-Universal CEO Jeff Zucker.”

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Now the debate is on over who benefits most from the promo. My take is that this does a lot to help rehabilitate Leno’s image from the backstabber who stole Dave’s, and then Conan’s spot on The Tonight Show. “Hey look, it’s just show business! We’re all pals!” But on the other hand, it was, after all, a commercial for Letterman’s show. And Dave ultimately reaps the biggest reward of having the most talked-about ad on the most-watched TV broadcast in history.
Meanwhile, Zeta Interactive, a digital marketing agency based in New York which monitors online trends, has ranked the top 10 most popular Super Bowl XLIV ads according to current “online buzz.”

Here is the Top 10 list of commercials which received the highest Zeta Buzz tonal ranking at this year’s Super Bowl:

1. Google “Long Distance Relationship” – 98% positive

2. Doritos “Don’t Touch my Mama/Hands off my Doritos” – 95% positive

3. KGB “Sumo Wrestler/I Surrender” – 93% positive

4. Budweiser “Drawbridge/What we Do” – 93% positive

5. Audi “Green Police” – 91% positive

6. E-Trade “Airplane/Talking Babies” – 89% positive

7. Kia “Sorrento/How do you Like me Now?” – 88% positive

8. TruTV “Groundhog’s Day/Polamalu” – 84% positive

9. Coca Cola “Sleepwalking in the Jungle/Open Happiness” – 79% positive

10. Boost Mobile “Boost Shuffle” – 77% positive

The worst ad? Dockers “I Wear No Pants” received only a 58 percent positive rating. CareerBuilder’s “Casual Fridays” didn’t fare much better at 62 percent. (All the commercials can be seen here). The lesson? Keep your clothes on, especially if you’re a guy. And as Letterman has taught us, never not be funny.
‘Late Show’ producer on Leno-Letterman Super Bowl spot [Entertainment Weekly]
Super Bowl Ad Showdown [MSNBC]
The best and worst of the Super Bowl ads [MSNBC]
Tim Goodman: The Bastard Machine [San Francisco Chronicle]
Zeta Interactive [Official Site]

  1. BC - Feb 8, 2010 at 3:29 PM

    The Letterman ad was the second best one all night. I absolutely loved the Lebron James / Dwight Howard / Larry Bird ad. Can’t believe that didn’t crack the Top 10.

  2. Rick Chandler - Feb 8, 2010 at 3:31 PM

    Maybe because it was so early in the game? Not sure myself.

  3. Bob - Feb 8, 2010 at 4:53 PM

    Because it put on display everything wrong with NBA. I hated the spot. Two current stars who have no respect for the past, and no respect for playing the sport of basketball. Just being flashy and look at me guys.
    “Who was that guy?”
    Translation “Who was that white guy eating our food? If he doesn’t do sweet dunks I don’t know who he be.”
    I would have liked it if they somehow showed some respect for Bird, but it was like he was just some shmow. Or larry burst in and kicked bother thier butts….
    it was a terible commercial.

  4. moreflagsmorefun - Feb 9, 2010 at 12:23 PM

    2. Doritos “Don’t Touch my Mama/Hands off my Doritos” – 95% positive

  5. moreflagsmorefun - Feb 9, 2010 at 12:29 PM

    Dude, welcome to 2010, sorry the rest of us have moved on with our
    life and you remain stuck in the past. I was a BIG
    Magic/Laker fan, hated the Celtics but respected their
    players, Bird was a great player but he is not owed anything,
    he was paid to play, he didn’t play for free, so get off