Rick Ludwin has been through plenty of regime changes in his 29 years at NBC (he's been there long enough to work for two bosses named Silverman).
But nothing in his experience compares to the buzz and the scrutiny generated by a transition at the top of "The Tonight Show." The first phase of the transition from Jay Leno to Conan O'Brien began last week with O'Brien's sign off after nearly 16 years on NBC's "Late Night," and it continues on Monday with O'Brien's successor, Jimmy Fallon, making his debut at 12:35 a.m.
As much as NBC has been in the spotlight the past few months with its latenight shuffle, and Leno-at-10 decision, it's been a far, far less traumatic than the last time around, when Leno took the baton from Johnny Carson in May 1992, according to Ludwin, who is NBC's exec veep of late night and primetime series.
"This is a more peaceful transfer of power than the last time around," Ludwin says. "Nothing could surpass the intensity of the coverage of Carson, who was such a person of distinction in our country."
Ludwin and Lorne Michaels are the only two people in senior roles at NBC who were around during the Carson-Leno-Letterman scrum. This time around, Ludwin tried to prep his colleagues as best he could.
"'The Tonight Show' is an American institution. It's the gold standard of late night shows, and there's a bond between people and this show," he says. "And these transitions only happen once every ice age, so of course there's an intense interest."
Ludwin spent the past week in Gotham observing Fallon and "Late Night" exec producer Michaels at work on a week of test shows prior to Monday's on-air bow. The live aud was very receptive, and Fallon's style is already distinctive from O'Brien's, Ludwin said. The show is also very attuned to melding interactive elements into the telecast and on its website because "Jimmy is of the generation of multitasking," Ludwin says.
Fallon's set has a different vibe too, Ludwin notes, because he's not in the same studio as O'Brien was or David Letterman before him. "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" hails from 30 Rock's famed studio 6-B, which was home of the "Tonight Show" in its early years, including Carson's first 10 years in Gotham, and Milton Berle's "Texaco Star Theater" before that.
Fallon's biggest asset going in to his new gig is his experience working live on "Saturday Night Live," Ludwin opines.
"He's got the chops and he's got the work ethic. He's had the training on 'Saturday Night Live' that you've got a deadline and you have to hit it," Ludwin says. "That discipline and work ethic is so important. I've seen talent come in to these shows, and no matter how funny they are, after three months they're saying 'I can't do this every night.' It's like a treadmill that doesn't end."
Fallon's segue is likely to be a little smoother than Conan's was in 1993, given his "SNL" background. But a lot of people at NBC learned an important lesson from Conan's rocky first year that they'd all be well advised to remember during the next few months. Ludwin, by all accounts, and Michaels were among the few who kept the faith, and as such it was no accident that Ludwin (pictured right) was the first NBC exec that O'Brien thanked in his heartfelt sign-off from "Late Night" on Feb. 20.
"There were a number of people out there who were telling me we'd made a mistake (with O'Brien) and that we'd better jump out. But we stuck to the plan, and Conan did the work. He kept his head down and each day worked at getting better and funnier and not paying attention to what the critics were saying," Ludwin says.
Doing a new latenight show is a lot like boxing, Ludwin says. The biggest challenge is making it through the first round with the audience and with critics. "After 10 rounds, if you're still standing, they respect you."
Watching Conan ascend to the "Tonight Show" throne is a "source of great pride," Ludwin admits.
(Ludwin's track record at the Peacock not only includes the Conan gamble, but he was also the one who spotted the potential in a little comedy special the network produced in 1989 called "The Seinfeld Chronicles.")
From his humble start at the network as director of variety programs, being in the thick of NBC's latenight business has afforded Ludwin "as good a ride as you could ask for in television."