A chat with Rob Burnett

A case could be made that — after David Letterman, of course — the next top creative force at the Late Show was Rob Burnett. The New Jersey native first began as an intern at Late Night in 1985 at just 23 years of age, rising in the ranks to become not only head writer, but also executive producer of the Late Show and CEO of Letterman’s production company, the wonderfully named Worldwide Pants. WWP would also produce Burnett’s acclaimed NBC primetime show Ed and receive a production credit on his newest directorial project, the Netflix Original movie Fundamentals of Caring, starring Selena Gomez and self-proclaimed “Letterman fanatic” Paul Rudd. We chatted with Burnett by email about his years “growing up” on Letterman, regrets about Jay Leno, and being ready to move on from the show.

As we know from the end run of Late Shows, Paul Rudd, the star of your new movie Fundamentals of Caring, was a big Letterman fan. Did you know this before making the film? Did he pepper with you questions about the show?

Paul and I had met once or twice, but didn’t really know each other. I was a huge fan and as it turned out, he did have a healthy respect and love of the Late Show.

He was curious about the show and we did talk a bit about it on set. I am always a little reluctant to say too much about some of what went on up there. Some of it was pretty ugly, and I think it probably will remain with those of us who lived it.

What was Worldwide Pants / Letterman’s role in the production of the movie? I know it’s a Netflix Original, but I understand they didn’t commission the movie.

The movie was independently financed. Worldwide Pants has a production credit on the movie because of my role with the movie. Dave was not involved at all, nor did WWP provide financing.

Netflix came in after the movie was done. They have been a distribution partner, not a production partner in this case. They have been fantastic.

Is leaving the Late Show somewhat bittersweet? I know your role has expanded and contracted depending on your other projects, but it obviously gives you the opportunity to pursue directing movies full-time.

I’ll treasure my time there, but honestly I think it was time for the show to go off the air. It was tough being the old, irrelevant show when Fallon was killing it across town. It was the first time I can remember losing staff to another show. We had always been the talk show everyone in NYC wanted to work on, and it felt strange to have people wanting to be elsewhere.

I was a little worried at one point that the end would be a whimper, but we did indeed go out with a bang. I was relieved that it turned out so well. I think in the end the whole body of work was too big to ignore.

I’ve asked a few Letterman staffers their feelings from that time a year ago when Dave retired — any thoughts or particular reflections from the last day and run of final shows? Any favourite moments?

I loved Norm MacDonald’s last set — funny, touching. Really great.

As far as the very last show went, I thought the final montage that Barbara Gaines put together with some of our editors really was terrific. I was happy for Barbara that she had the last word. She deserved it for many reasons.

When I chatted with Randy Cohen about his time as a writer at Late Night, he mentioned that Letterman did a kind of “moral comedy,” infused by his Midwest upbringings. And that’s also something I think informs your work, from Ed to Fundamentals of Caring. Would you agree? And, if so, are you sure you’re not Midwestern?

Haha. I’m from New Jersey. We’ve got our own set of values — just check out The Sopranos.

Keep in mind I grew up at the Late Show, was formed by the sensibility of that place. By Dave, of course, but also people like Merrill Markoe and Steve O’Donnell. (I never worked directly with Merrill, but I think her influence had such long and lasting tentacles that it is within me.)

Steve for me was like the brilliant professor that crosses your path right as you’re developing and impacts you for life. He was funny and smart in a way that I had never seen before. Kind of in a mind-blowing way. Being around that guy on a daily basis in my mid-twenties will be with me forever. I honestly think it connected synapses in my brain that would never ever have been connected. I feel lucky to have worked with him when I did.

I have said this before: everything I do in my career is a footnote to the Late Show and all the great people there from which I learned.

There’s a key moment in the film (MILD SPOILER ALERT) when Ben replies to Peaches’ question about parenthood, saying: “It’s the only reason we’re here.” I don’t disagree, but it’s a far more unequivocal statement than ones you gave in a terrific interview with Fast Company about the challenges of living up to the pulls of both family and creating art. Is this something you still wrestle with? Are you still working 96-hour weeks?

Here is what I know with certainty: the TV shows, the movies, the press, the awards — none of that means anything compared to my relationships with my friends and family. I am incredibly lucky. I am extremely close with my wife and kids. Our family is almost sickening in this regard — we adore each other.

I missed time with my family because of my career to be sure, but I was always present. I never was foolish enough to think what I was doing at work was more important than what was happening at home. This perspective wasn’t always easy to maintain.

Show business people are often dramatic. And that leads to their trying to create an air of great importance around what they are doing. It’s how you get ridiculously overblown sayings like, “The show must go on!” A show doesn’t actually have to go on. It is a show. Brain surgery must go on.

I have never been a dramatic person. It is not my nature. And I think at times it helped me maintain calmness and rationality while being confronted with the opposite.

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Despite having a teen daughter, I don’t know much about Selena Gomez (pictured with Burnett above), aside from the fact she’s obviously a huge star. She plays a vital role in Fundamentals of Caring — and is arguably the best part of the film — and there’s a depth to her performance that was surprising to me. Did it surprise you? And in the same line, were there celebrities that you met on the Late Show that exceeded your expectations?

I can’t say enough good things about Selena. She is an awfully impressive person. Before I met Selena, I thought I understood fame, but it turns out I never really saw the true version of it.

This is a girl that is beloved by millions of people. We would shoot in the middle of nowhere and by the end of the day a thousand kids had somehow found us and wanted to get a glimpse of her.

But somehow, impossibly, this 23-year-old kid manages to remain completely down-to-earth, completely unaffected by her fame, power and status. She has an elegance and grace about her that is rare.

As for her talents, the sky is the limit. She works hard and remains humble. She has a preternatural understanding that fame without accomplishment is empty, and this pushes her to continually challenge herself. Most with her accomplishments would rest on their laurels. That is not in her DNA.

As far as celebs I met at the Late Show, some of my favorites were Howard Stern, Bill Murray, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, Steve Martin. Ray Romano, of course — he is another rare example of someone who was not ruined by success.

Writer, producer and feature-film director — is there one role that fits you best? And any desire to step in front of the camera? I see that Judd Apatow, another director with a similar Lettermanesque sensibility, is now doing stand-up, for example. I know you wrote jokes for comedians — any unrealized desire to be on the stage as well?

I did stand-up very briefly at the end of college up in Boston and then in NY. Open mic stuff. I found that I would get sick to my stomach with nerves for the entire day leading up to when I was to perform. Once I was doing it, I relaxed into it and enjoyed it, but I literally thought I would shorten my life if I chose to do it for a living.

In retrospect, I think I also approached stand-up as a writer and not as a performer. My little set was sophomoric and low quality, but it was indeed cleverly designed in a way that got big laughs from the audience. I never once bombed, and that had more to do with the structure of things then the actual material.

Truth is, I was terrified to fail, and I think that same instinct helped in writing and producing for the Late Show. I was always very conscious of the audience during comedy — little things like, “Oh, that actor’s exit will take too long.” That stuff can be really helpful.

So that’s a long way of saying, no, I don’t see myself in front of the camera. The shorter answer is that I don’t think it is what I am best at.

Also in that Fast Company article, you talk about directing your first episode of Ed as a career highlight. I assume directing Fundamentals of Caring is another. Are there other highlights that spring to mind, especially from your time on the Letterman show?

Yes, there was a moment during that first episode I directed at Ed that will stay with me forever. I had a very difficult day: some stuff we shot earlier in the day took too long and we were under real time pressure. Also, things at the Late Show weren’t going well. Dave was angry at something.

And all of a sudden I was standing outside the bowling alley shooting the last shot of the episode, and I look over and see a 30-foot crane with a camera on it. There were Tom Cavanagh, Julie Bowen, Michael Ian Black, Josh Randal, Jana Marie-Hupp and Lesley Boone — so friendly, so supportive. These people would run through walls for me.

And as I stood there that night, I felt an overwhelming sense of joy. From the inside out. It is a moment I will never forget.

Yes, directing this movie was also a crazy highlight. Directing Paul Rudd? Come on!

At the Late Show, I think one particular moment I will remember was directing Dave and Steve Martin. There was a moment where I am telling the two of them what to do and they are both looking up at me and nodding. It was an out-of-body experience: two of the greatest comedians of our generation looking at me for instruction. I’ll treasure that moment forever.

What’s your take on the current late-night scene? Do you follow any longer?

Honestly, I think in some ways it is better than ever. I don’t watch a lot, but whenever I do I am really impressed. Everyone is working really hard, doing really great stuff. My daughter Sydney is an intern at the Fallon show this summer and having the time of her life. I think that is a really fun show to work on and I think that joy pours onto the air. It is probably why they are #1.

But I do like all of them. I think Kimmel is hilarious; Conan is doing remotes now that are as good as anything I’ve ever seen. Corden has stuff going on; Seth is really enjoyable, too. (I think Fred Armisen may be the funniest man in the world.)

And Colbert is too smart and funny not to succeed. I saw a clip of his comments about Orlando and I was moved to tears. I thought his words there were so well-chosen and so sincere — absolutely beautiful.

Do you have a role with Worldwide Pants still? I know you mentioned last year the possibility of doing more with the Late Show archive and it would be Dave’s decision to do something with that. I’m getting the sense not much will be done, as Letterman seems to have less interest in his own legacy than other entertainment icons (Carson, Seinfeld, etc.). Is that a fair take? Or do you think something will get done?

I am no longer with Worldwide Pants. I am happy now to be focused solely on my own projects. I’m very proud of the company we built. Most production companies of celebrities are vanity companies, but Worldwide Pants made a real mark. I remember that there was a moment in time in the early 2000s when Worldwide Pants had three of the top five shows in the national electronic media poll. Ed was #2, Raymond was #3 and The Late Show was #5.

This was a list where our competitors were places like Paramount and Warner Brothers and Fox! They had floors of executives and big development funds.

The Late Show always remained the main focus of the company and I think to some extent may have suffocated some of Worldwide Pants’ true potential. If you look at what Lorne Michaels has done by giving people opportunities to succeed outside SNL, that is a great model. It always bummed me out, for example, that How I Met Your Mother wasn’t a WWP show since we gave Carter Bays and Craig Thomas their first TV jobs. But that isn’t on them, it is on us. We were never set up to truly embrace people doing work outside the Late Show.

All that said, we still managed to create a tremendous company with a tremendous brand. There is big value there. I’m excited to see where Dave will take it in the next decade.

On the archive, that is also in Dave’s hands. I think Dave’s legacy is secure with or without the library. He’s in the hall of fame and no one can ever take that from him. He’s earned his way there as one of the best ever, if not the very best.

The problem, unfortunately, with shows like these is that they fade fast. Movies like, say, The Godfather, still play routinely and capture new audiences. They remain relevant.

Talk show hosts are a little like pro athletes. I can tell my 14-year-old son how great Ranger goalie Ed Giacomin was in his day, but he’ll never really care. For him, it is [Henrik] Lundqvist. The sad fact is that most people in their 20s and under have never heard of Johnny Carson or David Letterman. And every year that population increases. It is the nature of the beast.

So, we all have to be proud of what we accomplished while we accomplished it, but also realize that every day it drifts further into the past. I think in the case of Dave, the greatness will linger more than most — because he was just that good — but all of us who dedicated ourselves to the Late Show have to brace ourselves for the inevitable irrelevance that is imbued in this particular endeavor.

Your anecdote (in Walter Kim’s Leaving Letterman video) about Jay Leno calling right before the last Late Show was priceless. Will Leno haunt you forever?

I actually have some regrets about my dealings with Jay over the years. I think I got caught up with the notion of Jay as the enemy. It all feels silly to me now. He was perfectly nice when he called before the last show.

What do you miss most about the Late Show?

Well, that’s an easy one: the people. Jude Brennan, Barbara Gaines, Matt Roberts, Kathy Mavrikakis, Maria Pope, Nancy Agostini, Justin and Eric Stangel, Brian Teta, Paul Shaffer, Bill Scheft — the list goes on and on.

These are really smart, really bright, really funny people, but most of all, they are really decent people. Good people. Kind people. We all had each other’s backs in a way that makes me proud.

We all have a shared experience that no one else will ever fully understand. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I know that years from now when I see any of these people (and others I’m leaving off the list), we can just nod at each other and a whole world of emotions will be wordlessly exchanged.

I miss seeing these people every day, laughing with them every day, working with them every day. It may sound corny, but I love them.

And finally, thoughts on the beard?

I have faith that Dave knows exactly what he’s doing. He always does.

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