Producer Peter Lassally at CBS Television City in Los Angeles. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)
Late-night television, busier than ever (and at its best, better than ever) with talk shows and comedy, has been in the news again lately, with the hand-over of "The Tonight Show" from Jay Leno to Jimmy Fallon officially announced for next spring — a change in stewardship that will also take the show back to New York from Burbank.
The man who brought "The Tonight Show" west in the first place is producer Peter Lassally, who wanted to live in Los Angeles and in 1972 convinced Johnny Carson that California was the place he ought to be. Lassally, 80, is now producer of the singular "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson"; when I interviewed Ferguson in 2010, he told me that the person I really should be talking to was Lassally. Finally, I did.
It's a Friday afternoon in the complex of unassuming offices that make up the Television City headquarters of the Ferguson show and the local branch of the company that makes it, David Letterman's Worldwide Pants Inc. Lassally was fresh from a booking meeting.
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"That's the hard part of the job," he said, "because there are three 11:30 talk shows which come first on everybody's agenda, and then God knows how many at 12, 12:30. So you're constantly competing for basically the same group of people; and now they sometimes only do the campaign in New York, they don't come to L.A. So it's a very small group that you're fighting for."
Lassally, whose TV career runs back to Arthur Godfrey, who ruled the medium in the 1950s, is probably the most experienced man in late night — and as the man closest to the men behind the desk, one of the most important. He worked with Carson for 23 years before going on to Letterman, shepherding his move from 12:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. It was Lassally who suggested to a retired Carson that he send some of the topical jokes he was writing in his retirement to Letterman to use in his monologues.
He also pioneered the 12:30 slot for CBS, with "The Late Late Show," originally with Tom Snyder ("a complete original, and a true broadcaster"), and sometimes guest-hosted by Jon Stewart.
"I've been very lucky that I've worked with really talented people almost all my life," Lassally said. "But I have a good eye for talent. I think that's my biggest talent, if not my only talent. And so there is a comfort between the host and me, and trust and respect. I've learned things from them, and they've learned things from me."
"I don't think there's any question that those shows have guests that tend to have the right chemistry with the host because of Peter Lassally," said Garry Shandling, who met the producer in 1981 when he guested on "The Tonight Show" and who got to know him well as a regular substitute for Carson.
"He has an innate ability to sense when someone's going to get along with the host. The joke used to be that he'd look at a comic and say, 'Well, Johnny won't like him,' but what that's really saying is, 'That's not the show we're producing.' He's got a point of view, and it's a very subtle point of view. He's got a warmth about him and yet gets his point across — he's very kind and very direct. "
"He was rather dignified, vague and a distinguished gentleman," Ferguson recalled, by email, of his first impressions of the man he has worked with for the last nine years. "Perhaps a little doughty — and probably a genius. I wouldn't be interested in doing the show without him."
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Lassally is soft-spoken but not exactly reserved. He laughs easily and often. But he doesn't feel the need to talk about himself, and he doesn't like the spotlight, though his life has been remarkable enough that Ferguson wanted to make a movie of it. ("I'm sorry," Lassally told him, "I can't cooperate with that.")
On occasion, he will agree, reluctantly, to appear in public. After Carson died, Letterman persuaded Lassally to come on "Late Show" and talk about his old boss. "I was so scared," he told me, describing himself, inaccurately, as "inarticulate." I pointed out that he got laughs. "Believe me," he replied, "I was totally numb."
On "The Tonight Show," he was teamed with the flamboyant Fred de Cordova, who died in 2001, the man most people think of as that show's producer. "We were good and bad together," Lassally recalled. "I liked the work, he liked the schmoozing, and was great at it. We didn't think alike when it came to how to produce the show, so it wasn't always easy. But we had lunch every day together for more than 20 years."
It was at "The Tonight Show" that Lassally "really put my likability factor into practice, where I said, 'I don't want to just book the person that's hot right now.' That was probably my major influence, in that we would not go after the same people as the other shows. I would book an author or an opera singer or a magician. I wanted it to be a little bit of everything."