As the Emmy-winning executive producer of "The Late Show with David Letterman," Tufts graduate Rob Burnett has maintained his lifelong empathy for the underdog.
As the current executive producer and former head writer of CBS's "The Late Show with David Letterman," Tufts graduate Rob Burnett has overseen his fair share of messy comedic bits, but the way the New Jersey native opened the class he taught at the Tufts' Experimental College during his senior year might just take the cake.
"My roommate and I taught a class on 20th-century American humor," says Burnett. "Our first day, the opening gambit was, as I was lecturing, [he] was putting whipped cream and sundae toppings on my head.
"I don't think it's an accident that [the class] is no longer there," the English major says bemusedly.
Burnett's stint at teaching modern American humor may have been short-lived, but the same can't be said for his career of creating and shaping it. Though you'd never guess it from his self-effacing manner, Burnett has five Emmys under his belt for his work on "The Late Show," where he's been executive producer for almost 10 years. In addition, he co-created and executive-produced the critically beloved television series "Ed," which ran from 2000 through 2004 on NBC. And Worldwide Pants - Letterman's production company, of which Burnett is president and CEO - counts among its stable of shows the wildly popular "Everybody Loves Raymond," which ran from 1996 through this spring on CBS.
For Burnett, who says he's wanted to be a writer "for as long as [he] can remember," the road to success in his chosen field was intermittently rocky. After graduating from Tufts in 1984, Burnett "loaded up [his] little car" and began driving to California in order to pursue his dream.
Burnett managed to get a job as a busboy at actor Dudley Moore's restaurant, 72 Market Street. Whenever he wasn't working, he was writing. Sometimes, though, his job provided him with so much material that the two pursuits overlapped - especially after his promotion from busboy to what he terms "the 'maitre p'...this job where [I] would work back by the bathrooms and talk to people while they were waiting, because there weren't enough bathrooms in the place."
After leaving the West Coast for a short-lived stint as an editorial assistant for a New Jersey newspaper, Burnett made a submission to Letterman's show (which was then on NBC and titled "Late Night" rather than "The Late Show"). Though no paid positions were available, Burnett was offered an internship within the show's talent department. In August of 1985, he took it - but the process was not without complications.
"At the time, they were changing the rules and because of labor laws, you had to either get college credit or get paid; you couldn't just work for free," Burnett recounts. "I had already graduated from, you know, Tufts University," he says in a tone implying prestige, "but I found myself going to William Paterson Community College to pay $400 to get credit for this internship at the Letterman show...it was hilarious."
Luckily, that financially draining situation didn't last long. After three weeks, Burnett was offered a paid position as a talent assistant. A year later, he was promoted to talent researcher. Burnett soon began submitting jokes to Letterman for his monologue, and in February of 1988, at age 25, he became one of the "Late Show" writers - which he says was "just a dream come true."
"There were many, many lovely moments for me along the way, but I think that particular moment was really the first time someone said to me, 'You're a writer now,'" says Burnett, who in 1992, made the leap to head writer. "I was 29, which was very young for that job. In short, I was petrified," Burnett says.
In 1996, Burnett was asked to become the show's executive producer and he obliged, despite the fact that it meant putting "Ed," a show he had been developing with "Late Show" writer Jon Beckerman, on hold. Several years later, the pair would return their attention to "Ed," an hour-long comedy-drama about a successful lawyer who returns to his hometown of Stuckeyville and opens a combination bowling alley-law practice there.
"There were many, many lovely moments for me along the way, but I think that particular moment was really the first time someone said to me, 'You're a writer now.'"
"You know, it's funny: when you have a show like 'Ed,' the requirements to fill it up every week are so vast that you end up shoving every square inch of your life into the show, in big and small ways," says Burnett, who peppered the show with references to Tufts (one character mentions that he graduated from the University; another recalls going to a pizza place called Espresso's - a popular Tufts hangout - while at school).
"College is such a fertile and formative time of your life, where you're developing and experiencing so many new things...it's a time in life when we're all trying to find ourselves," says Burnett, who played varsity soccer at Tufts. "I found that struggle to be very poignant back then - and really still do now. If there was a singular message of 'Ed,' it was that the show was a champion of..." A pause. "I don't want to say 'the loser,'" Burnett continues, "but the ones for whom life does not come as easily, I suppose."
Burnett describes the years when he was writing and producing "Ed" in addition to fulfilling his "Late Show" and Worldwide Pants responsibilities as "very punishing." But even then, family was first and foremost on his mind - and, as a result, on the screen: after seeing his wife (Eunice Johnson Burnett, a fellow Jumbo) and kids (daughters Sydney and Lucy and son Charlie) crying together after reading the ending to Charlotte's Web, Burnett wrote an episode of "Ed" in which an adult character finds out that when she was a child, her father - not wanting to see his daughter cry - had rewritten the book's sad final pages as a happy ending before reading the book to her.
And in another episode of the show, Burnett - who received the Tufts University Alumni Association's highest honor, the Light on the Hill Award, in 2002 - tackled being torn between the professional and the personal. It was the first episode Burnett ever directed.
"[Directing] was [a] dream of mine that evolved later, once I understood the way things were put together," he says.
During the episode, the show's titular character, Ed, is at a personal crossroads, trying to determine what type of mark on the world it's most important to make. Ed's points of reference? The first: one of his clients, a famous artist who was critically lauded but had no personal life. The second: his own grandfather - a loving and enthusiastic family man who held a celebratory grape-stomping session with friends and neighbors every Friday.
In the last scene of the episode, Ed - having decided that leaving a personal legacy behind is more valuable than simply leaving a professional one - celebrates his grandfather's zest for life, friendship and family by renewing the grape-stomping tradition in a kiddie pool outside his bowling alley-slash-law office.
For Burnett, the special quality of the moment transcended the scripted scene.
"It's freezing cold, and they had to make the grapes kind of warm so the actors wouldn't freeze, and there's steam coming up, and I'm over budget, and in the middle of all of these things, " he recalls, "I just realized, 'I'm doing it - I'm actually doing it. I'm directing!'"
Profile written by Patrice Taddonio, Class of 2006
Patrice Taddonio, a native of Holland, Pennsylvania, is an English major and a communications and media studies minor. Currently the Tufts Daily's head features editor, she interned with the Improper Bostonian magazine during her sophomore year, and worked as a temporary text editor with the Associated Press at last July's Democratic National Convention. A member of the Class of 2006 and a songwriter, Taddonio has also performed on guitar and vocals at on-campus venues and at Boston-area benefits.