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Meet Peter Lassally, Late Night 'Host Whisperer'

Aug 25, 2012
Originally published on August 25, 2012 8:16 am

Peter Lassally is known as "the host whisperer." If you've ever watched a late night show with an opening monologue, a couch and guests bouncing off each other, then you've seen his work — he practically invented the form.

Lassally produced The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson for 23 years. He also produced Late Night with David Letterman and The Arthur Godfrey Show, which dominated broadcasting in the early 1950s. Now, at 79, he's executive producer of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, which begins its ninth season on Monday.

Lassally has been known to counsel comedians, including Garry Shandling and Jon Stewart, on how a comic, who delivers punch lines, becomes a good host, who gives punch lines to others.

"Being a comedian does not make you a talk show host by any means," Lassally says. "It takes a lot more than that. It helps, possibly, in that you think funny; but doing a standup routine and hosting an interview program are two completely different things."

'Don't Be Too Scottish'

Scottish comic Craig Ferguson became host of The Late Late Show after a round of comedians, actors and talk show personalities auditioned on-air. Lassally says he had two big concerns when it came to hiring Ferguson: First, he was Scottish and not homebred, and, second, he had a strong accent that Lassally sometimes had trouble understanding.

"I was really, really concerned about it," he says. "Turns out, people think it's charming, his accent. My reaction was, 'I have no idea what you just said.' So I was very concerned about that and I shouldn't have been."

When African-American comic D.L. Hughley, who guest hosted The Late Late Show for a week, asked Lassally for advice, he told him the same thing he'd told Ferguson: "Don't be too Scottish." In other words, don't just rely on ethnicity, an accent or personal identity; be a surrogate for the audience.

According to comic Shandling, "One of Peter's real strengths is getting the host to understand how to listen, how to ask the questions that an audience might want to hear, and to listen to the answer and to not be thinking ahead with the joke."

From Nazi Camps To The Rockettes

Lassally's background is tragic and enthralling. He was born into a Jewish family who fled Hamburg, Germany, in the late 1930s and wound up in Amsterdam, where he went to grade school with Anne Frank. He offers an unvarnished observation about Frank, something that could perhaps only come from a concentration camp survivor: "She was not popular. Other girls did not like her. You know, she was a bit of a loner."

The Nazis eventually sent Lassally and his family to the Westerbork camp in the Netherlands, and then to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, a kind of show camp used for Nazi propaganda.

"That was a very strange place," Lassally says of Theresienstadt. "That's where the Nazis fixed up the camp with all sorts of phony, wonderful decor, and invited the Red Cross to come and visit and see what wonderful things they were doing."

But the reality of Theresienstadt was quite different. Lassally's sister, for example, was part of a group charged with building gas chambers. "It was a hard time for all of us," he says.

Lassally's family came to the U.S. in 1947 and by the early '50s he was an usher at Radio City Music Hall in New York and a page at NBC, alongside Regis Philbin. He had gone from the camps to watching The Rockettes.

Likeability: The X Factor In Late Night

According to Lassally, if his background had anything to do with him seeking out a career in laughter, it was subconscious.

"I've always been drawn to comics," he says. "I love finding fresh comics, which is harder and harder every year."

The demise of so many comedy clubs and the rise of the Internet have made it harder for comics to develop. It's also encouraged many to imitate already successful acts.

"The gift that I keep looking for in people, whether they're hosts or guests, is likeability," he says. "I don't care if you have the No. 1 record or the No. 1 movie; if you're not likeable, I'd rather not put you on because I don't think the audience will stay up."

But there's also something to be said for experience. Lassally recalls the process of auditioning hosts of all ages for The Late Late Show:

"The problem with a young host or a young guest ... [is] they haven't lived long enough to have thoughts of their own and experiences they can use. If you book people from, let's say the Fox sitcoms, they may be very popular and successful, but they have nothing interesting to say. So, yes, I think age certainly helps in giving you something to talk about that might be more interesting."

Age certainly hasn't held Lassally back. Years ago, the producer worked with The Daily Show's Jon Stewart when he guest hosted The Late Late Show. Today, Stewart remains a fan and friend.

"In this business, you are not accustomed to spending a great deal of time around people with a lot of integrity and warmth and honesty," Stewart says. "So when you do, you are somewhat drawn to it, and that's what [Lassally] has in an effortless way."

In an age with so many competing late shows that some have begun to rely on scripted bits, Lassally says he still works for unscripted spontaneity

"I'm still in the game," he says, "and I'll probably continue to do it until I get to be completely senile."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Peter Lassally is known as the host whisperer. Late-night show with an opening monologue, a couch, and guests bouncing off each other? He practically invented the form.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE TONIGHT SHOW" THEME MUSIC)

SIMON: For 23 years, he produced "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TONIGHT SHOW")

JOHNNY CARSON: Sis, boom, bah.

ED MCMAHON: Sis, boom, bah.

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

CARSON: Describe the sound made when a sheep explodes.

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Then went on to produce "Late Night with David Letterman." But Peter Lassally also produced the old "Arthur Godfrey Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ARTHUR GODFREY SHOW")

SIMON: Which dominated broadcasting in the early 1950s. NBC Radio's "Monitor," where he brought Chicago comics Nichols and May to national prominence.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "MONITOR")

SIMON: Now at the age of 79, Peter Lassally is executive producer of "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson," which begins its ninth season next week. He's also counseled Garry Shandling and Jon Stewart on how a comedian - who delivers punch lines - becomes a good host who gives punch lines to others. Mr. Lassally told us from Los Angeles...

PETER LASSALLY: Being a comedian does not make you a talk show host, by any means. It takes a lot more than that. It helps, possibly, in that you think funny. But doing a stand-up routine and hosting an interview program, are two completely different things, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE LATE SHOW")

CRAIG FERGUSON: Craig, you're babbling like some kind of moron. I'm a late-night host - it's what we do!

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

FERGUSON: FERGUSON: It's a great day for America, everybody. Yes, indeed.

(CHEERS, APPLAUSE)

SIMON: Craig Ferguson became host of "The Late Late Show" after a round of comedians, actors and talk show personalities had auditioned on the air.

LASSALLY: My biggest concern was A, he was Scottish - he was not home-bred; B, he had a rather strong accent that I had trouble understanding.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: I've read that; that you couldn't understand him at first.

LASSALLY: No. I was really, really concerned about it. Turns out, people think it's charming - his accent. My reaction was, "I have no idea what you just said." So I was very concerned about that, and I shouldn't have been. One of the other guest hosts that hosted for a week was D.L. Hughley, who asked me for advice. And I said, I'm going to give you the same advice I gave Craig Ferguson: Don't be too Scottish.

(LAUGHTER

SIMON: Well, I guess he wasn't, was he?

LASSALLY: He stared at me and he said, oh, I get it.

SIMON: Meaning, to D.L. Hughley - a comedian who's African-American - don't rely just on ethnicity, accent or personal identity. Be a surrogate for the audience. Garry Shandling told us...

GARRY SHANDLING: One of Peter's real strengths is getting the host to understand how to listen; how to ask the questions that an audience might want to hear, and to listen to the answer, and to not be thinking ahead with a joke. I don't know if I'm giving you anything usable, but Peter's never given me any notes on a telephone conversation.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Peter Lassally has to be prompted to speak about his background. It is tragic, and enthralling. He was born into a Jewish family who fled Hamburg in the late 1930s and wound up in Amsterdam, where he went to grade school with Anne Frank. Maybe only someone who is a concentration camp survivor can offer such an unvarnished observation about Anne Frank.

LASSALLY: Well, she was not popular. Other girls did not like her. You know, she was a bit of a loner.

SIMON: And you and your family wound up in the same camp, the Westerbork camp.

LASSALLY: Westerbork and then Theresienstadt, in Czechoslovakia. And that was a very strange place - and that's where the Nazis fixed up the camp with all sorts of phony, wonderful decor and invited, you know, the Red Cross to come and visit, and see what wonderful things they were doing.

SIMON: This was kind of their show camp, for propaganda purposes.

LASSALLY: Yes, correct.

SIMON: Which didn't mean that it was a country club.

LASSALLY: It was not. It was not. No. No, and my sister was part of a group that was building only gas chambers that - they finally finished building. It was a hard time for all, for all of us.

SIMON: His family came to America in 1947 and by the early 1950s, Peter Lassally was an usher at Radio City Music Hall and a page at NBC, alongside Regis Philbin. He went from the camps, to watching the Rockettes.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: I mean, that's one of those...

LASSALLY: It boggles the mind.

SIMON: Exactly.

LASSALLY: And that was the beginning, of course.

SIMON: Peter, I've got to ask - I mean, this is - Jewish comedians are hardly unusual...

LASSALLY: Right.

SIMON: ...but did your background make you seek out laughter in life?

LASSALLY: Wow, that's a good question. If it did, it was subconscious. But I've always been drawn to comics. I love finding fresh comics - which is harder and harder every year.

SIMON: Because the demise of so many comedy clubs, and the rise of the Internet, make it harder for comics to develop - and encourages them to imitate what's successful. He counseled Jon Stewart, when he used to guest host "The Late Late Show." And Mr. Stewart remains Peter Lassally's friend and fan.

JON STEWART: In this business, you are not accustomed to spending a great deal of time around people with a lot of integrity and warmth and honesty. And so when you do, you are somewhat drawn to it. And that's what he has, in an effortless way.

LASSALLY: The gift that I keep looking for in people, whether they're hosts or guests, is likeability. I don't care if you have the number one record or the number one movie - if you're not likeable, I'd rather not put you on because I don't think the audience will stay up.

SIMON: You know, there's such a - in show business, in particular, a - sometimes a very unforgiving emphasis on new, fresher, younger; got to go for that younger demographic.

LASSALLY: Yes.

SIMON: And it occurred to me, as I was preparing to interview you...

LASSALLY: That I'm much too old.

SIMON: No, no. I was going to begin elsewhere. I was going to note that - I will note - I mean, Jay Leno and David Letterman can probably get in to a movie for half-price now. They're in their 60s. And even the youngest - like Conan O'Brien - are in their 40s. And Craig Ferguson, I gather, has just turned 50.

LASSALLY: Correct.

SIMON: You're a little north of that.

LASSALLY: Yes.

SIMON: Is there something to be said for experience and familiarity?

LASSALLY: I think so. I mean, of the hosts that I auditioned for "The Late Late Show," they were all different ages; and some were very young. And the problem with a young host - or a young guest; more so with young guests, it happens all the time - they haven't lived long enough to have thoughts of their own, and experiences they can use. If you book people from, let's say, the Fox sitcoms, they may be very popular and successful, but they have nothing interesting to say. So yes, I think age certainly helps, in giving you something to talk about that might be more interesting.

SIMON: There are so many late to late-late shows now, and the competition is so thick, that they rely on scripted bits. But Peter Lassally says he still works for unscripted spontaneity.

LASSALLY: I'm still in the game, and I'll probably continue to do it till I get to be completely senile.

SIMON: (LAUGHTER) Well, you don't sound even close now.

LASSALLY: I'm working on it.

SIMON: Well, Peter, thank you for all your time.

LASSALLY: Thank you, Scott. It's really a thrill for me to be here. But it's a big, frightening experience for me. I'm not a performer. I'm a quiet person who doesn't like to blow his own horn.

SIMON: Peter Lassally is executive producer of "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson"; begins its ninth season next week. Thanks so much, Peter. I hope we can talk to you again.

LASSALLY: I think you could probably tease me into doing it again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.