My saying no apparently impressed Herbert Schlosser, the president of NBC. So, lo and behold, in the summer of 1974, Schlosser invited me to his place on Fire Island - along with Marvin Antonowsky, one of his programming executives - and essentially laid out the whole thing: how Johnny Carson had given them fair warning that he did not want weekend repeats of The Tonight Show to exist after the summer of 1975. They had begun to order up some specials. One had Burt Reynolds sort of hosting. It was talky and had some comedy bits. Herb said he was very much interested in finding some regular stuff for that time period. I was intrigued, even though I had no background whatsoever in late night. I'd been a sports kid since I dropped out of Yale to work for Roone in 1967.
I told Roone I was leaving the same morning Nixon resigned. I had a whole deal to come over to NBC as head of weekend late-night programming. I had one year to come up with a show to go into that time period, and if the show was creatively sound, I had Herb's word it would get at least six months on the air.
I thought I'd negotiated every possible thing to protect myself, but I had neglected to ask for a secretary. So when I arrived at NBC, the biggest bureaucracy of the western world, I didn't get a secretary for three months. I was answering my own phones and my office was a mess.
HERBERT SCHLOSSER, NBC President: I had played a role in hiring Ebersol. I can remember when I interviewed him, it was out on Fire Island on a weekend, and he was wearing a pair of pants where one leg was one color and the other leg was another color. Which I guess is what you wore in Connecticut. Johnny Carson was the biggest star NBC had, unchallengeable in his time period. It wasn't like Leno and Letterman fighting each other now. Johnny was very, very important to the network, and we were getting emanations that he was not pleased about the weekend repeats of his show. They'd been on for ten years, and we ourselves weren't that thrilled, but it had been an easy thing for us to do- just put 'em on. So I thought we should try something new.
FRED SILVERMAN, NBC President: When Herb looks back on his days at NBC, he's the only guy that had worse days than I did. He really doesn't have much of a positive nature to look back at. So I can see where he would remember the beginnings of the show so well. Saturday Night Live was a big deal for him. It was Herb's biggest endeavor.
DICK EBERSOL: I spent September and October of 1974 roaming the West Coast, Canada, Chicago, and New York, looking for comics and comedy producers. I came to the conclusion rather quickly that the only way this show would work would be if the young embraced it?if it was a show for a younger audience. Johnny was the most brilliant person in the world but his show wasn't for teenagers.
One piece of talent I thought would give us credibility was Richard Pryor. We had these meetings with Richard, and they went fairly well. He finally agreed to a deal. After that, Lily Tomlin agreed to fall in. So did George Carlin. Someone was trying to sell me Steve Martin and Linda Ronstadt as a twosome.