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How David Letterman, Jay Leno and Oprah Winfrey pulled off their secret Super Bowl promo for CBS' 'Late Show'

February 7, 2010 |  6:18 pm

To pull off the surprise Super Bowl spot he did with rival David Letterman, Jay Leno flew secretly to New York on the NBC jet last Tuesday and managed to sneak into the Ed Sullivan Theater undetected wearing a hoodie, sunglasses and a fake mustache.

Rob Burnett, executive producer of the “Late Show,” said keeping Leno’s participation under wraps was the key to preserving the effect of the 15-second promo, which featured the two late-night comedians uncomfortably watching the Super Bowl together, with Oprah Winfrey trying to keep the peace.

“We wanted desperately to keep this a secret,” said Burnett, who said the only CBS official who knew of the plan was Chief Executive Leslie Moonves. “Most of the staff didn’t know. We just knew we had to keep the circle extraordinarily tight.”

At NBC, Leno’s executive producer, Debbie Vickers, NBC Universal Television Entertainment Chairman Jeff Gaspin and NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker were in the loop, but few others had a clue that Letterman and his longtime rival had joined forces for what was easily the most unexpected Super Bowl ad of the night.

In the spot, Letterman is seen on a couch, glumly munching potato chips. “This is the worst Super Bowl party ever,” he says.

“Now, Dave, be nice,” responds Winfrey, seated beside him. The camera then pulls back to reveal Leno squeezed on the couch on the other side of her, with his own bowl of potato chips. “Oh, he’s just saying that ‘cause I’m here,” the NBC host says. Letterman then mimics Leno in a high-pitched voice, prompting Winfrey to roll her eyes, sigh and throw up her hands in frustration.

Letterman came up with the idea and wrote the script himself after CBS told him they were giving his show a brief promo during the Super Bowl, Burnett said. Letterman pitched the idea to Winfrey, who had appeared in a similar spot with him in 2007. She quickly agreed to it, and then Burnett ran it by Vickers. She thought it was funny, and within minutes, Leno was on the phone, agreeing to do it.

“I think for Jay, he thought of it less as a promo and more of a funny piece to be doing on the Super Bowl,” Burnett said. While the “Late Show” staff speculated internally about what the ad would do for Leno’s image, Burnett said Letterman was focused on another aspect.

“Dave is ruled by one law: Is it funny?” he said. “That’s all he really cared about. And the sense I got in the room was that all three sides thought it was really funny.”

Though Letterman and Leno have both flung pointed insults at each other on the air in recent weeks during NBC’s messy late-night imbroglio, Burnett said the two men got along well during the 20-minute shoot.

“Dave and Jay were very professional and cordial and friendly with each other,” he said. “And Oprah, in addition to her many talents, is a wonderful comedienne.”

NBC officials had no comment on Leno's participation in the ad. The taping kept Leno from doing his show Tuesday, so the network extended Tuesday's edition of "The Biggest Loser" to fill his time slot.

-- Matea Gold and Maria Elena Fernandez

Video credit: CBS