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Remembrance of a Revered NBC Executive: Rick Ludwin
November 18, 2019  | By Mike Hughes  | 1 comment

As "Weekend Update" ended on Saturday Night Live (11/16), a memorial photo of Rick Ludwin was shown.

That must have confused viewers. Who, exactly, was Rick Ludwin? And why didn't he look like the sort of people – musicians and actors and such – that SNL usually memorializes?

Ludwin was an NBC executive for 32 years, including key periods as head of late-night and variety shows, but left in 2012 after a falling-out with Jay Leno.

Ludwin died of organ failure on Nov. 10 at 71.

For decades, he was the one permanent force at a network that kept changing. He was, after all, the guy who saved Seinfeld.

And no, he didn't seem like someone SNL would know. He "always looked preppy and somewhat square with his neatly trimmed hair, wire-rim glasses and blue blazers," Bill Carter wrote in The Late Shift (Hyperion, 1994).

That was sort of why people figured he favored Jay Leno over David Letterman in the late-night competition. "Ludwin had essentially the same kind of regular, nice-guy personal style that Jay had," Carter wrote.

But he seemed to like everyone else, too. "Rick lives for late-night," one person told Carter. "It's his whole life."

And from that spot, he made the move that brought the network a fortune: Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David pitched him an idea for a series. They got a go-ahead, Ludwin once said, and "went away to that diner you see in the show, to work on the script."

The resulting pilot was shown to a test audience. The resulting summary is printed in former NBC programming executive Warren Littlefield's Top of the Rock (Doubleday, 2012). It described "lukewarm reactions among adults and teens, and very low reactions among kids," then concluded: "PILOT PERFORMANCE: WEAK."

NBC showed it on a low-viewer night (July 5, 1989) and let it die. But Littlefield, Ludwin, and some others liked it. Someone in the finance department had a suggestion: Within Ludwin's budget, do one less Bob Hope variety special and use the money for four Seinfeld episodes. "I let Rick Ludwin break the news to Bob Hope," Littlefield said.

Those episodes still drew doubts. "People were afraid it was too New York," Ludwin said. "Some thought it was too Jewish."

Ludwin – not Jewish and from Ohio – disagreed. Nielsen figures showed that those episodes (neatly tucked after Cheers reruns in the summer of 1990) were equally popular in New York, Chicago, and Seattle. Seinfeld stuck around and became – many people (including me) feel – the best TV comedy ever.

Ludwin was around for many of other key moves. When it came to late-night, I disagreed with one of his standards: No matter how good a musician is, there's no music until the end of the show.

But his basic approach worked well: Leno eventually topped Letterman because of the sheer quantity of his comedy, including longer monologs and long bits after the first commercial.

After Ludwin's death, there were on-air tributes by Meyers, Jimmy Fallon, and Conan O'Brien. A tweet from John Mulaney, a comedian and former SNL writer, called him "kind and thoughtful, in an arena where that can be rare."

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I saw that slide and was a bit confused too. Had he been an SNL writer, producer or director? Thanks for clearing that up.

Two thoughts: (a) By 2012, the writing was on the wall that Leno was on his way out, so I doubt that a "falling-out" with him was the only reason Ludwig (RIP) left NBC. Perhaps his health problems were being noticed even that far back. And (b) it sounds like Ludwin made Jay Leno's career and fortune, so it would be interesting to know what, if anything, Leno said/wrote/tweeted about the man. If the answer is crickets, that silence would speak volumes about Leno's capacity for gratitude.
Nov 18, 2019   |  Reply
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