Light on the Hill

Letterman show producer receives alumni award

Rob Burnett, A84, thought his parents might not understand the significance of receiving the Light on the Hill Award. So, he told them he'd won the Nobel Prize.

"They were very pleased," said Burnett, his deadpan delivery and split-second timing just the slightest bit reminiscent of a certain late-night talk show host.

Rob Burnett © Bernd Auers

Burnett, executive producer and former head writer for "The Late Show with David Letterman," and executive producer and writer for the series "Ed," was honored on October 11 with the university's Light on the Hill Award for his leadership and accomplishments in the entertainment business.

In return, he delighted students, faculty and staff with a wry—and realistic—account of his successful career as a comedy writer; reflected on his Tufts experience; showed a video that featured Letterman reciting a "Tufts Edition" Top 10 list and spared no one—not even President Lawrence S. Bacow—from an occasional jibe.

"I'm trying to impress President Bacow and his posse over there," Burnett said after accepting the award. "I'm going for a 'three-peat.' Sign me up for three now. You can save on the engraving."

The Light on the Hill Award has been presented annually since 1995 to Tufts alumni who are leaders in their fields, who have offered constant support to Tufts and who are outstanding role models. Thus far, there have been nine recipients, whose names are engraved on a plaque in the Mayer Campus Center.

Burnett heads Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants Inc., and, in addition to his work on "Ed," he oversees "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn." He has received five Emmys and is a member of the Alumni Advisory Board of Tufts' Communications and Media Studies program.

Family gets in the act
Burnett began with a little advice: "Guys, if at any point you're married and you find yourself referring to your wife as a Jumbo, make sure she went to Tufts. And even then, they're not so crazy about it."

Burnett's wife, Eunice Johnson Burnett, J85, is indeed a fellow Jumbo. "People always ask what was the most important thing to happen in my four years at Tufts," Burnett said. "She's sitting right there."

Eunice, as well as the couple's three children, Sydney, Lucy and Charlie, took part in a video Burnett created for the event. The first section shows the family preparing for a musical number, "It's Fun to Be at Tufts Today," sung to the tune of the Village People's '70s kitsch classic, "YMCA"—complete with costumes. (Imagine baby Charlie as the leather-clad biker.)

The second segment of the video featured Lettermen reciting the "Top 10 Ways to Know You're Not Making the Most of Your Tufts Experience."

For example: "Your roommate is majoring in IR. You're majoring in IHOP."

Or, "What you thought was a lecture hall and an economics professor turns out to be Hodgdon and a lunch lady."

'A giant escalator'
Burnett got his start in professional comedy while in college, doing stand-up at "open mike" nights at Stitches, a club in Boston. Initially reluctant, he was persuaded to appear there by his friends—and while it wasn't a part of his academic career, he credits the Tufts environment for helping him succeed on stage.

"What's great about [Tufts], which I did not know at the time but realized later, is that you come here, and it's like being on a giant escalator. You can stand on it, or sit, or run or walk, and although you may not know it, you're getting better, and better and better. That's the best part of being here." At Tufts, he also taught a course on "Twentieth Century Humor" at the Experimental College.

An English major, Burnett always wanted to be a writer. After graduation, he spent a brief time in California and New York trying to get his start in TV comedy. Eventually, he was offered an internship at the Letterman show and soon after moved into a full-time job in the talent booking department. He joined the writing staff in 1988, and was later promoted to head writer.

He writes for "Ed"—the TV series about a lawyer who runs a bowling alley—with his colleague John Beckerman. Burnett peppers the series with many references from his own life. An "Ed" clip shown at the award ceremony featured a character saying he'd graduated from Tufts, for example.

Sometimes, the references are even more personal, particularly when "Ed" moves beyond comedy. In a recent episode, the character Carol discovered that when she was a child, her father had "re-written" her copy of Charlotte's Web so that it would have a happy ending.

That idea was sparked when Burnett saw his own wife and daughters crying over the end of the book. He conceived the idea of "re-writing" the ending for his girls, with the wish that he could take care of all their tears so easily. "I try to find that certain moment," he said. "The ones that are personal are the ones that are the best."

The secret of success
For those undergraduates considering careers as television writers, Burnett offered two pieces of advice—one practical, one theoretical.

On the practical side, he said, "all you've really got to do is to get in somewhere and work very hard. This is the age to take that chance," he told them. "In TV, all you need to do is get in somewhere…there are lots of places to start."

One of the first lessons about life is the value of working hard at an early job, he said, even if it's "menial" work like making copies and filing papers. "You have to do that stuff really well," he said. Ultimately, people will remember the quality of your work and will think about you for future opportunities. "It's all about making relationships," he said.

The other piece of advice: "There is no such thing as talent." Don't waste your time worrying about whether you "have what it takes," he told the students. "All you have to do is work. If you stay with it and work hard, you will absolutely succeed. Whether you get to the top, that's luck, but you'll work in this business."

Drum roll, please …
By the way, what's the Number One Way to Know You're Not Making the Most of Your Tufts Experience?

"You're wasting a morning watching a TV boob get an award."