As “Weekend Update” ended on “Saturday Night Live,” this 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 decades as head of latenight and variety shows. He left in 2012, after a falling-out with Jay Leno, and died of organ failure on Nov. 10 at 71.
He was the one permanent force at a network that kept changing. He was, after all, the guy who had 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 a semi-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 show to a test audience. The summary is printed in 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 (an NBC programming executive), 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 latenight, 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.
Ludwin was also there when “SNL” made a surprise move, having its head writer become the “Update” anchor. She was bright and funny, he said, “and easy on the eyes.”
Tina Fey would be a trend-setter. She was the first of three head writers to anchor; Seth Meyers and Colin Jost followed. And she was the leader in a surge of female writers and producers.
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.”