Seth Meyers, Conan O'Brien Air Tributes To Rick Ludwin

Nov 11, 2019

Update 1:30 p.m. Tuesday Nov. 12: Late night TV hosts Seth Meyers and Conan O'Brien aired tributes Monday night to Rick Ludwin, their former NBC mentor who died Sunday, Nov. 10, in Los Angeles.

"Rick Ludwin loved television and he loved comedy. And he never lost his enthusiasm for the inspired and the silly. He was one of the most decent and honorable people I've met in my life. We will all miss him terribly," O'Brien said.

Ludwin, 71, was a 1970 Miami University graduate and generous benefactor who who funded multiple scholarships and visited the Oxford campus several times each year. 

O'Brien -- a former writer for The Simpsons who struggled as host of NBC's Late Night and was replaced as Tonight Show host after Jay Leno's short-lived prime-time show – thanked Ludwin for his unwavering support, advice and friendship.

After a "very rocky start" on Late Night, "pretty much everyone at the network thought I should be canceled. But one executive disagreed, and that was Rick Ludwin," O'Brien said.

"Rick actually came to many of our early shows and watched what we were doing. He was brutally honest when he disagreed with our comedy, or thought that we'd gone too far. But he also saw that there was a lot of value in what we were trying to do…. Rick argued passionately for me, with the network, and he helped keep me on the air those first two years."

When NBC executives wanted Leno to resume hosting the Tonight Show in 2010, "Rick stuck by me again, even though he was putting his own job at risk. And after I ended up here at TBS, he was a regular visitor and remained a loyal friend of our show. He was always very encouraging," O'Brien said.

Meyers, the former  Saturday Night Live "Weekend Update" anchor who took over Late Night from Jimmy Fallon in 2014 as Ludwin was retiring, said his former boss kept in touch regularly.

"He often came by, and often gave thoughtfully worded notes, which were often complimentary, but also firm and fair," Meyers said.

Both hosts made it clear that Ludwin championed Seinfeld. O'Brien played a 2009 clip from his Tonight Show with guest Jerry Seinfeld talking about the uncertain beginning for his show – while Ludwin stood off camera.

"For 3-1/2 years, we were very borderline. People at NBC were not excited about the show when we did the pilot. And there was only one guy at NBC who really did like the idea. His name was Rick Ludwin from the Late Night and Specials Department... and in fact, he's here tonight," Seinfeld said.

"Rick was the reason that Seinfeld was on NBC," Meyers said. "When Jerry and Larry David were selling The Seinfeld Chronicles, NBC primetime wasn't interested. But Rick could see how good it was, so he made a deal that he would take money out of the NBC budget from specials, which was his department, and use it to make the first season of Seinfeld. It's unbelievable how one man doing one thing can make the difference in history."

Meyers also told viewers that Miami University's TV studio was named in honor of Ludwin.

"I hope the kids who attend there now know how lucky they are to even slightly know such a great man," Meyers said.

"The best thing about Rick was how kind he was… that was really important to the people he interacted with. He was kind in a way that was very unique for this world that we live in, in television and the entertainment industry, and he just will be deeply, deeply missed. I was so lucky to know him," Meyers said.

Original post 4:30 p.m. Monday Nov. 11, 2019: Rick Ludwin, a 1970 Miami University alum who oversaw NBC's Seinfeld, Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show, died after a brief illness in Los Angeles Sunday, Nov. 10. He was 71.

Loyal readers of my TV columns know that Ludwin left a huge imprint on NBC – and Miami University broadcasting students – for more than 30 years.

Ludwin was the NBC vice president for late-night TV and specials at NBC Entertainment headquarters in Burbank, Calif., who met with an up-and-coming comedian named Jerry Seinfeld in 1988 and shepherded him into making Seinfeld, one of the greatest sitcoms ever. Ludwin recalled the process, and what made Seinfeld special, in my story last July, "Yada, Yada, Yada…. 30 Ways To Celebrate The 30th Anniversary of Seinfeld.

For Miami University alumni, students and staff, Ludwin was a generous benefactor who never forgot that he learned about broadcasting on the Oxford campus.

Ludwin speaking to students in the Williams Hall TV studio in 2015. The studio was named in his honor in March 2019.
Credit John Kiesewetter / WVXU

For 36 years, Ludwin returned to the Williams Hall studio at his own expense to talk to students about TV trends and answer their questions every fall. The Cleveland-area native also funded scholarships for Mass Communication/Media and Culture students since 1993, and established (and helped fund) Miami's "Inside Hollywood" program for three weeks in Los Angeles every winter.

In 2013, Ludwin donated 15 Seinfeld scripts, other Seinfeld and SNL documents, scripts from Bob Hope's TV specials, photos and digitally re-mastered tapes of 30 Studio 14 shows from his senior year (1969-70) and other TV memorabilia to Miami's King Library Special Collections.

Last March, the Williams Hall TV studio was named in Ludwin's honor. That's where, as a sophomore, he started hosting Studio 14, a live variety-comedy show produced and written by students on Miami's old WMUB-TV (Channel 14).

While overseeing NBC's late-night shows and TV specials, Ludwin also worked with legendary comedian Bob Hope; Tonight Show hosts Johnny Carson, Steve Allen, Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon; and late-night hosts David Letterman and Carson Daly.  

Ludwin hosting 'Studio 14' at Miami University while a student in the late 1960s.
Credit Courtesy Miami University

Amid the framed photos of famous stars on his NBC office walls was a TV Guide listing from Jan. 25, 1968, when Ludwin debuted hosting Studio 14 opposite Sally Field’s The Flying Nun on ABC and Gene Kelly in NBC's Jack and the Beanstalk.

“I had this love for live television. There was nothing more exciting,” Ludwin once told me.

Ludwin's Studio 14 experience gave him a feel for the variety format when he worked with Carson, Leno, Letterman, O’Brien, Fallon, Seth Myers and SNL. He was the only NBC executive accepted into Carson’s inner circle for the brief pre-show meeting behind the Tonight Show curtain before each taping.

"Johnny was always gracious to me. I could do a Bob Hope imitation, and he’d like to hear me do it. To get Johnny Carson to laugh, that was really great,” Ludwin told me for a 2007 story in Miami University's Miamian magazine.

News of Ludwin's death was a surprise to his friends at Miami. They had not seen Ludwin since the studio naming in March. "We had no idea that would be the last time we saw him. He looked healthy," says Bruce Drushel, chair of Miami's Department of Media, Journalism & Film.

After earning a master's degree at Northwestern University, Ludwin worked for Chicago and Detroit TV stations, and then for the national Mike Douglas talk-variety show. He was hired in 1980 as NBC's director of variety programs by NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff — whom he met while both worked at WLS-TV in Chicago.

Dan Ludwin, his nephew, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer Monday that Rick Ludwin "was one of the lucky ones who always knew what he wanted, from a very young age, and he not only got to do it, he was extremely good at it."