When Jill Leiderman, a former producer for The Late Show With David Letterman, landed her current job as executive producer of Jimmy Kimmel Live last April, a Late Show colleague decided to send her a present. Perusing a wine-store catalogue, he circled a gift basket and told his assistant to mail it to her. When Leiderman received the package, she opened it to find … the catalogue.
True story. But if it sounds like a Letterman bit, it was—one that the late-night host recounted gleefully on his show in late June. It's also a testament to the eight-plus years that Leiderman devoted to Letterman's show and the undimmed passion for the rough-and-tumble world of late-night television that has earned her the chance to run her own show.
The daughter of Chicago sportscaster Mike Leiderman, Jill Leiderman grew up intoxicated by television. “Had my dad been a veterinarian, maybe I'd be better around animals,” she says. “Maybe I'd know how to deliver a horse.”
She got her own start at the age of 12 when she won a spot as host of Kidding Around, a Saturday-afternoon kids news show on WMAQ Chicago, where her father had been on-air.
Her first interview was with actor Christopher Atkins, who was promoting his role alongside Brooke Shields in The Blue Lagoon. Leiderman had written her questions—including such probing inquiries as Do you have any pets?—on her hand, but when the interview began, she nervously sweated her notes away.
“I ultimately realized I was better at polishing other people's performances behind the scenes,” Leiderman says.
While attending Northwestern University, Leiderman interned on the soap opera Days of Our Lives and NBC's Today under Jeff Zucker. She graduated in 1993 and landed a job as a production assistant on The Jon Stewart Show on MTV.
Leiderman spent two years with Stewart on both the MTV and syndicated incarnations of his show. After Letterman appeared as a guest on the last night of Stewart's show, Stewart producer and Letterman alum Madeleine Smithberg encouraged Leiderman to send her reel to Robert Morton, then executive producer of The Late Show.
Morton liked what he saw and hired Leiderman as a writers' researcher in 1995, launching her on an 8½-year climb to become a senior writers' producer—a job, she says, that involved “squeezing Dave's mom into a luge suit in Japan or desperately trying to track down a man who had one foot in the grave to play Bob Dole.”
But Leiderman is serious about her love for and dedication to the world of late-night TV. She reveres the late Johnny Carson and her old boss Letterman, freely admitting that she valued his approval far more than that of the audience.
Branding the bits
In 2004, Leiderman joined VH1 to develop new shows. But she was so eager to return to late night that, when Kimmel's offer came, she was untroubled by the fact that she had only 48 hours to pack up in New York and be in Los Angeles to start work that Monday.
Just three months into the job, she is already making her mark on the show. “Her fresh perspective helped a lot,” says Kimmel, who made sure the staff saw a videotape of the 12-year-old Leiderman on Kidding Around. “From getting me to address the viewers more through the camera to getting us to brand our recurring comedy bits, her experience has helped already.”
While her days often start at 9 a.m., Leiderman is just getting going by the 8 p.m. taping. Barely sitting still in the back row of the control room, she's like a sports fan watching her favorite team.
She calls camera shots with hand motions, even though no one is watching her (it's the director's job), and furiously scribbles notes while tapping her hand to the beat of the house band. She yells out encouraging words when a bit pops or something jells. “I am getting to do what I love more than anything else in the world,” she says. “It's hard to come down after a show. That's when you know you love what you do.”