Rob Burnett is wearing his boss's uniform -- double-breasted navy-blue suit, white shirt, red tie -- and he couldn't be more proud. Or uncomfortable. "You won't ever see it again," promises the president of David Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants. It's CBS Up-Fronts Day, when the network announces its fall lineup to an audience of jaded advertisers at Carnegie Hall, and Burnett is readying Letterman for a surprise promotional walk-on. Once onstage, the grimacing Late Show host, who hasn't done this sort of thing in years, calls CBS president Les Moonves a "good-lookin' son of a bitch" and announces that mini-series star Jesus "wants a million bucks an episode." "It took a lot of preparation," Burnett explains later. "If by preparation you mean begging."
Letterman's appearance at the May 17 event meant a lot to both CBS and Burnett, who's cutting back his day-to-day responsibilities as Late Show executive producer (and on-camera foil) to become a full-time TV mogul. This fall, Worldwide Pants unveils two network shows -- the CBS sitcom Welcome to New York, starring Christine Baranski, and Ed, a one-hour NBC dramedy that Burnett is reluctant to describe (the word "quirky" comes up a lot) -- while continuing to churn out Dave's Late Show, Craig Kilborn's Late Late Show, and Everybody Loves Raymond. That makes Burnett as prolific a producer as David E. Kelley and Steven Bochco combined. The triumph is made sweeter by the fact that Dave himself punched up the script to the second episode of Ed -- the first time his material will appear on NBC since the great Tonight show schism of 1993. "The characters on the show will wear T-shirts announcing Dave's guests for the night," adds Burnett, 37, who started as a Letterman intern when he was 22. "NBC will love it."
Burnett started to emerge from his boss's shadow during Letterman's heart-surgery sick leave, when he retooled old episodes with inventive backstage-at-Late Show segments that set up Dave's return. But Burnett diverts all credit to his mentor. "The world got a little taste of what it would be like to be without Dave, and they didn't like it," he says. "I've achieved the lowest possible form of celebrity. Last week, a woman came up to me and said, 'I recognize you. Are you from Virginia?' I said no. 'Are you from Texas?' I either had to tell her who I was or risk going through 48 more states."