From Stupid Pet Tricks to the Super Bowl, 11 years booking quarterbacks for Letterman – The Athletic
Peter KeatingFeb 12, 2024
It should have been the thrill of a lifetime for any New York Giants fan.
On Feb. 3, 2008, Brian Teta was on the sidelines as Eli Manning and company maneuvered downfield in the climactic final moments of Super Bowl XLII. But when Manning somehow escaped New England’s pass rush and heaved a ball that David Tyree nabbed by securing it against his helmet, completing the greatest play in Giants history, Teta was screaming.
Teta, a producer for “The Late Show with David Letterman,” had booked Tom Brady of the previously undefeated Patriots for the program, not Manning. Moments later, the Giants completed their epic upset, wrecking Teta’s plans.
“It was so horrible, it ruined the game for me,” Teta says with a laugh. “Eventually, we got Eli, so it worked out.”
One way or another, Teta’s booking schemes worked out for a full decade. On very little notice, he managed to land the quarterbacks from 10 Super Bowl-winning teams — plus one coach — for Letterman from 2005 to 2015. That stretch established “The Late Show” as a post-championship destination rivaling Disney World.
“Brian Teta was a first-rate segment producer and booker,” Letterman told The Athletic, before deadpanning. “His Super Bowl game-winning quarterback streak began in 1967 with Bart Starr, a two-time winner and a great guest. Threw footballs to the band.”
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Teta, born five years after Starr retired, grew up in Baldwin, N.Y., as a huge fan of his future boss. Like a gazillion other Gen Xers in the waning days of Johnny Carson, he was ready for a different kind of nightly TV show. Letterman was sardonic and past-your-bedtime silly; he’d take a camera crew to a local store called Just Bulbs and ask for lampshades, then go to Just Shades and ask for bulbs.
After Letterman left NBC for CBS in 1993, Teta read “The Late Shift,” Bill Carter’s book about the battle to replace Carson, and decided he wanted to work in late-night TV. After three college internships and stints with Montel Williams and Ricki Lake, his big break arrived.
“My fiancée at the time, now my wife of 20 years, was a page at the Ed Sullivan Theater,” he recalls. “One day, she lost her ID and went to the human resources person to get a new one and mentioned me. It’s unbelievable, but that day, someone had put in their resignation, and a job opened at the Letterman show to be the booker for stupid human and pet tricks.”
And so, in the days before YouTube, Teta took a cut in pay and title to travel the country with a camcorder and hold auditions for hundreds of possibly talented animals.
“Yeah, I got Odie the ‘I Love You’ pug, who then had a nice career,” Teta says. “I had a dog named Norman that could ride a scooter.”
Stupid pet trick booking led to a trip to the 2004 Summer Olympics, where Teta befriended sports agents, produced a “Top 10 List” with the U.S. women’s softball team and escaped a pack of wild dogs chasing him through the streets of Athens. That prompted another mission, something Letterman had long wanted but “The Late Show” hadn’t yet landed: securing the winning Super Bowl quarterback for the day after the big game.
In the months leading up to Super Bowl XXXIX, Teta tried to ingratiate himself with every person he could think of who might have some information on where stars go after the game, and he did so without knowing until two weeks out who was going to be playing in the game. By the time the Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles faced off, he felt he had both sides covered.
“I still had no idea what the hell I was doing,” he says. “I mean, I went to Jacksonville, I’m hanging out at the weird parties, trying to meet people and find my way around. But I had Donovan McNabb, and I felt pretty good about the conversations I had with Tom Brady’s people, and we ended up with Brady.”
Teta couldn’t offer his targets appearance fees, just a trip to New York City — which for some Super Bowl-winning athletes, exhausted as they might have been, proved alluring.
“You’re kind of wide-eyed and bushy-tailed when you see all this happening,” says Joe Linta, the longtime agent for Joe Flacco, whose Baltimore Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII in 2013. “A private jet flew us from Orlando to Teterboro Airport outside New York. You get out of the plane and you walk over to these helicopters, and I don’t think any of us had been on a helicopter before. It goes straight up in the air and then into the West Side of Manhattan, and it had just gotten dark, and it was an amazing, amazing visual. At the heliport, there were limos that took us to the Ed Sullivan Theater, and once we got there, we were shepherded into the green room. I’ll never forget it.”
For Brady in that first year, Teta promised a star turn. “Come out as soon as the show’s on, you just won the Super Bowl, and ‘Here he is!”‘ Only one problem: Teta forgot that for Super Bowl Monday, “The Late Show” had also booked Will Smith, a Philadelphia native and diehard Eagles fan. Brady’s appearance, which included him and Letterman trying to throw footballs through moving taxicabs, went well — but as the second guest on the show.
“I had to make it up to Tom Brady by sending him and Bridget Moynahan and several other people to (fancy New York restaurant) Le Cirque,” Teta says with a chuckle.
“Great job,” Letterman told Teta afterward. “Better get him again next year.”
That next year, when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks played in Detroit, turned out to be even more perilous.
“Dave was really interested in Ben Roethlisberger, and I made that connection early,” he recalls. “But of all people, I was not getting Matt Hasselback. I had to commit to the plane to bring in Roethlisberger and just bet that the Steelers were going to win. I felt like I was gambling my mortgage on this thing.”
The Steelers did win, and the following evening, Roethlisberger allowed Letterman and audience member Tina from Pittsburgh to shave the good-luck beard he had been growing for two months.
Letterman had a reputation for being prickly on air, but it was clear he enjoyed talking with the Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks who showed up on his couch.
Some visits were literally with old friends: Peyton Manning won his first Super Bowl in 2007, nearly a decade after he and Dave first started trading quips. (After Peyton cracked a joke during his first appearance, while he was still in college, Letterman said, “The kid’s got writers!”) Others were interesting, even revealing. In 2012, the host asked Aaron Rodgers, “Is it impossibly hard to be an NFL quarterback?” Rodgers replied, “I don’t know how to answer that. If I say, ‘I don’t think so,’ it makes me sound arrogant.”
The closest any show came to disaster was in 2010, when Letterman started tossing a football around to members of his staff while waiting for Drew Brees to arrive. Beloved stage manager Biff Henderson went out for a pass — and fell off the edge of the stage.
“Brees pulled up to the Ed Sullivan Theater with a police escort, crossing paths with Biff being pulled out on a stretcher,” says Teta.
Eli Manning arrives at the Ed Sullivan Theater the day after helping the Giants win Super Bowl XLII. (Brian Ach / Getty Images)
Over time, Teta learned more tricks of the Super Bowl trade, like how to get where he needed to be at the end of games when still pressing his case. “What kind of access you got was all about what color vest you had,” he says. “Sometimes I’d have to swipe a vest I wasn’t supposed to have to get onto the field at the end of the night.”
He also gained an understanding of athletes’ superstitions — like not jinxing a game by talking beforehand about what might happen in the event of a win. “Some would not commit to doing the show until the game was over, they wouldn’t plan the parade beforehand,” he says. “I respected that, it was just never what I needed to hear in the moment.”
One of them was Eli Manning. When the Giants faced the Patriots again in 2012, Teta was again able to prebook Tom Brady, but not Eli.
“This is in Indianapolis, Dave’s backyard,” Teta remembers. “CBS was running promos, very dramatic, just picture after picture, Dave with all the stars of the NFL, ‘The winners come to Dave first, tune in Monday,’ … And I’m like, ‘I don’t have it! What are you guys doing?’
“In my hotel room, I turn my TV on and see Jimmy Fallon on the ‘Today’ show saying, ‘We’re going to have the MVP on!’ My stomach drops, and suddenly my phone starts ringing off the hook from New York.”
That night, Teta found himself rooting against his favorite team a second time, only for the G-Men to pull out another win. When the clock expired, Teta ran onto the field, made eye contact with Eli and held his phone to his ear. “It’s Brian from the Letterman show,” he called out. “I’ve got Dave on the phone with me. He wants to know if you’re coming to New York tomorrow. We’ve got a plane waiting.”
“I’ll be there,” Eli replied, with a thumbs-up. Teta then made a real call to the public relations department at “The Late Show” and told them to put out a press release. Afterward, the New York Post caught a shot of him lying face-down on the ground, half-seriously collapsed in a heap of exhaustion and relief.
Teta’s “Late Show” quarterback streak ended in 2015, when the Patriots intercepted Russell Wilson (who was ready to be a guest) in the end zone during the final seconds of Super Bowl XLIX, sealing another championship for New England. Brady, in the wake of Deflategate, declined to appear. (Bill Belichick went on instead and was typically unresponsive to Letterman’s questions.)
Letterman retired later that year, and since then, Super Bowl winners, like the rest of us, have scattered among the late-night shows. Today, Teta is the executive producer of “The View” and co-hosts a “View”-based podcast called “Behind the Table.” “We don’t have as much Super Bowl content, though we had Tony Gonzalez on the show because we found out that he and Whoopi Goldberg are cousins, which neither of them had known about.”
“Of course,” he adds, “we’re talking about Travis (Kelce) and Taylor (Swift).”
He had a good run, but Letterman helped pad Teta’s resume with recollections of several bookings that may have slipped through the cracks:
- “Broadway Joe” Namath: “So named for his love of musical theater. Treated audience to a haunting interpretation of ‘Almost Like Being in Love.’”
- Terry Bradshaw: “Four times — refused to remove helmet!”
- and Joe Montana: “Told tedious story about possible name change to Joe Idaho. (Because it rhymes!)”
“The list goes on and on,” Letterman joked. “John Elway, the Manning Boys, Tom Brady (segment was ruined, the NFL would not allow game footage) and maybe Amos Alonzo Stagg!
“Brian was my quarterback,” Letterman added. “His winning record will never be broken.”
— Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this story.
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(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos courtesy of Brian Teta)
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Peter Keating is a contributor to The Athletic based in Montclair, N.J. He wrote the “Numbers” column and co-created the “Giant Killers” NCAA Tournament project at ESPN, where he was also a founding member of the Investigative Unit. Formerly a columnist for Money and Smart Money, he is the author of “Dingers! A Short History of the Long Ball,” a biography of the home run. Follow Peter on Twitter @PeterKeatingNJ