by Tracy Johnson
The late, great Jay Thomas was a terrific radio personality. He’s best known for for television roles on shows like Cheers and Murphy Brown. But most of all, Jay was a storyteller. Thomas had the distinction of what David Letterman called the greatest talk show story of all time.
Letterman loved it so much he had Thomas on his show every year around Christmas to tell the exact same story. And it worked every time.
For broadcasters, it’s a relatable snapshot of the industry at a point in time. Listen to how Thomas describes his experience from a radio remote broadcast in the late 70s. Ah, yes, the good old days!
The fact that Letterman had Jay tell his story every year from 1998 to 2014 (17 years) had little to do with the story itself.
It had everything to do with the storyteller. Thomas comes off as confident (not quite cocky), yet self deprecating and highly descriptive.
The story has a funny Pay Off, but it’s the journey on the way to the conclusion that’s filled with colorful details. It was real and personal.
Here’s a sample of Jay telling the story from several years. Watch each to hear the artistry and how Thomas tells the story, leading the audience from the start to the conclusion.
Here’s another example from his appearance in 2014.
This is also a great example of David Letterman getting the credit from someone else’s storytelling talent. One of Letterman’s strengths was the ability to let guests be the star. He didn’t try to upstage the story. Instead, he leveraged the strength of great content by turning it into anticipated content.
Letterman didn’t just put Thomas on the air. He celebrated the appearance, building the story as the “Greatest talk show story of all time”! The story was terrific, but it was more important because of the way the host framed it.
Letterman and Thomas had a long-term relationship that began in 1992. Here’s his first appearance on the show:
Jay Thomas was one of a kind. His personality jumps off the screen. but you can sense his radio roots.
There’s a lot to take away from this example, including:
Thanks to Scott Sands for calling my attention to this story about Jay.
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