by Tracy Johnson
The late, great Jay Thomas was a radio personality. You probably know him for for his television roles from a variety of shows like Cheers and Murphy Brown. But at the heart of it all, Jay was a storyteller. And Jay had the distinction of what David Letterman called the greatest talk show story of all time.
Letterman loved it so much he had Thomas come on his show every year around Christmas time 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 client remote broadcast in the late 70s. Ah, yes, the good old days!
But it’s a lot more than that.
The fact that Letterman had Jay tell his story every single Christmas from 1998 to 2014 (17 years) had little to do with the story itself. It had everything to do with the storyteller.
Jay Thomas was a great storyteller, and this was a tremendous story. He’a confident, yet self deprecating and highly descriptive.
The story has a funny payoff filled with exciting and colorful details. It was real and it was personal. Thomas reveals his personality and character when he tells the story.
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.
This is also a great example of David Letterman getting the credit from someone else’s story telling talents. One of Letterman’s strengths was the ability to let his 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.
This is an example of creating a benchmark from recurring content. Letterman didn’t just put Thomas on the air. he celebrated the appearance, building his story as the “Greatest talk show story of all time”!
And 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 dated back to 1992. Here’s his first appearance on the show:
Jay Thomas wa one of a kind. His personality jumps off the screen. but you can feel the “radio” in him. That naturally likable quality made him a favorite guest of one of the generations’ most loved TV talk shows.
There’s a lot to take away from this example, including the fact that a well-told story stays told. And it can be re-told. It shows the power of a recurring and anticipated benchmark. And it shows the power of charisma and enthusiasm in telling the story.
Thanks to Scott Sands for calling my attention to this story about Jay.
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