How Jamie Colby Made It Big, With a Little Help From Johnny Carson
She started out as a lawyer, and can now be seen on Fox Business, eating deep-fried alligator. Along the way, she became a trusted adviser to a TV great.
Fox News personality Jamie Colby claims she’ll try anything once.
She has ridden a wild bucking horse, operated a fork lift, driven a tractor, chewed and swallowed deep-fried alligator meat, and gotten up close and personal with the world’s largest privately held insect collection—all in the service of Strange Inheritance with Jamie Colby, which premieres Monday night at 9 on the Fox Business Network.
“I had to play with those bugs. I took one for the team,” Colby says. “And I had to wrestle an alligator…This one was named Gucci—and he was going down!”
Sporting anchor-ready blonde tresses and poured into a red dress, Colby is embedded in a banquette at Del Frisco’s, a popular Fox News watering hole a block from corporate headquarters.
She’s picking at her steak salad—“I’m a foodie,” she says—while attempting to describe the cuisine she and her production team ingested during their time on the road in 25 states. Their eight-month mission: to explore new worlds and make 26 half-hour episodes of Strange Inheritance. (The alligator encounter occurred while visiting a family that had inherited 2,500 alligators and crocodiles and today runs the Gatorama hatchery and theme park in Palmdale, Fla.)
“I have pictures on my phone—waffles with fried chicken and bacon on top is big, but I don’t eat bacon because I’m not a fan of nitrates,” she says. Tired at the end of a typically long day, the crew would go to a Walmart and buy the biggest box of pre-bagged chips.
Colby, for her part, had to look good on camera, so during the team’s rare quick turnarounds in New York, she made sure to go to spinning class, and traveled with a health-conscious supply of power bars and protein shakes.
“Let’s just say we had to roll down the windows on occasion—and I didn’t want to be that person,” she says. “I’m sorry. You asked.”
Colby, the twice-divorced mother of a college-age son, broke into television news relatively late—after a lucrative career as an entertainment and real estate lawyer in California and Florida, she says.
It turns out that TV journalism can be a lot more fun than deal-making and number crunching.
The daughter of a television executive-father and a homemaker-mother, who split up when she 12, Colby spent her early years in New York City (the streetwise accents of which are still apparent in her delivery); after their parents divorced, she and her older brother Jonathan—who became a prominent attorney and judge—moved to Miami with their mom.
Colby, by her own account, was frighteningly precocious—attending the University of Miami’s business school at age 14, living in the women’s dorm with a romantically experienced Venezuelan roommate, majoring in accounting and learning the facts of life, and receiving her law degree at age 22.
By her early twenties she was married, a member of the California bar, and toiling in the law firm of Henry Bushkin—that is, Johnny Carson’s personal attorney, confidant and tennis partner of “Bombastic Bushkin” fame.
“I’d sent out a billion resumes,” Colby recalls. “I was sitting in somebody’s office and Henry walked in and said, ‘Hey kid, what are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I’m getting ready to graduate and looking to work for a law firm.’
He said, ‘Come see me tomorrow.’ I did, and the next thing I know I’m at The Tonight Show and having lunch with Johnny at The Grill at Table 43”—often accompanied by Bushkin, but sometimes just Carson, America’s biggest TV star.
“He took me under his wing, and I have to say, I was very lucky—I just jumped right in,” recalls Colby, who says she occasionally negotiated on Carson’s behalf with NBC, conferred with Standards and Practices, offered the star business advice, and helped Carson Productions with the acquisition of radio stations and the deal to produce the cult classic The Big Chill.
Colby attended every Tonight Show taping, and greeted celebrity guests while getting to know David Letterman—whom she recalls as painfully shy—and Joan Rivers, a Bushkin law firm client.
“I really respected and admired Joan,” Colby says, adding that she was “devastated” by Rivers’s untimely death last year. “She didn’t come in like a celebrity—she was a real person. She knew the names of all the secretaries, she knew who’d just had a baby. She was just very kind.”
Colby adds: “I wasn’t star-struck so much with Johnny. Because of my age, I thought John Travolta was more of an exciting thing when he came to the office.”
Carson, she recalls, “took what he did very seriously and he was happy to have the help around him…I don’t think he had a lot of relationships. Like many people in his position, he demanded great loyalty. He would ask my advice and send me in to NBC to negotiate. I was a little whippersnapper.”
By the time Carson, a chain-smoker, died at age 79 in January 2005, Colby had exchanged her legal career for TV journalism. She was also in the midst of her second marriage—to Dr. Marc Wallack, the chief of surgery at New York’s now-defunct St. Vincent’s Hospital, whom she’d started dating in Miami.
In the mid-1990s, while waiting to be admitted to the New York Bar, a six-month process, Colby decided to change careers; she had been inspired by her father, Marty Colby, who had worked in the advertising business during the “Mad Men” era and pioneered Latino television as general manager of a local station in San Diego.
Colby lucked into a $50-a-day gig at Long Island’s Channel 55, where she spent two years producing two news packages a day on everything from murders to supermarket ribbon-cuttings, anchoring the 11 p.m. newscast, and even sweeping the floor.
“There was nobody else to sweep the floor,” she recalls. “And I had to disinfect my desk every day. My co-anchor had really bad body odor.”
From Channel 55, she managed to parlay a string of mid-level jobs—correspondent on the syndicated magazine show Extra, substitute anchor on CBS’s overnight news program, reporter in the New York bureau of CNN—into a coveted berth at Fox News.
It was 2003, Colby was summoned for two job interviews with Roger Ailes, and she was suddenly working for the top-rated cable news outlet.
“I remember when Johnny died, I was on a train on my way to cover a three-foot snowstorm in Boston, where I made snow angels for [Fox News host] Neil Cavuto,” Colby recounts. “And somebody remembered that I’d worked for Carson and I got detoured—they said, ‘We need you to talk about Johnny.’ So I went into the bathroom on the Acela and talked about Johnny on my cell phone. I was doing a live shot from the toilet. It didn’t seem right. Johnny deserved better.”
Although the seven-year-old Fox Business Network enjoys a tiny fraction of its sister channel Fox News’s viewing audience, Strange Inheritance represents a significant uptick in Colby’s television presence.
While she has regularly anchored Fox News’s daytime weekend newscasts, while training with Navy SEAL divers, covering natural disasters, and traveling the world, this is the first time Colby can put a signature on her very own show.
“What we want to do is really beautiful storytelling,” Colby says, adding that this season’s episodes will tackle everything from a surprise inheritance of money that enabled a man to be successfully treated for colon cancer, to a hidden cache of handwritten letters from John F. Kennedy to the mother of a sailor lost on PT-109 in 1943.
“It could be like a mix between Antiques Road Show and Ancestry.com,” Colby says. “I haven’t gotten my own bus yet. That’s when I’ll know I’ve really made it—when I have my own bus, and my face is big on every side. Traffic-stopping big.”