The War for Late Night…

It might be that if I don’t go to sleep before my husband I have trouble falling asleep.  It might be that since I’m getting back into the reading zone, I can’t put a book down once I get into a reading groove.  Whatever it is… this is the second time I’ve stayed up past 2am reading a book.

I love getting the behind the scenes scoop on anything Hollywood.  It’s probably why I like Kathy Griffin so much.  I admit, we never sat down at 11:35pm every night and tuned into only ONE late night talk show.  I was a bopper.  I flipped and changed as the guests came on that I liked.  I admit I preferred Letterman’s monologue to Leno’s in the coveted time slot, but was never a huge Craig Fergeson fan.  I knew I liked Jimmy Kimmel (he’s kind of the bad boy of them all) and Conan.  Jimmy Fallon was growing on me from his time on SNL (a show which I do religiously watch live or DVR).

“The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy” by New York Times media reporter Bill Carter followed the entire conflict between Leno and Conan over “The Tonight Show.”  This is essentially a follow up on the 1994 book “The Late Shift,” which was turned into an HBO movie starring John Michael Higgins as Letterman and my boy Daniel Roebuck as Leno and their war over taking over the show that Johnny Carson had made an institution.

Carter did his research and interviewed almost everyone that was involved.  Some executives were all too eager to get their side of the story out there since the public had it tilted toward Conan being a martyr for “The Tonight Show.”  He got information from Conan, Leno, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Letterman, and Fallon.  All the “major” late-night players (I guess Chelsea Handler doesn’t count?).  Carter did basically a background check on all the late night giants.  I had no idea that Letterman almost nearly ruined Jon Stewarts career to keep him from going after him and pushing him out of “The Late Show.”  Since Letterman owned the production company that owned “The Daily Show” though, Stewart would be far away in basic cable land and wouldn’t be able to hurt Letterman… and thus the show was his.  SO INTERESTING!

Carter also got the viewpoints of the major NBC execs involved in the back dealings and planning for the “Let’s move Leno to 10pm… wait that’s not working… let’s move Leno back to 11:35 for half an hour, and then push Conan to 12:05 and Jimmy Fallon to 1:05am” decision.  Jeff Gaspin, Jeff Zucker and more come across as execs who thought they had a solution to keeping their 2 big stars on their network telling jokes, but were too proud to back down when the it turned sour.

The book follows the “Team CoCo” movement and how Conan came up with the “People of the Earth” letter.  How Conan finally decided on TBS for his new show and the implications that followed.

I never read “The Late Shift,” but from the movie… Letterman came out looking like he was backstabbed and went to CBS to stick it to them.  Leno came out looking like a pawn for his manager (played by Kathy Bates) at times and other times VERY deceiving and manipulative.

I think that a very similar outcome came from “The War for Late Night…”.  You can totally understand how hurt and manipulated Conan was when (after the press found out) he was informed *not asked* that his show would be bumped to a later time slot to accomodate Jay Leno.  You can see that all Leno wanted was to be on TV… he viewed it as a JOB that he loved to do.  Leno didn’t view it as a “right or privaledge” but as a job.  Conan viewed “The Tonight Show” as something he had earned… I think that was the major philosohpical difference in the two.  Conan didn’t want to hurt the institution that was “The Tonight Show” by moving it back to starting the next day… and Leno didn’t understand why Conan didn’t want to have the show on TV, even if it meant at a different time.  For Leno, it was business… and he had the contract for Pay AND Play (meaning NBC had to put him on TV for 2 years in some way, shape or form… unheard of)!  For Conan, it was emotional… and his contract had NO stipulation like Letterman and Leno had that said that his show HAD to start at 11:35.

I admit… after following the buzz in the press… Leno was blacklisted at our house.  NO ONE could watch him.  I would NOT give him ratings for pushing out Conan.  And typically, at 11pm, we do tune to Conan on TBS (last night with Will Ferrell?  Come on… that was hysterical).   I received a TON of grief for turning to Leno once to see Louis C.K. for 3 minutes a few months ago.  I’m not saying I’m going to watch Leno from now on… I still think that Letterman, Conan, Kimmel and Stewart are the better comedians… but now I guess I won’t feel *as* guilty for tuning in for 3 minutes to watch a celeb interview I’m interested in.

If you like to know all the backstage dealings, I highly recommend the book.  I learned a lot about television programming, recipes for late night shows (what works what doesn’t work), how much pull the “talent” actually has, television contracts and dealing with the media.  Carter writes with an ease of story telling sprinkled with the details needed to understand what was happening.  Remember:  The guy with the best contract ALWAYS wins.   Such a fun read.

"The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Crazy" - Bill Carter