Bill Carter's The War for Late Night is a chronicle about the NBC late night television shows debacle, describing how in 2009 Conan O'Brien seemingly permanently replaced Jay Leno on the Tonight Show, only to have Leno usurp and depose Conan mere months later. I had heard from several discussions by sometime entertainment genius, sometime juvenile egotist Howard Stern on his Sirius/XM radio show, including an interview recently of Conan's sidekick Andy Richter, who was a major source for Carter, that this book was a fascinating read. Since I was not particularly watching much, if any, late night television nor reading about it during the 2009-2010 timeframe, I figured that I would be able to catch up on what really happened here and discover just how dastardly Leno was. Well, I got a pretty good idea of what went on, but ultimately felt that Carter spent much more time telling this tale than was necessary and in the end, I did not feel that he answered enough questions, instead focusing on not alienating anyone in the television industry.
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In a nutshell, Conan O'Brien, host of NBC's Late Night following Leno's the Tonight Show, was the hottest commodity on late night television during the early ought's, especially among the crucial younger adult viewing segment most prized by advertisers - he was being courted by rival networks ABC and Fox and was being offered roughly 7x his $3 million salary if he left NBC and took his show to another network. Conan told NBC CEO Jeff Zucker he would only re-sign with NBC if he had a contract to take over the Tonight Show from Leno within a relatively finite period of time; Conan revered Johnny Carson and was infatuated with the Tonight Show. Zucker agreed and then informed Leno, the top-grossing late night television host, that following the end of his next 5-year contract, he would be replaced by Conan, essentially firing him notwithstanding the fact that Leno was dominating Letterman and everyone else at the 11:35 timeslot.
Leno was a workaholic who had no intention of retiring and would simply have gone to ABC and would likely have beaten Conan's ratings handily at a different network. Rather than allow that, Zucker approved a move where Leno would start his own show, an abbreviated version of the Tonight Show, in prime time, at the 10:00 timeslot and then Conan would host the Tonight Show at its standard 11:35 timeslot. Thus, Zucker felt he could keep both of his late night stars without losing either to a rival. In 2009, Leno clumsily started his 10pm show to dismal ratings. At the same time, Conan's Tonight Show quickly lost 50% of its viewers. NBC's local affiliates were threatening, in substantial numbers, to pre-empt both shows with syndicated shows, at major loss, both of money and of face, to NBC. So Zucker approved a move shortening Leno's show to 30 minutes, moving it to 11:35, and bumping back the Tonight Show to 12:05. Leno signed on, but Conan threw a fit at these changes and negotiated a big payout for himself, a smaller payout for his show's employees, and quit NBC altogether, eventually taking his show to cable channel TBS. Leno then returned to host the Tonight Show.
So Conan was portrayed as the hip, intellectual comic and naive young romantic obsessed with the idea of hosting the beloved, sacred Tonight Show, a man who was represented by yesmen-and-yeswomen who did a crap job of negotiating his contracts. Leno was portrayed as the hard-working, blue-collar, everyman comic who had his representation negotiate a much more thorough, superior pay AND play (i.e. on-air guarantee) contract. And ultimately, Leno's bullet-proof contract (combined with Conan's wildly idealistic and naive theatrics about preserving the "integrity" of the Tonight Show), led to Leno staying on at NBC and Conan quitting in a huff.
All of the above could have been discussed in sufficient detail in about 20-30 pages. But 30-page articles don't sell - books do. So Carter got to work interviewing anyone and everyone at NBC and half the people at the other major networks, so it seemed. One of the problems I had with this book was that in order to bulk it up to book length, Carter decided to discuss dozens of peripheral players - every mid and lower-level executive at NBC, many of whom seemed to have had minimal roles other than to provide a paragraph-long "aside" commenting on their astonishment that Zucker or Conan were making the decisions that they did. These many paragraphs screamed "filler" at me, loud and clear. Then there are pages of bios on Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Jon Stuart, and Stephen Colbert, most of which was not particularly relevant and seemed to be included as filler, as well. Now some of that material was actually more interesting than the main book, but these little side-trips did not advance the reported story to any significant extent.
It would have been nice, although not necessarily relevant, if Carter had addressed some of the criticism thrown at Leno, pre-2009 (i.e. that he "borrowed" most of his show's ideas from others such as Howard Stern and David Letterman). It would have been altogether relevant to have addressed the mutterings post-2009, that Leno insisted that his 10pm show overshadow Conan's by cherry-picking the best guests, leaving B-listers and the no-longer-current celebs for Conan's show, but Carter avoided discussing this issue. This seems to be a particularly relevant issue, as I personally decide what late night show to watch based first and foremost, on which guests will appear on which show. I don't especially like Ferguson or Leno and prefer Letterman, Kimmel or the Conan of old (the several times I've seen him on TBS, he seems to have lost his edge), but if my choice is between a record-setting athlete or a supermodel fresh off the SI Swimsuit Issue shoot on Ferguson's show, versus Letterman interviewing a weepy, overly dramatic actor who just won a Tony, well, that's a no-brainer - I'm going with the more interesting guest, host be damned. I imagine that a large portion of the late night viewing audience bases their decision similarly, rather than purely based on preferences for one host or the other.
And it would have been very relevant to discuss exactly why so many Hollywood celebrities took Conan's side and denounced Leno, but Carter did not discuss these other Hollywood types, except to report on the Jimmy Kimmel appearance on Leno's show in which he stated the best practical joke he knew of was to give a friend your show and then suddenly take it right back, yanking it out from under him. Ultimately, Carter took so much effort to report objectively that it left the book feeling like a semi-chronological list of events (I use the prefix "semi" as Carter does skip around a bit more than average) rather than an account of what really happened. Until the last few pages, no one was the villain of this book - it was just nice and polite and respectfully reported on a bunch of bright well-minded people doing different things that they each thought was in everyone's best interest - "Everyone, let's hold hands and not point fingers." This extreme effort to be "even-handed" left me feeling that the author was too tentative and too focused on being non-judgmental. I felt that Carter's main focus was to stay on good enough terms with everyone to be able to maintain future access to each of the main players.
At the end, Carter finally came down with some sort of edict on why the NBC late night show catastrophes happened and who was to blame. However, even then, he could not do so in his own words, but instead hid behind a lengthy quote from Jerry Seinfeld, one of few in the entertainment business who staunchly supported Leno through these events. Seinfeld stated that it was naive of Conan to have revered the Tonight Show as some sort of sacred artistic entity and instead should have recognized that a late night show is nothing more than a job and is all about the host and ratings, not carrying on the "tradition" of a show. And he further blasted Conan for throwing a tantrum about the Tonight Show being moved back half an hour to 12:05, saying 30 minutes is 30 minutes - deal with it and stay employed. Carter also very gently hinted at Jeff Zucker's rather extreme hubris and failure to consider the personalities and egos involved, but not so much as to preclude some future interview with Zucker.
The biggest irony of the whole story is that the person who had the deepest, near-worshipful reverence for the Tonight Show based on its history, tradition, and the legends that hosted it previously, was Conan O'Brien. And Conan's fanbase - the younger demographic - had no such loyalties to the Tonight Show at all, since many of them, if they had even been born, were not old enough to have stayed up to watch a single episode of the Tonight Show hosted by Johnny Carson. Conan's fanbase could not have cared less about "maintaining the venerable traditions and integrity" of the show - they wanted Conan's wacky, cutting edge humor, interesting celebrity guests, and the coolest, latest musical guests. Since many of Conan's fans were recording the show on their DVR's for later viewing, the show's timeslot was only relevant if it conflicted with something else they wanted to record. To most people, the name of a late night show is irrelevant - when is the last time anyone has heard someone, in round-the-watercooler talk, refer to "The Tonight Show" or "The Late Night Show?" It is always "On Letterman last night..." or "On Leno last night...." So ultimately, Conan's inflexible stand that led to his quitting the Tonight Show turned out to be a puzzling irony, that the most irreverent, modern host in late night would, first, refuse to mold and adapt his show in any way to the traditions of his predecessors on the show to retain existing viewers and secure the show's commercial success, and second, he would torpedo his own career for the sake of those very traditions that were inconsequential to his own fanbase.
In summary, this was a well-researched book that obviously was the work of a tremendous amount of interviewing by its author. However, I felt that Bill Carter took so many pains to tiptoe around pointing any fingers at any celebrity or industry executive that it read more of a list of "who," "what," and "when" rather than an analysis that answered the question "why." Ultimately, I made up my own mind, to some extent, that Conan was much more to blame than the public thought at the end of his time on the Tonight Show (and foolishly passed up a good quarter of a billion dollars of income over his lifetime). Exactly how did he think he was going to take over the show if Leno was not yet ready to retire? However, I felt that Carter withheld information on Jay Leno's involvement in the behind-the-scenes machinations - I've heard too many Hollywood insiders refer to Leno as a devious and calculating individual or something similar with regard to his actions in regaining the Tonight Show for me to believe that he just sat back and politely accepted whatever NBC told him without taking some role in the whole fiasco. I closed the last page of the book feeling that Carter sugar-coated Leno's portion of the events. I don't know that there is a strong argument to be made condemning an older person for feeling bitter and scheming to return things to the old status quo when he is forced out of his job by a younger replacement. But regardless of where sympathies lie, I felt that there was more to this story than Bill Carter reported and that caused me to deduct a full star from my rating of this book.