1. I wasn’t old enough or living-in-America enough to follow the Letterman vs. Leno war of 1993, but I’d subsequently heard plenty about it. I was, however, like most of you, a keen observer of the Leno v. Conan debacle of winter 2009/2010. At the time, to me it looked like Conan had got the Tonight Show (again, not growing up in the States, I don’t personally grasp its extreme significance, but can see why it’s such a big deal to comedians of the generation above mine), had a set that looked a bit like Super Mario 3, and then got cut off after seven months, but I wanted to know more about the machinations. I love that kind of industry minutiae. That’s why I really enjoyed reading (fine, listening to) ‘The War for Late Night’ by Bill Carter. Carter’s book ‘The Late Shift’, about the 1993 battle for the Tonight Show after Johnny Carson retired, is well-respected and authoritative, and I’m sure that, when all this business with Conan and NBC was going down, Carter thought “Well, I guess I know what my next book will be about”. He could almost have just run a “find and replace” on his previous work, so similar was the story almost twenty years later.
2. The person about whom I learnt the most from the book wasn’t Conan – I already knew he was the guy that loves his staff, hates confrontation and is prone to severe depression and self-loathing – but Jay Leno. Contrary to what the rabid members of Team Coco would suggest, Jay doesn’t come off as a mean, scheming, horrid dude. Sure, his comedy is pandering and low-brow, but that’s more of a generational thing (more on that later), but it seems that his biggest flaw is that he just doesn’t want to stop working. Apparently he hates going on holiday, to the extent that his wife travels the world without him, and the idea of “Why don’t you just retire?” is completely alien to him. He simply has to perform an hour of comedy on TV every night. That’s hard for me to understand. If I had tens of millions of dollars (maybe hundreds?), I would stop working, buy a mansion the size of Rhode Island, and become a weird recluse with a cool LED TV. Retirement is not Jay’s way, though.
3. The villains of the piece are clearly the suits at NBC (some, far more than others), who in 2004 offered Conan the Tonight Show in the future, as a way to ensure that he wouldn’t go to a competitor. They figured, at that time, that Jay would probably have lost his appeal by the handover, so it’d be a smooth handover. But when the time came, Jay was as popular as ever, and now they didn’t want to lose him to a rival network, especially since he’d probably go up against, and doubtless beat, Conan. Hence that terrible 10pm Jay Leno Show. Remember that? My primary memory of that show will always be Jack Donaghey talking about mediocrity over the credits on 30 Rock, and then saying “Ladies and Gentlemen, Jay Leno” right before the first episode began. As Carter said in his recent Sound of Young America interview, NBC couldn’t make a decision between Jay and Conan – they were so desperate not to lose them both, that they had no idea how to accommodate them both, so they came up with many possible ways of having them both. The worst of these: Have both men host the Tonight Show – maybe a couple of nights each, or one week of Jay, one week of Conan. Not surprisingly, most of these plans were rejected.
4. Carter explored the idea of baby boomers vs. Generations X and Y in a way I found interesting. Obviously the two men represent different eras and comedic sensibilities, and Carter suggests that the Team Coco movement was fuelled in part by an outrage that The Man was, once again, trying too hard to assert its influence over the kids. In a business where ratings are the be-all-and-end-all, it was one thing for Conan to have all the online support, but were all of these people in the I’m With Coco facebook group actually watching his show? Apparently not. I personally watched it the next day on hulu, rather than as it aired, because I am old man with a fixed bedtime. Hulu and DVRs are terrible for the ratings, so Conan’s Tonight Show sank. Also, there’s plenty of talk about NBC execs telling Conan to go more broad for his new show: less of the string dance, more mainstream stuff. Don’t alienate older viewers. In essence, change who you are so it’ll appeal to more people. I do find the concept of “lead-ins” very interesting: the idea that your show will suffer if there’s not a strong show airing right before it. As I understand it, a huge number of people will watch a show just because they liked what was on before, and are too lazy to change the channel. A huge number. Lead-ins are a really big deal. Lead-ins, ratings among target demos, affiliate boards, upfronts… all the industry talk is super-interesting to me, but maybe not for a casual reader.
5. What else? I liked that Carter painted a very detailed picture of everything going on, including profiles of the other players in Late Night, including people who you’d think would be less significant like Craig Ferguson and Chelsea Handler. He did mention a couple of my favourite Conan bits – the run across America at the start of the Tonight Show; and the old-timey baseball league from the Late Night show. Two stone cold classic comedy routines. While I knew that Craig Kilborn was the initial host of the Daily Show, I didn’t know that he was essentially canned for making lewd and stupid remarks about the show’s (female) co-creator in an interview. It’s a shame that that program just faded into obscurity after that. Oh, and Carter uses the word “ersatz” an awful lot.