I grew up in an expressly Letterman household. For years, I never even understood that there was even another late night show to choose from. 11:35 pm meant that Letterman's smug grin was gracing our screen, no argument, end of story. It wasn't until I got my own 11-inch television for my sixteenth birthday that I sometimes stayed up late and watched Leno, in an act of teenage rebellion surely unmatched in the history of youth.
Still, by that point in time, the fabled Late Night Wars of the early 90s had become stagnant. My parents had passed down rumors of the former vitriol between Letterman and Leno, but that conflict seemed like a relic of the past by the time I started watching late night shows around the year 2002 or so.
However, the recent late night spat between Leno and Conan has inspired many television critics to go back and compare that First Late Night War to the Second. Though sadly out of print, Bill Carter's 1994 book The Late Shift was available at my local library, and I checked it out in order to gain a little perspective about the battles for that coveted 11:35 slot, both past and present.
A bit of history: while today we're awash in network and cable programs to watch after the news, once upon a time, there was only one late night variety show. Johnny Carson reigned as King of The Tonight Show for thirty years. As he was preparing to retire in 1990, David Letterman was viewed as the natural successor. Letterman had risen from his humble beginnings in rural Indiana to host his own show at 12:30, Late Night with David Letterman, and his humor was widely acknowledged as being smart and edgy, though though not necessarily very marketable. So when Carson retired, The Tonight Show went to Jay Leno, a stand-up comedian of some moderate acclaim who had guest-hosted the show a few times in the past. Critics considered this a financially smart but artistically cowardly decision - promoting the mediocre but more palatable host over the more unconventional wildcard. The decision made Letterman so upset that he eventually left NBC to start his own show on CBS.
Let's see: we have a younger, quirkier host who is more popular with the younger audience, being passed up by the brass at NBC who prefer to stick with the status quo - a vanilla, unthreatening, boring choice. Does this sound familiar?
Karl Marx told us that history happens twice, one as tragedy, once as farce. He might have gotten it backward - while Conan's recent dismissal is an undeniable tragedy for The Tonight Show, (one in which both Conan and Leno seem genuinely offended), the Letterman-Leno skirmish of 1993 plays out more like a comic opera. Carter chronicles how, after Leno had been hosting The Tonight Show for a few months, NBC went behind his back and offered the show to Letterman. But Letterman smelled something fishy; he desperately wanted to host the legendary show, but his distrust of the NBC Network led him to jump ship and set up a show at CBS - a show that, for the first time, was a consistent challenge to The Tonight Show in the ratings.
The conflict boils down to a lot of mid-level producers standing around in a office talking about contracts, but Carter has the skill and wit to paint very vivid characters, giving the reader what feels like a true insiders' glimpse of how television works. The most memorable character is Helen Kushnick, Leno's agent. Kushnick is portrayed as a spiteful harridan who ruled The Tonight Show with an iron fist - first planting false rumors to newspapers hoping to push Carson into an early retirement, then demanding that NBC give Leno contractual rights to The Tonight Show, and finally blackballing celebrities who dared to appear on any other talk show (this decision helped drive The Arsenio Hall Show to an early grave, as celebrities were too scared about incurring Kushnick's wrath to appear there).
Kushnick is the true villain of the story. Leno, on the other hand, is portrayed as sincere guy, if a little too naive for show business. I came away from the book with a new respect for Leno the person (if not for his sense of humor); he's a man with a dogged work ethic and a good deal of loyalty to his friends and coworkers, a man who often doesn't seem to understand how the system works. Leno's puppy-eyed Oprah interview, in which he expresses bewilderment at being the bad guy, makes much more sense to me after this book. This is a man who lives life convinced that everyone is out to get him and he is always the victim. In one memorable scene, Carter chronicles how Leno was so worried about his future that he hid in a closet during a staff meeting to eavesdrop and make sure he wasn't on the chopping block.
Letterman is also portrayed as insecure, but a different kind of insecure - a man prone to temper tantrums after recording his show, believing that he'd done a horrible job. And some of Letterman's battles are truly petty (at one point, Letterman almost lost his chance at an NBC contract because an executive was upset he was uninvited to a party Letterman threw).
But, colorful characters aside, the true value of this book comes from the history of television it so engagingly presents. Before reading this book, I had never realized what a cultural institution The Tonight Show is. The book portrays all the major players tiptoeing around the legacy of Johnny Carson (a major part of Letterman's decision to leave for CBS was that Carson advised him to do so). For thirty years, The Tonight Show was all there was after prime time, and my young self hadn't quite realized how sacred such a show is in the land of Hollywood.
The most fascinating part of The Late Shift, to our modern sensibilities, is the chapter at the end chronicling Conan O'Brien's rise to prominence after Letterman's departure for CBS. The book takes great care to emphasize how difficult it is to put on a nightly variety show, evening after evening, and still manage to be funny and friendly (Chevy Chase and Pat Sajak were two memorable failures). Here was a young man who had literally no performing experience, picked up from the SNL writer's studio to head one of the most taxing enterprises in television. That we know that Conan eventually rose to the very top (if but for a brief time) only makes the story more remarkable.
However, the more I read this book, the more I realized that Conan was never Tonight Show material. This is no knock against his abilities; I think he's a very talented star. But I realized how much the Johnny Carson aesthetic still dominates the cultural force that is The Tonight Show, even twenty years later. Conan was never at his funniest during his seven month tenure, hedged in by demands to cater to the lowest common denominator while still retaining his youthful, college-aged audience from Late Night.
Letterman realized that the weight of The Tonight Show's history would infringe on his style, and eventually gave up the job of his dreams to obtain more creative control at CBS. Here's to hoping Conan lands on his feet at some other network in September, one that gives him more freedom. In the meantime, the Second Late Night War will eventually fade into history, simply one more notorious event in the chronicle of an American television legacy. Who knows what will happen next?
Although if the Third Late Night War is destined to be a struggle between Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon, whoever wins, we lose.