I reviewed Bill Carter's 1995 book The Late Shift, which chronicled the feud between Jay Leno and David Letterman over The Tonight Show. Many television critics cited this book as a seminal work of late-night television history during the 2010 Tonight Show debacle, so it makes complete sense that Bill Carter has returned with what amounts to a sequel: The War for Late Night.
Like all good sequels, there's a returning cast of central characters as well as some new faces. Leno, Letterman and O'Brien are back, but the late night time slots have since been crowded with characters like Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Fallon - and those two guys on Comedy Central. In some respects, Carter's book is about the battle between Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien for the privilege of hosting The Tonight Show, but in a larger sense it tackles the changing world of late night television, and the radically different tastes of the younger generation of television viewers.
The Late Shift chronicled Conan's awkward rise from a nerdy, pale-skinned comedy writer to the host of Late Night, a meteoric ascent that surprised even those who supported him. The War for Late Night finds Conan far more popular, far more confident in his comedic abilities, and far more demanding.
Carter writes with the efficient prose of an entertainment journalist, and the text also reflects the large number of connections and sources that were available to him. The book examines the recent debacle from all sides, and it is clear that Carter has done his research. Not only are the hosts themselves described in personal detail, but the agents, producers, writers and lawyers of Hollywood - those important folks that spend their lives largely out of the public eye - are portrayed in regard to their important roles in the recent imbroglio.
In part, the book is so entertaining because Carter avoids picking sides. He makes little effort to hide that Leno is largely seen as a "sell-out" to other comedians, or Conan was regarded as far too naive when it came to writing his contract. But Carter offers no opinions or value judgments himself. (Indeed, even he seems to struggle with Leno's character. Throughout the book, Leno remains a fascinating personality, according to opposing sources that paint him as either a guileless child or a Machiavellian plotter.)
Instead, the book reads like a Rube Goldberg machine gone horribly awry - trying to determine the decision that led to this contentious feud leads further and further back. Carter traces the initial start of the conflict the the contracts signed by Leno and O'Brien nearly ten years ago, but even this is not the very beginning.
What is fascinating about the whole endeavor is how each party made a decision that made perfect sense that time, but each step only brought the network toward chaos and ruin. It's like a twenty-first century version of an ancient Greek tragedy, except instead of ending with catharsis, we get Conan on TBS.
Carter is at his best when writing about the recent spat between hosts, and this part of the book is both the most entertaining to read and the most well-researched. At times, however, Carter seems unable to decide whether or not he wants to write a Comprehensive History of Late Night - sections on characters like Ferguson and Stewart, or about Letterman's blackmail and subsequent live self-expose, are certainly interesting, but seem awkwardly shoehorned into the narrative. There's no question that Carter knows the late-night field as well as anyone, but the haphazard structure prevents this book from being quite the coup that The Late Shift was.
Yet in many ways, the situation in 2010 is far more interesting than the situation in 1992. The characters in the book, from the old-school network executives down to Conan the scrappy underdog, all talk about The Tonight Show like it still matters. Conan describes the show as an "institution," and the book describes how he passed over other, more lucrative offers from other networks in pursuit of the Grandaddy of all Late Night Shows.
But who the hell cares about the show anymore? Does it carry any sort of cultural clout? The only "water cooler moment" that's come out of The Tonight Show in the past decade is the recent feud between O'Brien and Leno. The dirty secret underscoring the entire book is that late-night television, perhaps all network television, doesn't carry nearly the influence that these characters seem to think.
After Conan is summarily dismissed from his position, he describes himself as "cured" of the Tonight Show sickness. Later, Carter quotes NBC Comedian Emeritus Jerry Seinfeld. "Nobody uses the show names!" he decries, referring to the fact that guests and audiences alike talk about "appearing on Leno" or "watching Conan." "These names are bullshit words!...there's no institution to offend!"
At the end, Leno and Letterman are still on top. But their audiences are shrinking, their fans growing older. The television market has reached the point that there's no real cultural unifier on the air. The "network" versus "cable" dichotomy no longer carries the stigma it once did, and Carter constantly stresses how NBC's cable networks are extremely lucrative even as NBC itself struggles to turn a profit.
Conan is on TBS now, and the Stewart/Colbert duo on Comedy Central generate far more press than anything done on network television. The times are changing, perhaps have already changed. Whether or not you blame DVRs, the Internet, an audience with increasingly fragmentary interests, or stodgy old folks like Leno, there's no going back. Conan's departure from NBC was a sorry loss for a talented star. But, in a larger sense, it may soon be seen as the symbolic departure of any sort of relevance for late night network television.