The broad outlines of Bill Carter’s The War for Late Night are familiar to almost anyone with a passing knowledge of American popular culture. But the story it covers, and the characters involved, are so engrossing that his 406-page minute-by-minute dissection of the battle over hosting The Tonight Show never drags.
Carter, who covered the struggle between Jay Leno and David Letterman to succeed Johnny Carson in 1994’s The Late Shift, received an unprecedented amount of access for his latest book. As a result, he’s able to give the reader a relatively unfiltered look into the minds of Conan O’Brien, Leno and all the NBC executives involved in the six-year soap opera.
In 2004, after a breakthrough performance as the host of the Emmys the year before, Conan was one of the hottest names in show business. NBC, not wanting to lose a star they had cultivated for more than a decade, persuaded him to stay by promising him The Tonight Show in five years.
Meanwhile, Leno, the current host, was still the undisputed king of late night. However, he had no interest in another messy succession conflict that would harm his public reputation, so he reluctantly agreed to the handover.
Throughout the entire process, NBC was single-mindedly focused on protecting The Tonight Show, one of the only profit centers for a network mired in last place. In 2004, they worried that competing with Conan at 11:35 would siphon off younger viewers. In 2009, they worried that competing with Leno would strangle Conan’s Tonight Show in its infancy.
Their solution — giving Jay a prime-time show at 10:00 while still handing over The Tonight Show to Conan — was a too-clever by half maneuver to get out of what they repeatedly called “a Sophie’s choice”. And while Leno became a national punching bag as the entire enterprise quickly unraveled, Carter fairly presents both sides of the story.
In a sense, the two comedians became stand-ins for broader generational grievances. Leno, a deliberately unsentimental man who never took vacations and “lived to tell jokes at 11:30”, felt he was being forced to abandon the job he loved in order to placate a younger employee. Conan had turned down much more lucrative opportunities at other networks because he was promised The Tonight Show, his life-long dream as a comedian, only to watch his older counterpart hang on to a job long past the point he was supposed to retire.
Conan’s fans organized on Facebook and Twitter, launching the now famous “I’m with Coco” campaign. Leno’s fans, on the other hand, didn’t understand Conan’s more cutting-edge and ironic brand of comedy, and Leno’s hard-fought ratings lead over Letterman slipped away under Conan.
The battle between the two affected every big name in late-night television, and the sheer number of players involved is the biggest difference from 1994. Carter profiles them all, from Conan’s successor on Late Night, Jimmy Fallon, to the CBS duo of Letterman and Craig Ferguson, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel and Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
Carson became a national institution in a world with only three TV channels; Leno and Conan were fighting with six additional hosts for their share of an increasingly smaller pie.
For both, The Tonight Show represented the ultimate brass ring in the world of comedy, adding emotional heft to what was ultimately a dispute over scheduling. The climax of their struggle, as well as the book itself, occurs when Conan writes a passionate open letter explaining why he wouldn’t allow NBC to move The Tonight Show a half-hour back in order to give Leno the 11:35 slot.
Perhaps the most clear-headed figure in the book is Jerry Seinfeld, a comic more popular, famous and beloved than either: “A half hour is a half hour no matter where it is. It goes by forty-eight times a day! Who cares where it is?”
The book’s bittersweet afterword illustrates Seinfeld’s point. After leaving NBC, Conan couldn’t get a show at FOX, as their affiliates preferred to play re-runs of older shows like Seinfeld. At the same time, Leno’s audience continued to shrink as younger viewers preferred to watch shows recorded earlier in the day on their DVRs.
The Tonight Show, once an integral part of the national discourse, has become increasingly irrelevant. Carter drops hints that Fallon and Colbert, seen by many executives as the future of late night, might one day have a chance at the brass ring. But at this point, both should probably heed Seinfeld’s advice: “There is no tradition! This is what I didn’t get. Conan has been on TV for sixteen years. At that point you should get it: There are no shows! It’s all made up! The TV show is just a card! Somebody printed the words on it!”
In The Late Shift, Carter chronicled The Tonight Show, the personalities surrounding it and its unique place in American culture. Seventeen years later, he gives the whole enterprise its definitive eulogy.