Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Unprofessional Book Review: The War for Late Night

My father was a Leno man. For as long as I could remember, my father would record every episode of the Tonight Show during the week and then watch them whenever he had the chance. I never knew anything of David Letterman, because my father had a strong dislike of the man. Basically, having been born in '82, I grew up on Leno. When I was in High School, I started staying up late and watching Conan. I loved Conan, and I loved Late Night. When the Late Night fiasco of 2009 erupted, I was totally fixated. I had loved Conan's take-over of Tonight, and I couldn't believe that Leno wouldn't just bow out gracefully. Leno struck me as being a performer for old people who don't really like comedy. When Conan released his "People of Earth" manifesto, I was right on board with him, and refused to watch Jay's newly revived Tonight ever since then. In other words, "I'm With Coco!"

Earlier today I finished The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy, Bill Carter's in-depth examination of the entire 2009 late night debacle. To say this book has changed the way I see the Jay vs. Conan situation would be an understatement. I haven't just changed the way I see Jay vs. Conan; I've changed the way I see the entire late night institution.

Carter's book was written based on a series of first-person accounts. He actually interviewed all of the players - from Conan and Leno themselves to Conan's agents and the suits at NBC. Oftentimes, the dialogue which took place is shocking and reflects poorly on those involved, which makes the book all the more essential reading for those for whom the war over late night has been an obsession. One of my favorite moments in the book was when the suits at NBC announce to Conan that they're keeping Jay and moving him to The Tonight Show's old spot right after the local news. Conan can't keep his befuddlement to himself: "What does Leno have on you?" At his next meeting he repeats the question.

At one point, the suits say that they want to keep both Leno and Conan. For the second time, they say that they didn't want to have to make Sophie's choice. Conan is so sick of the reference. Conan's producer, Jeff Ross says, "Stop with the Sophie's choice...You did make a choice." NBC was definitely over-using the reference.

The book is written as a fast-paced narrative. It reminded me of Bryan Burrough's books in that it took a real historical series of events and set them together into a gripping account. Some reviewers thought that this book had some slower moments, but I couldn't disagree more. Everything Carter covers in this book is relevant and helps the reader to make sense of the overall narrative. As somebody who didn't really understand the entire background, I needed to be properly introduced to each of the characters.

Ultimately, by reading the book, I discovered the extraordinary complexity of Leno's position and came to appreciate his desire to not be retired. Although I assumed that it would be graceful for Leno to bow out once his ten o'clock show performed so miserably, I hadn't considered that Leno might not want to spend the next thirty years of his life only playing with cars and visiting golf courses. After all - Leno had so much money that The Tonight Show had stopped being about money, for him. For Leno it was about living the dream and doing what he had always loved. I never believed that Leno was being vindictive or that he was the schemer that many Conan supporters portrayed him as, and this book certainly bore that belief out.

Conan ultimately refused to move The Tonight Show out of a belief that the time slot was essential to the show's identity. For Conan, moving The Tonight Show would have offended its identity. However, in the book's epilogue, Jerry Seinfeld has a radically different perspective on the identity of a talk show.
There’s no institution to offend! All of this ‘I won’t sit by and watch the institution damaged.’ What institution? Ripping off the public? That’s the only institution! We tell jokes and they give us millions! Who’s going to take over Late Night or Late Show or whatever the hell it’s called? Nobody’s going to take it over! It’s Dave! When Dave’s done, that’s the end of that! And then another guy comes along and has to do his thing.
I appreciate Seinfeld's de-romanticized view of television. At one point in the book, when Conan is reflecting on a Tonight Show that starts at 12:05, Conan turns to his wife Liza and says, "Even if the show moved, it would still be the same Tonight Show that Johnny Carson hosted, right?" For Seinfeld, the answer is, "No! The name is the same, the show is totally different because the man has moved on."

I'm still with Coco, but now I'm not against Jay, either. The late night business is just way too complicated and full of bloated egos for anybody to be totally wrong or totally right in the whole debacle.

All in all, you really should read The War for Late Night if you have had any interest in the subject matter. You'll never find a more complete, even-handed, or in-depth examination of the epic struggle for late night.

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