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The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy

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A dramatic account of the politics and personalities behind NBC's calamitous attempt to reinvent late-night television. When NBC decided to move Jay Leno into prime time to make room for Conan O'Brien to host the Tonight show-a job he had been promised five years earlier-skeptics anticipated a train wreck for the ages. It took, in fact, only a few months for the dire predic A dramatic account of the politics and personalities behind NBC's calamitous attempt to reinvent late-night television. When NBC decided to move Jay Leno into prime time to make room for Conan O'Brien to host the Tonight show-a job he had been promised five years earlier-skeptics anticipated a train wreck for the ages. It took, in fact, only a few months for the dire predictions to come true. Leno's show, panned by critics, dragged down the ratings-and the profits-of NBC's affiliates, while ratings for Conan's new Tonight show plummeted to the lowest levels in history. Conan's collapse, meanwhile, opened an unexpected door of opportunity for rival David Letterman. What followed was a boisterous, angry, frequently hilarious public battle that had millions of astonished viewers glued to their sets. In The War for Late Night, New York Times reporter Bill Carter offers a detailed behind-the-scenes account of the events of the unforgettable 2009/2010 late-night season as all of its players- performers, producers, agents, and network executives-maneuvered to find footing amid the shifting tectonic plates of television culture.


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A dramatic account of the politics and personalities behind NBC's calamitous attempt to reinvent late-night television. When NBC decided to move Jay Leno into prime time to make room for Conan O'Brien to host the Tonight show-a job he had been promised five years earlier-skeptics anticipated a train wreck for the ages. It took, in fact, only a few months for the dire predic A dramatic account of the politics and personalities behind NBC's calamitous attempt to reinvent late-night television. When NBC decided to move Jay Leno into prime time to make room for Conan O'Brien to host the Tonight show-a job he had been promised five years earlier-skeptics anticipated a train wreck for the ages. It took, in fact, only a few months for the dire predictions to come true. Leno's show, panned by critics, dragged down the ratings-and the profits-of NBC's affiliates, while ratings for Conan's new Tonight show plummeted to the lowest levels in history. Conan's collapse, meanwhile, opened an unexpected door of opportunity for rival David Letterman. What followed was a boisterous, angry, frequently hilarious public battle that had millions of astonished viewers glued to their sets. In The War for Late Night, New York Times reporter Bill Carter offers a detailed behind-the-scenes account of the events of the unforgettable 2009/2010 late-night season as all of its players- performers, producers, agents, and network executives-maneuvered to find footing amid the shifting tectonic plates of television culture.

30 review for The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jayson

    (B+) 79% | Good Notes: Though not teeming with new information, it's polished and adeptly defogs an ostensibly well-known public drama.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Stephen

    The Battle for Late Night...Part Duex. Upfront, I'll admit this book probably deserves star number four…but it’s not going to get it because Bill Carter’s previous late night expose, Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night, was so compelling for me that this seemed too pale and watered-down by comparison. This second tussle over the captain’s chair of NBC’s The Tonight Show just didn’t have all the clandestine maneuvering and friend-eat-friend back-stabbing that the The Battle for Late Night...Part Duex. Upfront, I'll admit this book probably deserves star number four…but it’s not going to get it because Bill Carter’s previous late night expose, Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night, was so compelling for me that this seemed too pale and watered-down by comparison. This second tussle over the captain’s chair of NBC’s The Tonight Show just didn’t have all the clandestine maneuvering and friend-eat-friend back-stabbing that the original Jay Leno/David Lettermen scrum had. Plus, whereas The Late Shift was the battle over succeeding the iconic Johnny Carson as host of THE Tonight Show…the prize this go around was a weak shadow of that once unassailable franchise. The lowered stakes involved, and my increased ambivalence over the outcome (since I am a Letterman guy), are the ONLY reasons I didn’t rate this higher, because the quality is definitely as good as the previous book. Bill Carter’s reporting is every bit as well-documented and engagingly laid out via Bill’s straight-forward, easy going style. Carter has a talent for spilling insider secrets and airing soiled laundry from the intersection of Hollywood & Wall Street without making it seem tawdry or sensationalistic. He tells the story without apparent bias and avoids using his words as an incendiary device to titillate. The man is professional and competent. He also apparently had access to everyone that mattered in this struggle as he hits the story from every conceivable angle. In the end, I just wasn’t as enthralled this time around watching Jay Leno’s reputation take it on the giant, crescent moon chin. PLOT SUMMARY: An insider’s look at turmoil surrounding: (1) Conan O’Brien’s short-lived stint as Jay Leno’s replacement as the host of NBC’s The Tonight Show; (2) Jay Leno’s short-lived nightmare of a prime time show airing at 10:00 P.M., and the affiliate revolt that arose against NBC as a consequence; and (3) The corporate/media brouhaha that ensued when NBC, in an act of self-preservation, greased the rails for Leno to oust Conan from his 11:30 time slot. Bill smoothly weaves his way through the tumult that was late night television during this time, and provides biographical sketches on the new crop of late night powerhouses, including: Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Craig Ferguson. He even, much to my delight, checks in on David Letterman for a few of the book’s most interesting segments (again, I’m a Dave fan). In addition, we get to peer in at the movers and shakers in this arena as they pitch battle and play nice, including the likes of NBC chief Jeff Zucker… ...and Lorne Michaels, the man responsible for launching almost every late night career, and one of the greatest talent scouts Hollywood has ever scene… THOUGHTS: If you think you will like this, than I am confident you will. If you think you will love this, because you loved Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night, that is more of an open question in my mind. In addition to the lowered stakes, and the less compelling storyline I mentioned above, this book has no Helen Kushnick: Seen here being played to perfection by Kathy Bates in the movie adaptation The closest we get to a real head-cracking asshole is Jeff Zucker, who was certainly gruff and abrasive at times, but never fully filled the role of villain that Kushnick’s over-the-top Machiavellian meets Mr. Burns approach did in the Leno-Letterman contest. Still, despite my reduced enthusiasm, I enjoyed reading this and there were a bevy of segments that I thought were truly outstanding. Here are a few of my personal favorites: **The biographical information on Conan O’Brien (who is second only to Dave in my late night hierarchy) was wonderful. **The segments on John Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and how blown away the industry was by the originality and brilliance of their shows (added bonus for the discussion of the invention of the word truthiness. **Checking in on Leno’s psychotic, family ignoring workoholicness, and his complete inability to relax. ** Letterman’s public airing of the black-mailing scandal involving his dalliances with female co-workers/employees. Only Dave could have handled this embarrassing situation with such aplomb. ** Revisting Letterman’s post-9/11 monologue from September 17, 2001, when the entire world waited for Dave to let them know it was okay to laugh again…still among the most amazing moments in the history of broadcasting. ** Jimmy Kimmel basting Jay Leno on the air, while a guest on Leno’s show, over Leno taking back The Tonight Show: Leno: ‘What’s the best prank you [Kimmel] ever pulled?’ Kimmel: ‘I told a guy that five years from now, I’m gonna give you my show. And then when the five years came, I gave it to him, and then I took it back almost instantly.’ … Leno: ‘What would you like to host that you haven’t yet?’ Kimmel: ‘Oh this is a trick, right? Where you get me to host the Tonight Show and then take it back from me? Listen Lucy I’m not Charlie Brown I don’t fall for that trick.’ ** Reading about the influence of Lorne Michaels and the enormous influence he has had on Hollywood. This one person’s biography I really want to read. Overall, definitely worth reading, and a terrific look the financial side of late night broadcasting. Just not quite as compelling as The Late Shift. 3.5 stars. Recommended.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Kemper

    3/21/13 - Floating this one to warn Jimmy Fallon. A Phone Conversation in 2020 “Hello, this is Slick McGee, agent to the stars. How can I help you?” “Slick, it’s Garfield Lawlerly, president of NBC.” “Garfield! How are you? Why, I haven’t heard from anybody at NBC since your last scripted show Law & Order: Omaha went off the air.” “Yes, finding new scripted programs has been challenging.” “Really? FX, HBO, CBS, Showtime, AMC and a dozen other networks seem to find good shows to put on the air all the 3/21/13 - Floating this one to warn Jimmy Fallon. A Phone Conversation in 2020 “Hello, this is Slick McGee, agent to the stars. How can I help you?” “Slick, it’s Garfield Lawlerly, president of NBC.” “Garfield! How are you? Why, I haven’t heard from anybody at NBC since your last scripted show Law & Order: Omaha went off the air.” “Yes, finding new scripted programs has been challenging.” “Really? FX, HBO, CBS, Showtime, AMC and a dozen other networks seem to find good shows to put on the air all the time.” “Here at NBC, we pride ourselves on our prime time slate of game shows and reality TV.” “Whatever gets you through the night, Garfield. So why are you calling?” “We’ve got an exciting opportunity here, and we need someone funny with mainstream appeal. You represent all the top comics on our list of possibilities so I….” “You’re not trying to replace Leno again are you, Garfield?” “Well, actually yes, we are.” “Forget it. None of my clients are interested.” “But it’s The Tonight Show, Slick.” “So what? The last guy who gave a damn about the history of The Tonight Show was Conan O’Brien and everyone knows what you did to that poor bastard. All of my clients are too young to even know who Johnny Carson is. Besides, they all know you’d just cut their throats and give the show back to Jay the second the ratings dipped. No one is interested. Especially after what that big chin maniac did to Jimmy Fallon.” “Now, Slick, you know that Jay was cleared of all charges in Fallon’s death.” “Save that shit for the tourists, Garfield. We all know Jay had him killed when you hinted that Jimmy might replace him soon.” “Leaving that aside for a moment, Jay is 70 now and we feel it’s time for a change.” “Then call someone else. None of my clients are going near that bucket of shit you call a late night show. Call me when you decide to start trying to be competitive and make prime time TV shows again, Garfield.” A Phone Conversation in 2030 “Slick? It’s Garfield Lawlerly from NBC here.” “No.” “Oh, come on, Slick. Hear me out.” “Nope. No way. You just want to talk about trying to get Leno off of The Tonight Show. None of my people are interested in getting Conaned by NBC.” “Jesus. I can’t believe that the word Conan became a popular verb.” “That’s what happens when you give someone an epic fucking over, Garfield. You make them immortal.” “Listen, Slick. Jay is 80 goddamn years old. He just comes out and drools most nights. We’re down to about 20 elderly viewers who still find him funny. We really want to go younger.” “Forget it. He’d still kill somebody’s family to keep The Tonight Show. We aren’t going near it.” A Phone Conversation in 2040. “Slick, it’s Garfield Lawlerly.” “No.” “For Christ‘s sake. Jay has been dead for over a year, Slick.” “Yeah, and you fuckers would still find a way to screw over a host to give that show back to him, Garfield. We can’t take a chance that science may find a way to animate corpses. Because if they do, the first one out of the grave would be Jay Leno wanting to get The Tonight Show back. None of my clients will take that chance. So just prop his old bones up in the chair every night and roll the cameras. It‘d probably be funnier that Leno‘s actual act was.” ********************************************************** It looked like a good idea on paper. Conan O’Brien was being wooed by rival networks in 2004. He’d already turned down one attractive offer from Fox before, but he wasn’t interested in money. He had the same fever that had driven David Letterman crazy. He wanted a chance to host The Tonight Show. This gave NBC a dilemma. Conan may have been the flavor of the month, but Jay Leno was still comfortably # 1 in the ratings. Just like the debacle of 1993, NBC had two guys who wanted the same chair. An NBC executive named Jeff Zucker came up with the idea of a five year transition. Give Leno an end date that let him go on for several more years. Placate Conan with the promise of the show. Both men agreed to the deal. What seemed to be a reasonable plan of succession for one of NBC’s most valuable properties would become a nightmare that would humiliate O’Brien, drag Leno’s name through the mud and make the entire network look clueless. When I read Bill Carter’s book The Late Shift back in the ‘90s, I never dreamed that NBC would be so stupid as to give him material for a sequel in 2010. Like the first time around, Carter provides a clear and fascinating account of not only the decisions that led to a public relations nightmare, but how these decisions seemed reasonable to the people involved at that moment. Leno was painted as a villain during the mess, but what’s interesting about the book is that Leno’s biggest sin may have been not being a bigger dick about the idea of handing off the show to begin with. When approached in 2004 about it, Leno swallowed his hurt and anger and went along with the plan. He only launched a series of passive aggressive hints about his plans to jump to ABC or another network during his last year of The Tonight Show. That led to the horrible plan of having him do an hour of prime time that tanked in the ratings, incited an affiliate rebellion and helped drag down Conan’s ratings. (Which Leno and NBC would then point to as justification for pushing Conan out.) If Leno would have pitched a screaming tantrum in 2004 when NBC brought up the idea of pushing him out for Conan, the network would have had two tough choices: 1) Inform Conan that Leno would be the host of The Tonight Show for as long as he wanted, and Conan would either have to stay on Late Night or jump ship and try to launch a new show on another network. 2) Push Jay out once and for all and turn the show over to Conan, knowing that they’d take a short term ratings hit, but hope that Conan would build a new generation of fans. This meant risking Leno starting a new show somewhere else. Unfortunately, NBC took the chickenshit route and waffled mightily by trying to keep both men on the air. While the book makes it clear that there was a touch of arrogance and entitlement to the Conan crew that contributed to the problems, I find Leno a weird and fascinating figure in all this. Leno used to be a comedian respected by his peers. Now, he’s considered a sell-out who cares for only one thing in the world: telling jokes on The Tonight Show. He’s become a kind of comedic Terminator writing half-amusing jokes as his mission. And since he only cares about staying on the air to keep doing this, he left behind any notions of artistic integrity or concerns about anything other than ratings behind long ago. To Jay, keeping the show on air and # 1 is the only measurement that matters. Fellow late night host Jimmy Kimmel has a great line in the book where he says that Jay has taken joke writing and turned into a factory job. He doesn’t seem to take any joy in it or try for anything new or innovative. The only really important thing to Jay is churning those jokes out daily. Some may say that it was silly for the public to get so wrapped up in the battle between a couple of rich comics. True. But NBC taking The Tonight Show away from Conan and giving it back to Jay symbolized much more than that. It was Gen X & Y getting pushed aside for baby boomers again. It was new media versus old media. It’s the old network model versus cable. It was critical acclaim versus mass appeal. In the end, it was a story about people put in impossible positions (sometimes due to their own hubris) with hundreds of millions of dollars and careers on the line in a national spotlight. It’s crazy that there was so much drama over people trying to do comedy, but it makes for a helluva an interesting book.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Brandon

    When I first heard about this book, I was still seething from when Jay Leno took the Tonight Show away from O'Brien after only seven months of some hit or miss shows. Funny thing, for whatever reason, my hatred of Leno blinded me to the sheer stupidity of NBC. When I was finished this book, I still disliked Leno but I realized I hated NBC more. There were some good points brought up here in defense of Leno, but there were also some points that made him look like a jerk. That being said, the book When I first heard about this book, I was still seething from when Jay Leno took the Tonight Show away from O'Brien after only seven months of some hit or miss shows. Funny thing, for whatever reason, my hatred of Leno blinded me to the sheer stupidity of NBC. When I was finished this book, I still disliked Leno but I realized I hated NBC more. There were some good points brought up here in defense of Leno, but there were also some points that made him look like a jerk. That being said, the book wasn't entirely pro Conan either. In NBC’s defense they did make some suggestions to O'Brien that he more or less ignored. NBC had been looking for Conan to alter his comedy style to suit people who were not fans. Basically, NBC wanted him to retain a large portion of Leno’s fans and looking at it from a business standpoint, you really can’t blame them. As much of a dream as Conan wanted to label his time on The Tonight Show, as the author points out, it’s still a job. When you’re an employee, you have to listen to your boss. Unfortunately for NBC, Conan was not, and never would be, Jay Leno 2.0. For the life of me, I can’t wrap my head around NBC’s stance that they couldn't let Leno go to another network. Yes, when he left his post on The Tonight Show, he was still number one in late night but the man was at the point in his life where he couldn't possibly be a threat for long. He wasn't going to do this forever, surely he only had a few more years left in the tank. I also just can’t understand who finds this man funny, especially when there are so many other options in late night land. Other than “Headlines”, which is just Jay reading (or screaming) typos that other people send in, there’s really no reason to watch his show. He’s not innovative or unique and he’s painfully annoying. I just don’t get it. Not only does the author shed some light on The Tonight Show fiasco in 2010 but you get some background on the other late night hosts. There are some interesting bits about Letterman, Stewart, Colbert and Kimmel. It kind of left me wanting a book about Letterman as the stuff written about Dave had been fascinating. In my opinion, it all worked out for the best. Leno gets his show back on a network that doesn't deserve better and Conan gets his own show on cable where he doesn't have to answer to the affiliates. Conan is also $45 million richer! Oh, it should be worth mentioning that you have to catch the epilogue. It features some quotes from Jerry Seinfeld that basically make this whole thing look ridiculous. Some funny stuff indeed. Cross Posted @ Every Read Thing

  5. 5 out of 5

    Deborah Edwards

    I’m a Dave girl. I’ve been in the Letterman camp since I was twelve years old, and if you’re a late night junkie – like me – you know which camp you’re in. In truth, I would have liked for Leno to have been more appealing to my sensibilities. He’s from Massachusetts, after all. New Englanders like to root for the home team. We talk about people like Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg as if we know them. And Leno’s gotten a lot of mileage from that blue collar work ethic, the anti-elitist stance – all I’m a Dave girl. I’ve been in the Letterman camp since I was twelve years old, and if you’re a late night junkie – like me – you know which camp you’re in. In truth, I would have liked for Leno to have been more appealing to my sensibilities. He’s from Massachusetts, after all. New Englanders like to root for the home team. We talk about people like Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg as if we know them. And Leno’s gotten a lot of mileage from that blue collar work ethic, the anti-elitist stance – all things that might appeal to me on a visceral level. And yet, when Leno is the vehicle…somehow they don’t. But Dave. Ah, Dave. That edgy, curmudgeonly anti-social iconoclast. I don’t know what it is about him exactly, but from the first time I saw his “little dog and pony” show (as he calls it), I just got him. Jay might deliver solid topical jokes night after night like the modern embodiment of the ghost of Henny Youngman (set-up, punch line; set-up, punch line), but Dave isn’t from that Catskills school of stand-up. At times, his jokes aren’t even jokes as much as strange images that catch his fancy or life’s absurdities that deserve a skewering. If a line doesn’t work, sometimes Dave will just keep repeating it, over and over again, maddeningly so, at times. Sometimes I think he does it for spite - to show a writer how truly bad the line was or to tweak the audience with the fact that they should have found it funny. And sometimes I think he does it just because he knows that if he repeats the line enough times, it will not only suddenly become funny, but it will also become part of the legend. His legend. There’s something just a little bit subversive about Dave. Something a little more obscure and philosophical about his comedy. Which is probably why Jay has beaten him in the ratings for sixteen years. And also why, even according to Bill Carter in “The War for Late Night,” every major player in late night television (from Conan to Jimmy Kimmel to Jimmy Fallon to John Stewart to Stephen Colbert to Jay himself) names Dave as an idol. None of them say the same about Jay. Comedians get Dave. Mainstream America gets Jay. But this story isn’t about Jay and Dave. That’s just the backstory. Dave was the heir apparent to “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” He had been told it was his; even Johnny had handpicked him for the job. But when the time came for Carson to retire, it turned out that Jay Leno also had designs on the job, the NBC executives had never put anything in writing with Dave, and Johnny was no longer being asked who should succeed him. Through a series of backhanded deals, whipsmart agents, and ruthless machinations by certain players in the fray, the Tonight Show went to Jay, Dave went to CBS, and the first real late night battle of the network stars began. In the backstory, Letterman and Michael Ovitz (I won’t get into details – read Carter’s first book, “The Late Shift” for that) came out as victors and quasi heroes in the story, while Jay and his former manager (the, by all accounts, heinous Helen Kushnick) came out as Machiavellian manipulators. It’s not that simple, of course, but that’s how it played, until things settled down and went back to normal and stayed that way for over a decade. Until one dark day in 2004 when a man named Jeff Zucker woke up one morning with a plan that he thought was brilliant – never a good thing when the plan is hatched by an NBC executive. Conan O’Brien had done well with David Letterman’s old late night show, having been plucked from near obscurity by Lorne Michaels to rise in the ratings to a place where he was carrying the youthful demographic NBC so eagerly sought. But his rising fame and popularity among America’s college campuses made him attractive to other networks as well, and NBC knew that ABC and the cable channels were about to come calling. How could they keep Conan, (and they desperately wanted to keep him), when they were paying him a pittance and FOX alone could offer him many millions more without blinking? Oh wait, oh, oh, I know. Offer him “The Tonight Show.” “What?” you might ask, “The Tonight Show? Doesn’t that show already have a really successful host in place?” Yes. Yes it does. But even good things can’t last forever. At least that’s the way Jeff Zucker saw it the day he decided to go to Jay Leno’s dressing room and tell his biggest star, his biggest money-maker and possibly his biggest bargain (Jay was making less than half of David Letterman’s salary at the time) that he would renew Jay’s contract, pick up his option as usual, and never do so again. Five years from now, Jay would hand the show over to Conan O’Brien. The end. As one might expect, there was some shock on Jay’s part and some hemming and hawing. Someone else might have taken the opportunity to negotiate, make a few demands, remind the brass that he was their biggest star and he’d be damned if he’d be told what to do that way. He might have had his agent come in and read them the riot act. But Jay didn’t have an agent. He didn’t like conflict, he didn’t like to think about money. All he wanted in life was to “tell jokes at 11:35” and tinker with his cars. So, in the end, Jay meekly said, “Okay, if that’s what you want,” and he swallowed his anger and signed his contract. While, meanwhile, in NYC, the young Conan O’Brien had similarly agreed to keep working for five years of peanuts and give up a possible 20 million dollar offer to get the one thing he had always dreamed of – “The Tonight Show.” In five years, that is. Well five years passed like the blink of an eye. Jay was still winning the ratings, Conan was still big with the young people, and NBC started to wonder if this had been such a good idea after all. To get out of the deal they would have had to pay Conan 45 million dollars (Conan did have an agent). But Jay was starting to hint that he might go over to ABC (Jimmy Kimmel was already in place there, and in fact, when Jimmy had first gotten the gig and was asked what he planned to do with his show, he remarked that he “wanted to do the comedy version of The Tonight Show”). Well, as we know, Jay has never been averse to pushing someone out of a gig, so NBC got scared again, and needed a brilliant solution. Well, who better to come up with a brilliant plan than old Jeff Zucker, the rocket scientist who had forced Jay’s early retirement in the first place? He offered Jay Sundays. Saturdays. Specials. A weekly show. An 8:00 PM slot every night. Jay wanted to work but he was a late night creature and none of that sounded good to him. So Zucker reached into his back pocket and came up with a plan to cancel every ten o’clock drama on NBC and put Jay there every night. He would still have his beloved monologue, have his comedy bits, have his guests, work in the same lot. It would be just like what he did now, only earlier, and Conan would still have to follow him. Jay was a creature of habit and this appealed to him. No one thought about the fact that it might just destroy two shows at once, and make NBC look like a network run by pinheads. (No one except David Letterman, that is. No one had a better time with the ensuing mayhem than he did.) We all now know that Jay’s show was abysmal, it destroyed that time slot, it hurt the lead-in for Conan and angered some powerful affiliates. So, the call came down to cancel Jay. It was the obvious move. Until NBC realized they had signed what’s known as a “pay and play” deal with Jay. Unheard of in television, it gave Jay the power to say “Hell no, you can’t cancel me, because you are contractually bound to both pay me and keep me on the air (he had learned from his forced retirement to make the next contract count). So Zucker and his minions now hatched the plan to bring Jay back to 11:35, push Conan back a half hour, and solve their problem. Conan had only been host of “The Tonight Show” for less than seven months and he was about to be told he was now going to host a diluted version of the show, at a time slot that wasn’t even “Tonight” anymore, so that he could try to follow a popular well-known host who was going to steal his prime monologue spot. Super. People have their own opinions, but for my money, I totally respect the fact that Conan chose not to accept this preposterous insult of a deal, and instead wrote the manifesto that would brilliantly state his case while taking the high road and transforming himself from that “kooky redheaded guy” to famous icon of the pop culture. (I highly recommend that everyone who hasn’t read it, read Conan’s “People of Earth” manifesto that he released to NBC in response to their demands.) The youth of America sprung into action at this news. Team Coco became an internet sensation, and Conan was met with cheering throngs for weeks. His ratings shot through the roof those last few weeks, and Jay was once again vilified as a man who didn’t know when to keep his mitts off a job that wasn’t really his (a label he had tried so hard to remove over the past decade and a half). In the book, Carter quotes people like Seinfeld (a longtime friend of Leno’s) and Lorne Michaels (an NBC mainstay) to say that no one should have taken it personally. It was just business after all. “The Tonight Show” isn’t an institution. It’s just a show! Being host isn’t an entitlement. It’s just a job! Face it – like everything else in life, it’s just about the money. I understand that two guys who have a combined history with NBC of about sixty years pretty much have to say that. Particularly to a journalist who plans on quoting them. And maybe they really have seen too much corporate jockeying, and life has become too insular to see it through the eyes of the audience anymore. But I think you would have to be either naïve, coldhearted – or both – to tell the same American public you’ve been feeding the history of “The Tonight Show” to for all those years that their memories didn’t count for anything, the loyalty you tried to instill in them was a lie. Letterman certainly saw the show as an institution, a safe haven inhabited by a man he idolized. Conan yearned to host the show he had watched as a child with his father, even if it meant waiting for years and taking a pay cut. Countless Americans had memories of the show. Entertainment is about money and ratings for the executives, but for the people sitting at home it’s about what adds to our lives and who we choose to enter our homes on a regular basis. I, for one, will be crying my eyes out the day David Letterman turns in his final show. Don’t tell me it wasn’t an institution. Americans are easily led and we can be spoonfed quite a bit of crap – but once we get attached to it, don’t try to tell us we were stupid to care. Maybe that’s why Jeff Zucker is no longer with NBC. And why David Letterman is currently beating Jay Leno in the ratings.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Kirsti

    Here's what I learned from this book: Some things are more important than money . . . and sometimes that screws up everything. Because three men (Jay, Dave, and Conan) all believed that hosting The Tonight Show was more important than making tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars more money elsewhere. And three hosts can't be on one show. And the NBC people had no idea what to do about any of this, because they sincerely believed that throwing money at a problem will eventually fix Here's what I learned from this book: Some things are more important than money . . . and sometimes that screws up everything. Because three men (Jay, Dave, and Conan) all believed that hosting The Tonight Show was more important than making tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars more money elsewhere. And three hosts can't be on one show. And the NBC people had no idea what to do about any of this, because they sincerely believed that throwing money at a problem will eventually fix it. Hey, a lot of the time, it does. Here are the highlights: "You know you're going to have to work a lot harder than the other kids to get the same things they have." --Jay Leno's mother, an emotionally remote woman who repeated this mantra throughout his childhood (Jay describes himself as "a little dyslexic") "The least demonstrative woman God ever breathed life into"--David Letterman describing his mother "What are you doing playing Carnegie Hall?" --Jay's mom during his early career success "I don't care what happens in my career as long as it's interesting." --Conan O'Brien, talking to himself while eating pancakes, during a brief period of unemployment in 1987 "Conan O'Blivion. . . . As lifeless and messy as road kill. . . . Cancel O'Brien now." --Washington Post critic Tom Shales, reviewing Late Night with Conan O'Brien in late 1993 "Get that fat, fucking dildo off the couch." --NBC exec Warren Littlefield, describing O'Brien sidekick Andy Richter "I'm gonna be fine. I just need to be under here for a little bit and just lie here." --Conan, literally hiding under his desk after widespread criticism of his new show "One of the most amazing transformations in television history . . . the most innovative comedy in television." --Shales, in 1996 "I was wrong. I'm sorry." --Littlefield "Jay's not going anywhere. And if you wait for The Tonight Show, it won't be worth what it is today." --Fox chief executive Peter Chernin in 2001, offering to create a late-night show for Conan and septuple his NBC salary "Remember I told you this: You're never gonna get The Tonight Show." --Fox executive Gail Berman "The first week and a half Dave was happy. Now he's back to being the most miserable person in the world." --anonymous staffer describing Dave's early ratings triumphs over Jay "I would say that Dave is the better broadcaster and I am the better stand-up comedian." --Jay "I just think that Jay has wider appeal than I do." --Dave, explaining why Jay nearly always beats him in the ratings "I know I don't want everybody to go through what Letterman and I did. I don't want to go through all that nonsense again." --Jay, tepidly defending the network's decision to announce that Conan would replace him five years down the road "Who the fuck let this happen? This guy is so proud that he doesn't have an agent. Let me tell you something, any agent with a heartbeat would have told NBC, 'Go fuck yourselves. This guy is winning. He's going nowhere.' Who makes a move like this?" --anonymous agent describing the announcement that Jay would retire in five years "Don't get me wrong--I'm pulling for you. But this whole thing is a crapshoot at best." --Will Ferrell to Conan while Conan was interviewing him on The Tonight Show "Poorly informed, high-status idiots." --Stephen Colbert, describing the characters he plays "At least we don't have to see a lot of stupid movies and pretend they're good." --Jay commiserating with Jimmy Kimmel during the writers' strike "They can say what they want about saving money, but they are going to kill their local news and this is not going to last." --unnamed ABC executive describing Jay's 10 PM show "It's not my fault! I was happy where I was!" --Jay, describing his 10 PM ratings "Fortunes have been lost underestimating Jay Leno." --Lorne Michaels "I had to tell [the grand jury] all the creepy things I had done. . . I have had sex with women who work with me on this show. Would it be embarrassing if it were made public? Perhaps it would. Especially for the women." --Dave on-air during the blackmail scandal "Their revenues are down 30 percent, and they have destroyed the local news in 50 stations and Conan O'Brien in just a few weeks. They used to be the place you wanted to be. What's truly horrifying now is that their highest-rated show is two hours of disgusting fat people." --particularly mean-spirited NBC producer, describing the 10 PM Leno show and The Biggest Loser "How will I get an audience? We're not going to have time for a guest of consequence, and we can't have a music act, because that will destroy Conan when he follows straight up at twelve. What's our show going to be?" --Jay's producer Debbie Vickers, trying to understand NBC's plan to put Jay on at 11:35 and Conan at 12:05 "At 11:35 Jay's going to come out and do twenty jokes. And then what's he going to do? And then I come out and do what?" --Conan, also trying to understand "Go back to bed or we'll make you watch Jay Leno." --New Yorker cartoon punchline "I had a better year than The New Yorker. I turned a profit." --Jay "I just got a call . . . from NBC. And they said, 'Look, look, we still don't want you back.'" --Dave "[It's] chicken-hearted and gutless to blame a guy you can't beat in the ratings . . . professional jealousy . . . an astounding failure by Conan." --Dick Ebersol "I hope you're half as funny as your buddy Adam [Corolla] when he comes on the show." --Jay tweaking Jimmy Kimmel minutes before Kimmel appeared as a guest on the 10 PM show "I'm gonna be funny. Don't you worry about it, you motherfucker." --Kimmel's response "Listen, Jay. Conan and I have children. All you have to take care of is cars. We have lives to lead here. You've got EIGHT HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS. For God's sake, LEAVE OUR SHOWS ALONE." Kimmel excoriating Jay on-air "This is all business. If you don't get the ratings, they take you off the air." --Jay "You don't hang around. You go across the street and you punish NBC. . . . It's an early Darwinian precept. You get fired; you get another job. You don't hang around waiting for somebody to drop dead." --Dave offering advice to Jay "Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard, and you're kind, amazing things will happen." --Conan's Tonight Show farewell speech "It's not a joke to me--it's real." --Conan, declining the chance to appear in a SuperBowl ad with Jay, Dave, and Oprah "I'm Scottish; we die in the mine." --Jay, explaining why retirement has no appeal to him "Nobody ever uses those show names. These names are bullshit words! How do you not get that this whole thing is fake? There's no institution to offend! . . . Who's going to take over Late Night or Late Show or whatever 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." --Jerry Seinfeld "We're the network, and we are eternal. If you read your contract closely, it says that the show is to be ninety minutes in length. It is to cost X. That's the budget. Nowhere in that do we ever say that the show has to be good. And if you are so robotic and driven that you feel the pressure . . . to make it good, don't come to us and say that . . . we're getting in your way. . . That you're neurotic is a bonus to us. Our job is to lie, cheat, and steal--and your job is to do the show." --Lorne Michaels, describing the network attitude

  7. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

    I haven't read the original book about the Letterman/Leno clash and its ramifications, but Carter's review of the Jay/Conan debacle offers a weird vision into a late-night world that its residents take way to seriously. What's neat is the way Carter at once deconstructs the archetypes and shows their validity. Jay fashions himself as an unpretentious, anti-industry workaholic who "just wants to tell jokes at 11:30" (a mantra that he apparently repeated over and over again throughout the process) I haven't read the original book about the Letterman/Leno clash and its ramifications, but Carter's review of the Jay/Conan debacle offers a weird vision into a late-night world that its residents take way to seriously. What's neat is the way Carter at once deconstructs the archetypes and shows their validity. Jay fashions himself as an unpretentious, anti-industry workaholic who "just wants to tell jokes at 11:30" (a mantra that he apparently repeated over and over again throughout the process). Conan can't escape his own intelligence, an introspective bubble in which he believes he is the funniest person alive. Both operate with a weird mix of integrity and narcissism. And there are a bunch of suits who think they are dealing with puppets: despite Carter's attempts to make them sympathetic, I just wanted to throw eggs at them and chastise them for their terrible, terrible decisions. That's the flaw in the book: Carter gets to know these guys so well that he feels uncomfortable casting blame and pointing fingers. What remains weird about this, and this is an irony the book does well in pointing out, is how much these guys care about such a specific format, and honoring the ghost of Johnny Carson. It makes Conan's decision to quit the Tonight Show because he couldn't bear seeing it pushed ahead thirty minutes all the more weird. And it makes Jay Leno's weirdly specific gifts (see the mantra above) all the more pathetic. If Carter is to be believed, both Jay and Conan acted honorably, yet they pretty much hate each other now. It's all based on a 2004 selfish decision by a jerk named Jeff Zucker who decided that he could lock in Conan by offering him the job that Jay didn't want to leave. NBC profited big-time off of this, and now Conan is on TBS, and Jay is back to making fun of the very audience who watches them by reminding them how dumb they are with offensive and lazy segments like "Jaywalking." Who's better for it? Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, apparently. A lot of magnanimous descriptors get thrown around here: "Machiavellian," "genius," "innovator," but they all seem pretty shallow when connected to a dying format that its participants believe is one of the highest cultural forms. And that's what makes it so interesting - watching all these dudes think and fight over the right to get to ask inane questions to Ashton Kutcher when most of us on the East Coast have gone to sleep.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Steven E

    Apparently it took only seventeen years for everyone to compose themselves, relatively speaking. No one acts particularly egregiously, maybe because Helen Kushnick is no longer around. There's nothing here on the level of a paranoid Jay Leno eavesdropping in on a meeting of NBC execs from a nearby closet; in fact, as far as facts go, there's nothing new in the book at all to anyone who paid attention during that time when late night went crazy. So in a vanilla narrative, Bill Carter sketches in Apparently it took only seventeen years for everyone to compose themselves, relatively speaking. No one acts particularly egregiously, maybe because Helen Kushnick is no longer around. There's nothing here on the level of a paranoid Jay Leno eavesdropping in on a meeting of NBC execs from a nearby closet; in fact, as far as facts go, there's nothing new in the book at all to anyone who paid attention during that time when late night went crazy. So in a vanilla narrative, Bill Carter sketches in the outlines of the parties involved, to great effect. David Letterman is the specter on another coast rubbing his hands together as NBC pours gasoline on a burning fire. Jay Leno is an aloof everyman who can't help but blunder into one PR nightmare after another; regardless, he comes off as sympathetic figure who never really deserved to lose the Tonight Show in the first place. And once it was offered back to him, he certainly didn't deserve the opprobrium heaped on him by Team Coco, either. And O! Conan, Conan, Conan. His mystical faith in the power of the Tonight Show is so naive that it costs him hundreds of millions of dollars, to say nothing of the financial cost to his many staff that couldn't make it over to TBS. He's also exposed as a niche talent; scarcely anyone over the age of 35 watched his 7 months at the Tonight Show. What's worse, he was stubbornly slow to change, refusing to take seriously any of the notes the network offered regarding booking or broadening his appeal. And when he was offered a chance to save some of the staff at 12:05, his pride refused it. Whatever. Jerry Seinfeld said it best: The Tonight Show as an institution ended the minute Carson walked off the stage all those years ago. Too bad Conan couldn't grasp that.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jackie

    I work in television, and it's amazing to read about how vulnerable and capricious the industry can be, even at the very top of the network giant ladder. Jeff Zucker and NBC were so focused on hedging their bets that they unwittingly destroyed their own Late Night empire. As a twenty-something, I recall the Late Night debacle being a case of Jay Leno overstepping his time. Carter illustrates how generational the responses to that fiasco were, and throws Jay a bit of a bone. Ultimately, this book I work in television, and it's amazing to read about how vulnerable and capricious the industry can be, even at the very top of the network giant ladder. Jeff Zucker and NBC were so focused on hedging their bets that they unwittingly destroyed their own Late Night empire. As a twenty-something, I recall the Late Night debacle being a case of Jay Leno overstepping his time. Carter illustrates how generational the responses to that fiasco were, and throws Jay a bit of a bone. Ultimately, this book is a reassurance that numbers trump personality, and being funny is never good enough.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Thanu

    Starts off a little dry but overall, an intriguing read!

  11. 4 out of 5

    John

    I enjoyed Bill Carter's The Late Shift when I read it over fifteen years ago, and I wanted to read his narrative of the 2009-2010 late night fiasco. While it was a quick read and mostly moved along quickly enough to hold my attention, I did not enjoy this nearly as much. In part, as Carter expressly recognizes at one point in The War for Late Night, the events of the early 1990s had a much more archetypical feel: Carson could be viewed as the retiring emperor, with Leno and Letterman (each with w I enjoyed Bill Carter's The Late Shift when I read it over fifteen years ago, and I wanted to read his narrative of the 2009-2010 late night fiasco. While it was a quick read and mostly moved along quickly enough to hold my attention, I did not enjoy this nearly as much. In part, as Carter expressly recognizes at one point in The War for Late Night, the events of the early 1990s had a much more archetypical feel: Carson could be viewed as the retiring emperor, with Leno and Letterman (each with whispering advisors) as two princes with competing claims to the crown, Helen Kushnick as a wicked and manipulating sorcerer, etc. While thinking of that story in such broad terms probably oversimplified it, it also gave it a familiar and weightier feel. It also helped that, in the early 1990s, The Tonight Show really still felt like "The Empire of the Night," rather than the "damaged goods" that Carson (and later Letterman) producer Peter Lassally described in 1993, just before Letterman jumped ship to CBS. It also helped that my interest in late night television and personalities in 1995 was much greater than it is today. Carter's reporting in the book is solid, and he is able to report inside details that reflect years of understanding of the business and close contacts with some of its biggest players. His writing can be hackneyed, though: rephrasing "bleeding red ink" as "exsanguinating red ink" does not make it any less of a cliché, and the needless variation calls even more attention to it. He also harps on aspects of the host personalities—Leno is the hard-working everyman who studies the numbers, while Conan is the Harvard guy who refuses to change to fit his new audience—so often that it feels repetitive. Carter also mostly missed some of the generational and Internet politics that seemed (at least to me) to be involved in who ended up in the "Leno" and "Conan" camps. If the book has a hero, it is probably Conan's producer Jeff Ross, who Carter basically describes as smart, hard-working, and essentially the nicest guy in showbiz. While he is probably most central to the narrative, the book ends up mostly a chronicle of disastrous decisions (primarily by NBC, but also by others) that left its NBC's late night franchises in disorder. By the end, though, I found myself agreeing with Jerry Seinfeld in the epilogue that these "shows" and "institutions" people fight over are in the end just made-up printed letters on cards. This nicely echoed Johnny Carson's statement from the very beginning of The Late Shift that "[t]hese shows are about the guy behind the desk." Thus, by the end of the book, I better understood Conan's decision to leave NBC rather than move his show. Even so, given how shabbily NBC had treated the "institution" of the Tonight Show—not just once, but twice—it left me to wonder why anyone else was interested in protecting it. In the end, the book was worth reading for me, at least to replace a great deal of reporting on the subject that I only skimmed while it was ongoing. I didn't really derive too much insight from it, though, other than the great story (also buried in the epilogue) of Lorne Michaels' encounter with NBC executive Irwin Segelstein. If you're interested in late night television, but you didn't follow the Leno-Conan story as it was ongoing, this is a good summary of the reporting, with some additional views and commentary from the participants benefitting from at least a few months of hindsight.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Annica

    Ah, stories about corrupt television networks. How I love you so. From TWFLW: But still, sometimes, in the middle of the night, when the house was quiet and the bed was warm, Conan would lie awake, sleep impossible, the replay machine running in his mind, generating scenes wilder and more stunning than anything his always blazing imagination could ever have conjured. Liza would wake and watch him for a while, just lying there, staring blankly. And then Conan O’Brien would softly say: “What the f*** Ah, stories about corrupt television networks. How I love you so. From TWFLW: But still, sometimes, in the middle of the night, when the house was quiet and the bed was warm, Conan would lie awake, sleep impossible, the replay machine running in his mind, generating scenes wilder and more stunning than anything his always blazing imagination could ever have conjured. Liza would wake and watch him for a while, just lying there, staring blankly. And then Conan O’Brien would softly say: “What the f*** happened?” These are the last sentences (well, at least before the epilogue) in The War for Late Night . The actual last sentence sums up this book perfectly. James “Jay” Douglas Muir Leno was never meant to be a late-night talk show host, as Carter’s previous book, The Late Shift , proves. He wasn’t as sharp as when he guest hosted or performed in the clubs, because he had to do one of these shows every day. But he was now hosting the most famous late-night talk show ever, The Tonight Show , and had been doing so for around seventeen years. Since he had been doing the show for so long, he told NBC he was going to retire in 5 years. NBC took action. In 2005, they drew up a contract that said Conan O’Brien, the host of Late Night with Conan O’Brien (the late-night talk show on after Leno at 12:35 on NBC), would get Tonight in 5 years. Of course O’Brien signed on; hosting Tonight was every comedian’s dream. It was a solid, done deal. No problems would arise, right? Ha, yeah. They did. When 2009 rolls around, Jay announces he isn’t retiring yet, and still wants to host a show. NBC has promised Conan Tonight, so they have to come up with a solution. Here it is: Jay Leno + Comedy, as always + Primetime = an hour long comedy show at 10:00, hosted by Jay Leno. And so The Jay Leno Show was born. What could possibly go wrong? Everything. The Jay Leno Show is NOT working out. Conan’s Tonight is still trying to figure out what they want the show to be. The ratings are plummeting. And Jay wants his old time slot back at 11:35. Once again, NBC has to somehow please both of its late-night stars and keep both of them at the network. It’s going to be very difficult. Carter is such a phenomenal writer. There are many conflicts all happening at the same time, intertwining between performers and executives. If we didn’t know who won when this book came out, it would definitely be a surprise at the end. This book has a feeling of suspense and mystery that envelops you every time you start reading it. You’d think NBC would’ve learned from their previous debacle, but NO. It’s the same wild battle of sides, money, contracts, and, above all else, the ratings. It might’ve caused all the players a whole lot of stress and depression (nudge nudge, Conan), but it was very entertaining for us, the viewers! So I recommend you read this book. And congrats to Jimmy Fallon; somehow, you got Leno out of that damn chair and out from behind that damn desk.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    "Here's the thing," [NBC exec] Littlefied chimed in. "The [test show] tape's OK, but what kind of show would you do?" [Conan] leaned forward in his chair and, as though possessed by a demon, let fly: "Letterman's done irony. He did the anti-talk show. This show has got to have a different quality. I think the time is right for silliness. Dave's got that dignity and that personal space. My thing is, I don't really do that. I do silliness. We're going to do things like have plants in the audience-- "Here's the thing," [NBC exec] Littlefied chimed in. "The [test show] tape's OK, but what kind of show would you do?" [Conan] leaned forward in his chair and, as though possessed by a demon, let fly: "Letterman's done irony. He did the anti-talk show. This show has got to have a different quality. I think the time is right for silliness. Dave's got that dignity and that personal space. My thing is, I don't really do that. I do silliness. We're going to do things like have plants in the audience-- not unprofessional performers like Dave uses, but real performers who will actually commit. If someone in the audience stands up and pretends to be a gold miner, they'll be an actor playing a gold miner. The show will have a little bit of a Pee-wee's Playhouse feel to it. We'll have puppets; I think we'll try to use animation. We're gonna have fake guests. We'll bump a guest every night, an actor who will pretend to be really passive-aggressive and pissed about being bumped over and over." * * * [Jimmy] Kimmel clearly had the prevailing view of most Letterman devotees: "Leno was so great when he was a guest on Letterman. Great, great. I just think he worked too hard. I think he turned comedy into factory work -- and it comes across." * * * Mostly [Jimmy] Fallon was known in college for his obsessive viewing of SNL. * * * One longtime producer of several shows for NBC ... called the Leno-at-ten decision "one of the biggest con jobs in the history of American business. [NBC's] revenues are down 30 percent, and they have just destroyed the local news in fifty stations and Conan O'Brien in just a few weeks. They used to be the place you wanted to be. What's truly horrifying now is their highest-rated show is two hours of disgusting fat people." * * * Conan was touched to his soul by the rally, which had hundreds of fans soaked to the skin chanting his name. As he stood on the roof, dripping, it struck him that this might be -- appropriately enough -- a watershed moment, the first giant schism between the old broadcast world and the new electronic media dominated by the Internet. * * * Messages on sites all over the Web were rife with sheer anger at the boomers -- symbolized by Leno -- refusing to cede the stage and the culture. * * * It was no accident Conan had truly broken through as a writer on The Simpsons. He was all but the embodiment of the Fox comic sensibility. * * * If nothing else, [Lorne] Michaels pointed out, the events of January 2010 had proved the continued relevance and impact of late night. They had accomplished something for Conan that he had not quite been able to do for himself. "The big thing this did, at the end of the day, was make Conan O'Brien truly famous," Michaels said. "He wasn't famous before."

  14. 4 out of 5

    Casey Malone

    As a huge fan of Conan O'Brien's, and someone who followed the saga of him getting screwed out of the Tonight Show, this was a fascinating book. Seeing how it all came together, and who made certain calls, it shed a lot of light on the whys and hows of Leno returning to Tonight (turns out his lawyers are just the best, and his contract was insane and unheard of, and it tied NBC's hands). The actual prose ping-pongs between the super dry just telling us what happened, and the author desperately ad As a huge fan of Conan O'Brien's, and someone who followed the saga of him getting screwed out of the Tonight Show, this was a fascinating book. Seeing how it all came together, and who made certain calls, it shed a lot of light on the whys and hows of Leno returning to Tonight (turns out his lawyers are just the best, and his contract was insane and unheard of, and it tied NBC's hands). The actual prose ping-pongs between the super dry just telling us what happened, and the author desperately adding color to get away from that (he will use very colorful analogies or similes to explain how people feel about the situation, when maybe none are needed). I think this is partially a problem of not being able to put words in people's mouths, or people not wanting to be directly quoted. There's a lot of "Jeff told Conan the situation was desperate," instead of actually writing Jeff's dialog*. The book really shines when people are willing to go on record with personal stories or actual quotes, when you get some real insight into these people. Specifically, when Conan has realized he has to leave Tonight and his future is totally uncertain, the book calls back to a story about his being fired from a show some 20 years ago, sitting in a diner in the middle of the day, unemployed and eating pancakes. There, he says to himself, "I don't care what happens in my career as long as it's interesting." Regardless of the rest of the book, I kind of needed to hear that anecdote. -Casey- *Sidenote! There are like fourty fucking Jeffs in this book. What's going on, Entertainment Industry? Was there a run of Jeffs and you wanted to corner the market?

  15. 5 out of 5

    Rincey

    Disclaimer: I love Bill Carter and I find all of his books to be absolutely fascinating as I am obsessed with the television industry. If you're looking for some surprise ending, you don't need this book. We all know the basics of the late night debacle and how it all turns out. What this book provides is background on not just Leno & Conan, but every player in the late night business... from the late night hosts [Letterman, Ferguson, Kimmel, Stewart, Colbert] to their producers to the network ex Disclaimer: I love Bill Carter and I find all of his books to be absolutely fascinating as I am obsessed with the television industry. If you're looking for some surprise ending, you don't need this book. We all know the basics of the late night debacle and how it all turns out. What this book provides is background on not just Leno & Conan, but every player in the late night business... from the late night hosts [Letterman, Ferguson, Kimmel, Stewart, Colbert] to their producers to the network executives. Bill Carter knows how to research his stories and tell a solid narrative. I didn't know it was possible, but heart grew even more for Conan after reading this book. My heart also became slightly more sympathetic toward everyone in this debacle. It was a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't situation for NBC and there was never any way for this to turn out in their favor. Basically this book is for people who can never get enough detail about the TV world [yes, I also loved Bill Carter's other books].

  16. 4 out of 5

    Rosemary Reeve

    As a staunch member of Team Coco since long, long before the term existed, I went into this book already fully aware of many of the details and events laid out by Bill Carter. In this regard, there was nothing terribly new or shocking to be found. However, I have great admiration for the way in which Carter was able to weave the story and how all the different ends lead to the big explosion of January 2010. At times it had much the same feel as a political thriller, though ultimately no lives we As a staunch member of Team Coco since long, long before the term existed, I went into this book already fully aware of many of the details and events laid out by Bill Carter. In this regard, there was nothing terribly new or shocking to be found. However, I have great admiration for the way in which Carter was able to weave the story and how all the different ends lead to the big explosion of January 2010. At times it had much the same feel as a political thriller, though ultimately no lives were on the line. He also manages to provide a balanced and neutral point of view, never coming off as being on either Team Coco or (the non-existent) Team Jay. Still, my loyalty and admiration remains strong for Conan, and having a book devoted to him, even under these unfortunate circumstances, is delightful. And I was especially happy (and proud) to see that the "I'm with Coco" Facebook page got mentioned more than once. CIRCLE! CIRCLE CIRCLE!

  17. 5 out of 5

    Linda Holmes

    This book is really, really good -- and I say that as someone who has already heard more than a human being should about the late-night wars over the last year and a half. Carter has access that most journalists can only dream of, and it's not the most hard-nosed book you'll ever read (if it were, that access might dry up). But he does a great job, nevertheless, of illuminating what made this such a fascinating story, which is that everyone wound up being SO UNHAPPY in a situation in which every This book is really, really good -- and I say that as someone who has already heard more than a human being should about the late-night wars over the last year and a half. Carter has access that most journalists can only dream of, and it's not the most hard-nosed book you'll ever read (if it were, that access might dry up). But he does a great job, nevertheless, of illuminating what made this such a fascinating story, which is that everyone wound up being SO UNHAPPY in a situation in which everyone felt like the wronged party. Everyone! Jay felt wronged, Conan felt wronged, the network felt wronged ... every decision made in the book by anyone makes sense from that party's own perspective and looks ridiculous from everyone else's. It's a great tale for that reason alone.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Don

    A behind-the-scenes look at the Leno-Conan fiasco. It turns out that Leno is not such a machiavellian schemer and that the real creeps are Jeff Zucker and some other execs at NBC -- although in the end, Carter helps us to understand even their perspectives. All in all, a very fair account. I leave this book disliking Leno a little less, liking Conan about the same, and eager to read The Late Shift. A behind-the-scenes look at the Leno-Conan fiasco. It turns out that Leno is not such a machiavellian schemer and that the real creeps are Jeff Zucker and some other execs at NBC -- although in the end, Carter helps us to understand even their perspectives. All in all, a very fair account. I leave this book disliking Leno a little less, liking Conan about the same, and eager to read The Late Shift.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Casey

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  20. 5 out of 5

    Debra Komar

    I loved Carter's "The Late Shift" and was looking forward to reading this. In some respects, it feels like a retread of the same book, partly because of the subject matter and partly due to Carter's writing style. While the battle between Leno and Letterman sometimes took on Shakespearean overtones, the battles between Leno and Conan O'Brien doesn't have the same impact. The biggest problem is Carter's penchant for using unnamed sources. At lest 60 to 70 % of the quotes here are anonymous, intro I loved Carter's "The Late Shift" and was looking forward to reading this. In some respects, it feels like a retread of the same book, partly because of the subject matter and partly due to Carter's writing style. While the battle between Leno and Letterman sometimes took on Shakespearean overtones, the battles between Leno and Conan O'Brien doesn't have the same impact. The biggest problem is Carter's penchant for using unnamed sources. At lest 60 to 70 % of the quotes here are anonymous, introduced with nonsense like "one insider with 10 years experience in late night said..." Either name the source or cut the quote. As both a scientist and someone who writes non-fiction, how is this permissible? I have never in my career not had to identify the source of my information. "Journalism" is not a license to cover those too cowardly to stand behind their words (or to protect an author who wants the vicious quote but not the fallout of printing it.)

  21. 4 out of 5

    Keerit Kohli

    read this for a book club at work, and found myself far more engaged than i thought i would be. left it rooting for conan, unimpressed with leno, and generally in awe of the complexity that is late night tv and tv programming

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jere

    bill carter calls jeff zucker smart so many times you'd be like geez just marry him already. also, leno and ebersol are such lame-Os.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Gary Pointon

    Right into the. Itty gritty as deep as they go. Loved it and learnt a lot, will take lessons out of this for sure

  24. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

    In The War For Late Night, Bill Carter covers the second war for late night, between Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien for The Tonight Show (the first being between Jay and David Letterman in the early 90s, the subject of Carter's The Late Shift). No journalist has had more access to all the major players involved, and he covers all of the events of the ham-fisted transition of Jay to Conan and back to Jay as host of Tonight during a seven-month period in 2009-2010. Unlike in The Late Shift, there are n In The War For Late Night, Bill Carter covers the second war for late night, between Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien for The Tonight Show (the first being between Jay and David Letterman in the early 90s, the subject of Carter's The Late Shift). No journalist has had more access to all the major players involved, and he covers all of the events of the ham-fisted transition of Jay to Conan and back to Jay as host of Tonight during a seven-month period in 2009-2010. Unlike in The Late Shift, there are no real new revelations this time -- no Jay Hiding in the Closet Eavesdropping moments. Entertainment reporting has changed so much since the mid-90s, most of it taking place on the internet by professional bloggers, that people who cared about the shifting tide of late night in 2009 were able to follow the details pretty much in real time. For the most part, Carter captures the proclivities and thought processes of the people involved, which taken all together, led to a PR disaster in which almost everyone came out damaged. The NBC executives, most notably Jeff Zucker and Dick Ebersol, come across as short-sighted, driven only by current profitability, and ill-equipped to deal with the changes of their own industry; Jay Leno as passive-aggressive, insecure, and with an almost pathological need to be on television every day; Conan O'Brien as far too naive and trusting of both NBC management and his own handlers. And although they were mostly tangential to the fray, in Carter's portrait, Letterman is shown as generally angry and driven by grudges (not only against Jay and NBC, but also at times towards his own staff) and Jimmy Kimmel as mean and opportunistic. Where I think the book fails is that Conan's fan base is a generation younger than he is and thus probably unable to understand why the Tonight Show was so important to him. For them, Tonight is Jay Leno -- a show for middle-aged people who like hokey comedy and innocuous interviews -- but for Conan, Tonight was the cultural institution that was Johnny Carson, just as it was for Letterman. What Conan failed to grasp until too late was that that Tonight show no longer existed. Letterman realized that NBC's offer in 1993 to let him have Tonight if he would let Jay host it for eighteen months first meant that he would never inherit Johnny's show, and had Conan come to a similar conclusion back in 2004 when NBC told him he could have the show five years later, he could have gone to FOX or ABC at what was then the height of his popularity, made a lot more money, and avoided the humiliation of having his lifelong dream publicly ripped away from him. Although Carter touches on this aspect -- there's a nicely unstated "cutting the baby in half" analogy where Conan objects to letting Tonight be pushed into an after-midnight timeslot as damaging to the franchise while Jay is perfectly fine with it if it means he gets to go back to 11:35 -- I think if he had emphasized the personal significance of the show to Conan as a comic who grew up in the 60s and 70s, then some of his angst would have seemed less annoying. I do think the book would have benefited from better editing. Information that appears in early chapters is repeated almost word-for-word in later chapters, while other points are referred to repeatedly (e.g., long-time Executive Producer Robert Morton's firing from The Late Show) but not explained. Also there were so many people with similar names that it would have helped if they'd been referred to by job title as well as name. However, this was a good book overall and especially good for people who didn't follow the story closely in the media as it happened.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Adam Sharp

    While certainly prompted by the Leno/Conan debacle of 2010, The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy actually picks up in 1992, where the author's seminal The Late Shift: Letterman Leno and the Network Battle for the Night left off. It is an excellent piece of reporting by New York Times scribe Bill Carter, punctuated by obvious, candid access to every major player. In many ways, I found this "sequel" to be a better read than the original -- perhaps the sources have While certainly prompted by the Leno/Conan debacle of 2010, The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy actually picks up in 1992, where the author's seminal The Late Shift: Letterman Leno and the Network Battle for the Night left off. It is an excellent piece of reporting by New York Times scribe Bill Carter, punctuated by obvious, candid access to every major player. In many ways, I found this "sequel" to be a better read than the original -- perhaps the sources have come to realize how the previous work is recognized as the definitive record of the Letterman/Leno fracas and wanted to get their version on the page this time. The book tells not only the tale of recent turbulence surrounding The Tonight Show, but also documents the selection and rise of Conan O'Brien as host of NBC's Late Night; the challenges and experiences of Leno and O'Brien as they tried to put their imprints through the '90s on a pair of shows most identified with the hosts' predecessors; the emergence of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and Jimmy Kimmel as late-night heavyweights in their own rights; and the struggles of an industry coping with a shifting economy, changing demographics, and new delivery platforms. If interested in the tick-tock of a few weeks in January, you can definitely find them here -- in the first and last few chapters. Or, for that matter, simply read the excerpts published in Vanity Fair. But as Bill Carter makes clear, this story actually starts much earlier. What we saw play out more recently was the natural conclusion to a tale 17 years in the making, with roots as far back as the Harvard campus a decade before. And that is the narrative that kept me turning the pages night after night.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Gus Sanchez

    When the decision was made to broadcast Jay Leno in primetime, it solved 3 problems for NBC: one, it kept Leno at NBC, away from the lure of ABC; two, since Leno brought in big bucks for NBC, surely his show at 10PM weeknights would do the same, and, three, Conan O'Brien would still retain The Tonight Show. Simple, right? In a decision that sent shockwaves throughout all of television, The Jay Leno Show went on to become one of the biggest flops in television history. To satisfy the affiliates wh When the decision was made to broadcast Jay Leno in primetime, it solved 3 problems for NBC: one, it kept Leno at NBC, away from the lure of ABC; two, since Leno brought in big bucks for NBC, surely his show at 10PM weeknights would do the same, and, three, Conan O'Brien would still retain The Tonight Show. Simple, right? In a decision that sent shockwaves throughout all of television, The Jay Leno Show went on to become one of the biggest flops in television history. To satisfy the affiliates who were losing ratings, NBC execs proposed moving Jay Leno back to 11:35 (but not give him The Tonight Show), push O'Brien and The Tonight Show to 12:05, and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to 1:05. All of this under the assumption that O'Brien would agree to this request. Which, of course, he didn't. Bill Carter's new book, The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy, documents how that ill-fated decision was years in the making, and the dysfunctional atmosphere at NBC, especially how high-ranking senior execs at NBC would fawn over Leno, ultimately created a toxic relationship that would lead to Leno returning to The Tonight Show and O'Brien leaving the network. As he did with his previous book on late night talk show, The Late Shift, Carter skillfully details the decisions and the environment that lead to Leno initially abdicating his Tonight Show throne to Conan O'Brien (who passed up far more lucrative offers on several occasions from Fox to jump ship, solely to fulfill his dream of one day hosting The Tonight Show), then accepting the 10PM slot in a decision that would nearly cripple NBC. The final chapters of this book read like an edge-of-your-seat thriller; Carter's innate ability to draw the complete story from all the participants in this mess, including Leno and O'Brien (in seperate interviews) serves to flesh out that tumultuous 12-month period between Leno agreeing to star in his own 10PM show, to O'Brien's last show as host of The Tonight Show.

  27. 4 out of 5

    writegeist

    A well-researched, insightful, balanced view of the second battle for NBC's The Tonight Show. This time the challenger is Conan O'Brien, and the defender, as before, is Jay Leno. I'd heard about all this peripherally as I've never been a Tonight Show fan. I've always found O'Brien to be a creative powerhouse and Leno to be a comedian in the vein of Bob Hope (I saw Leno on stage in Portland some years back, and he put on an incredible show, so don't let the subterfuge over The Tonight Show sour y A well-researched, insightful, balanced view of the second battle for NBC's The Tonight Show. This time the challenger is Conan O'Brien, and the defender, as before, is Jay Leno. I'd heard about all this peripherally as I've never been a Tonight Show fan. I've always found O'Brien to be a creative powerhouse and Leno to be a comedian in the vein of Bob Hope (I saw Leno on stage in Portland some years back, and he put on an incredible show, so don't let the subterfuge over The Tonight Show sour you to his abilities; he is an amazing comedy technician). My allegiance has always been toward O'Brien; I enjoy his improvisational brand of comedy. However, I finished the book believing both men were extremely naive, expecting loyalty from a corporation (not a surprising trait among creative folks). If I've learned one thing during my tenure in business it's that companies only used the word loyalty when they want to manipulate you. And that certainly was the case here. This is all about business... making the buck and beating the other guy (as one executive tells Lorne Michaels, there's nothing in the contract that says the show has to be funny). Just like the movie business is not about furthering creativity (as shown by the recent movie, Deadpool, that was made only with begrudging studio support--just so the fans would shut the eff up). I highly recommend supplementing this book by heading over to YouTube and watching the videos from the shows during this time. It brings everything to life. There are also some surprising things about other late night hosts including Carson, Letterman, Kimmel, et al. A must-read for anyone interested in the culture of television.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Bob Nebel

    Bill Carter brilliantly chronicles one of television's most rough moments. What a crazy time with nervous executives attempting to appease a myriad of parties and egos, only to be burned in the end. The big takeaway for me is: It's business. Certainly good art should count for something, but the reality is that with the networks, it all has to sell in order to keep the product going. I believe that there's a good balancing act that can be achieved with good art and ratings. Maybe that's too opti Bill Carter brilliantly chronicles one of television's most rough moments. What a crazy time with nervous executives attempting to appease a myriad of parties and egos, only to be burned in the end. The big takeaway for me is: It's business. Certainly good art should count for something, but the reality is that with the networks, it all has to sell in order to keep the product going. I believe that there's a good balancing act that can be achieved with good art and ratings. Maybe that's too optimistic and naive in the days of DVRs, YouTube, Netflix, Hulu and any other video streaming services out there. Carter's book also makes it fun to get an insider's look at the 'Upfront' presentations for advertisers as well as episodes that took place between talent, writers, producers and executives over the years. After detailing the Leno-Conan debacle, Carter leaves the reader wanting an update. Certainly new editions could be producer or possibly a sequel ought to be in the works describing the end of the Leno-Letterman era and ushering in Fallon, Colbert, Noah and Wilmore to late night.

  29. 4 out of 5

    laaaaames

    My friend Nick forced me to read this, and I'm glad he did. Carter did an amazing job covering the insanity of the (new) late night wars, with a smart look at all the major and minor players. It ends up being kind of an interesting view of art v. commerce. There's a lot to ponder over a subject I think of often: how much do you have to give up of what makes your art "yours" if you want to make money doing it? I mean, if I didn't want to get published I would write books that were split neatly bet My friend Nick forced me to read this, and I'm glad he did. Carter did an amazing job covering the insanity of the (new) late night wars, with a smart look at all the major and minor players. It ends up being kind of an interesting view of art v. commerce. There's a lot to ponder over a subject I think of often: how much do you have to give up of what makes your art "yours" if you want to make money doing it? I mean, if I didn't want to get published I would write books that were split neatly between making out and witty conversation with none of that annoying plot stuff. But I do, so I force myself. If that's your metaphor, Leno is happy to get to the annoying plot stuff, while Conan is still writing conversation/making out. I don't know. It's a lot to think about in the scheme of television and comedy and artistic vision and industry respect. FYI I wasn't even midway through the book before I felt a tremendous sense of relief I don't work in television. (read: 21)

  30. 5 out of 5

    Ned

    I have never liked Leno. I have always thought his humor was mean spirited. Conan is hilarious, I really wanted to see him do well on The Tonight Show, and Letterman is one of the coolest dudes on the planet. This is the same author that wrote The Late Shift, about the Letterman/Leno train wreck to replace Johnny Carson. Now, a generation later, NBC has produced another train wreck, this time replacing Leno and the Tonight Show with Conan O"Brien, and then replacing him with -----Jay Leno. The wr I have never liked Leno. I have always thought his humor was mean spirited. Conan is hilarious, I really wanted to see him do well on The Tonight Show, and Letterman is one of the coolest dudes on the planet. This is the same author that wrote The Late Shift, about the Letterman/Leno train wreck to replace Johnny Carson. Now, a generation later, NBC has produced another train wreck, this time replacing Leno and the Tonight Show with Conan O"Brien, and then replacing him with -----Jay Leno. The writer is kinder to Leno in this book, he comes across as sort of a sad little man without a life who just wants to tell jokes every night. This is a behind the scenes book, well researched, and most players-large and small- are treated fairly. It might be a little too long.

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