A network in a bind and two men at opposing comedic poles provide grist for Bill Carter’s mill in The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early And Television Went Crazy, whose release concurrent with Conan O’Brien’s return to television cannot be coincidental. Yet while the outsize personalities haven’t changed since Carter’s 1995 book The Late Shift, the speed of the news cycle renders his gossipy tidbits mostly irrelevant, and his analysis incomplete.
Carter’s earlier reportage feeds The War For Late Night’s depiction of NBC as a fundamentally risk-averse organization scarred by the fallout surrounding the Tonight Show handoff, whose 11th-hour change of course over Conan O’Brien’s ascent to The Tonight Show undid years of backroom reassurances. Torn between fulfilling the promise it made to O’Brien in order to keep him, and stopping Leno from jumping to a competitor, the network hammered out two compromises, the first leading to the ratings disaster that was The Jay Leno Show, the second to O’Brien’s manifesto addressed to “People of Earth” about “seriously damag[ing] the greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting” and his departure from NBC. According to Carter, NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker cast his lot with the workaholic Leno—whose bitterness began to leak through his jaunty man-of-the-people persona soon after his 2004 contract extension—not by blindly obeying the numbers, but with a critical misreading of the feelings in Conan’s camp.
Anonymous insiders fuel Carter’s account, which may explain why it tilts sympathetic to NBC’s predicament, and to Zucker as the fretting power-broker conscious of his own job in jeopardy even as he defended O’Brien and pled for more time for audiences to warm up to him. To that end, Carter fixates on the status of the hosts’ once-cordial relationship, even while pointing out that Leno’s commercial appearance with Letterman (during the 2010 Super Bowl) marked the first time in 18 years that the once-close comics laid eyes on each other. (It’s unclear whether the hosts were interviewed for the book, though both are thanked in Carter’s acknowledgments, Leno for his “thoughtfulness” to the author and O’Brien for being “generous beyond the call.”) Far more fascinating are the accounts of the producers—chiefly Debbie Vickers for Leno and Jeff Ross for O’Brien. Their insights into their mercurial stars, provided as they’re managing the nightly shows while providing reassurance and guidance, soundly beats Carter’s speculations.
Carter also attempts to plumb the schism between Leno and O’Brien supporters within the industry, emphasizing the comedians’ distinctions without a clear conclusion. It’s telling that he apparently found few to go on record about Leno’s weaknesses—including reports from the May 2009 upfront presentation of The Jay Leno Show, at which the comic reportedly faltered—but quotes Jerry Seinfeld and Lorne Michaels by name as criticizing O’Brien for losing perspective in the dispute. Still, returning to the same tired characterizations of the hosts makes The War For Late Night feel padded and repetitious. (Leno hangs out in his garage! O’Brien went to Harvard!) Thumbnail sketches of other players in late-night from Jimmies Fallon and Kimmel to David Letterman, plus thorough explanations of industry jargon, add some depth to Carter’s book, but even rushed into print, its examination arrives already stale.