Jeff Zucker to Conan O'Brien's Agent: 'You Are Not Going to F-ing Play Me'
Less than a year after the Jay Leno-Conan O'Brien late-night debacle, New York Times writer Bill Carter is set to release a tell-all on the saga.
An excerpt of "The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy," which will be released Nov. 4, was posted on Vanity Fair's website Thursday.
In the book, Carter writes that "What does Jay have on you?" is the question that O'Brien kept asking NBC executives once he learned that they wanted to give Leno -- whose show was foundering at 10 p.m. -- his 11:35 p.m. time period back, bumping O'Brien and The Tonight Show to 12:05 p.m.
Carter writes that NBC Universal entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin's goal, once he found out that affiliates were "ready to revolt" over Leno's low ratings, was to come up with a situation that was "fair to both" of the late-night hosts.
But O'Brien never saw the situation as fair, Carter writes.
"I know how hard I worked for this," Conan told Gaspin and Marc Graboff, NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios chairman. "It was promised to me. I had a shitty lead-in."
"What does Jay have on you?" Conan added. "What does this guy have on you people? What the hell is it about Jay?"
O'Brien later posed the same question to outgoing NBC Universal president and CEO Jeff Zucker.
Leno, meanwhile, had offered to call O'Brien about the situation and asked Gaspin if he should.
Writes Carter: "Gaspin, recalling the edge Conan had revealed when discussing Leno in their meeting the day before, and how personal it seemed to be getting, said, 'You know what? Don’t call him.'"
But it turned out to be bad advice. O'Brien was angry that Leno never reached out to him, telling his producer and head writer: “I’m not gonna hear from that guy. I’ll probably never hear from him again.”
Among Carter's other revelations are that Zucker accused O'Brien's camp -- specifically his manager, Gavin Polone -- of leaking information to the press and then pressed O'Brien's agent, Rick Rosen, for an answer.
"I want an answer from Conan and I want an answer quickly," Zucker said, according to Carter. "You know I have the ability to pay him or play him, and I could ice him for two years. ... Just let me tell you something: You are not going to fucking play me."
A couple days later, O'Brien sent out his statement that he would not follow Leno at 12:05 a.m., saying he respected "The Tonight Show" too much and didn't want to "Late Night" host Jimmy Fallon have to move to 1:05 a.m. But O'Brien's team got the jitters right before pulling the trigger.
Writes Carter: “'Let’s all be aware of this: we’re about to blow this fucker up,' (producer Jeff) Ross said, full of portent. There was only one reaction that mattered. Conan stood outlined by the doorway of the conference room, his swoop of copper hair almost touching the frame. He looked directly at Ross, unblinking. 'Blow it up,' he said."