Bill Carter's 'The War for Late Night' -- Book Review
Isolated. Under constant pressure. Worked to the bone. Cut off from their public by a bubble of sycophants.
Brought to power on a wave of impossibly high expectations and then judged an abject failure at their first stumble, their every utterance picked over by an unforgiving 24/7 media and blogosphere while their fate is toyed with by dark, shadowy powers beyond their control.
What kind of lunatic would want to be a late-night talk-show host, that crucible of fire in which mighty careers are brought to ruin?
The answer, as portrayed in New York Times reporter Bill Carter's The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy, is the sort of lunatic with a lot of unresolved emotional issues that he (almost always he) channels into the pursuit of that mythic grail: the Carson legacy.
In choosing the killing fields of late-night as his subject for two books (the first, the definitive The Late Shift, covered Leno's ascension to Carson's throne; War is something of a sequel), Carter sows the most drama-rich soil on Earth. Nowhere else in entertainment does the contest for success become such gladiatorial combat -- personal, underhanded and vicious.
In recent entertainment history, it is hard to think of a fracas that scorched more earth than the slow-motion jetliner crash of NBC's Jay Leno/Conan O'Brien fiasco. Drawing on the unparalleled access earned by his previous work, Carter captures every nook and cranny of the battle. Much in the manner of Bob Woodward's White House volumes, Carter brings readers into the "scenes" of the drama, taking us into the minds of most of the major players and sharing in particular a Conan's-eye view of having the Tonight Show rug yanked out from under you. At points the book goes further than all but the most committed talk-show nerds will wish to travel, like cataloging precisely where every agent and manager was when they heard the news that Leno was moving to 10 p.m., for instance.
But more important, War provides our first nonhysterical consideration of those historic days, a picture much more complicated and tragic than the morality tale that initially emerged. In that version, which has become accepted lore, the wide-eyed doe (O'Brien) was toyed with and dismissed by vulgarian NBC money-grubbers in their efforts to placate a ruthless host (Leno). Thanks to his treatment of Conan, Jeff Zucker has joined Donald Rumsfeld and Bernie Madoff in America's pantheon of disgraced ill-doers, while Leno drinks each night from a poisoned chalice.
Carter shows that while the transition was handled as ineptly as could be imagined by NBC brass, whose bottomless capacity for wishful thinking is truly impressive, the fiasco was brought on less by malice than by executives wrestling with how to manage and maintain a business in sharp decline.
When Conan took over Tonight Show, he inherited a property whose revenue had fallen, Carter reports, by two-thirds during the previous decade; "death spiral" would be the operative term for such figures in any business other than media. What's more, he sat atop a network that seemed no longer able to deliver the big hits that had been its raison d'etre for most of its existence, a condition not unique to NBC.
With 20-20 hindsight, the Leno-at-10 decision was not a winner, to say the least, but the attempt, we see here, was an honest effort to figure out how a network salvages one of its last successes -- two talented, popular hosts who wanted the same chair -- and, even more important, how to keep them from joining a rival while staunching the bleeding in the rest of your lineup.
The solution was too clever by half (somebody forgot to ask the audience whether they wanted to see a man in a suit telling Hillary Clinton jokes during primetime), but the crazier thing might have been to do nothing, to let the late-night properties continue hemorrhaging in an aging format while throwing up another season of cannon-fodder expensive, overproduced, predictable dramas destined to fail -- which is about the situation NBC finds itself back in now.
Readers looking for more dirt on the Zucker regime will find tidbits to satisfy them, as will Conan partisans looking for more supporting evidence to bolster his sainthood application. The ousted redhead comes off, as ever, as unfailingly nice, decent and devoted to his craft, if in the end perhaps a touch too holy in his walkout from NBC.
Warmight also be the first step on the road to rehabilitation for Leno's reputation, permanently scarred by his portrayal in Carter's previous book as a two-faced gasping schemer. Here he comes off if not as a positive figure, more as a sad one -- a comic facing the possibility of losing the one thing in his life that has any meaning. Where once he was the Machiavellian string-puller, the aging Leno is shown here more a desperate prisoner of forces beyond his control, praying to extend his moment on the stage just a little bit longer.
Zucker's reputation, which had nowhere to go but up, likely will be helped by this book. Included are anecdotes aplenty about his ham-handed, leadership style, his controlling ways and zigzagging priorities; but the book is the first to give his side of the complex problems he and NBC faced and, in a more nuanced portrayal than previously seen, depicts him -- and his management team including Jeff Gaspin -- largely as making good faith, if klutzy, efforts to sort through impossible conflicts.
But entertainment history is written not by historians but by talk-show hosts. From the brooding depressive David Letterman to the workaholic steamroller Leno to Conan himself, driven by insecurities to hide under his desk in low moments; for these men, it has never been about finding the way forward to the future, but a path back to the past.
The ongoing war, as Carter shows, operates in the never-fading shadow cast by the great Johnny Carson, whose memory and pearls of wisdom are cherished. In one of the book's more illuminating chapters, O'Brien and NBC exec Dick Ebersol duel over rival advice bestowed by the man himself. It was a fear of tarnishing the Carson legacy by moving Tonight Show back to a later slot that drove O'Brien from NBC.
Sadly for them, and sadly for NBC, in the age of YouTube and Twitter and cable and streaming Netflix, while America's hosts are looking backward to a lost kingdom of yore, the way forward is going to be hard to find.
Richard Rushfield is the author of American Idol: The Untold Story, coming out in Jan from Hyperion Press. He is a contributor to Daily Beast and Vanity Fair and blogs on entertainment thoughts at richardrushfield.tumblr.com.