Thursday, November 11, 2010

Ten great moments in Bill Carter's book, The War For Late Night

Carter talks Leno on The View.

Daddy, what did you do in the late-night wars?

I just finished devouring Bill Carter's new book, The War For Late Night, which I did in one sitting (Vanity Fair has an excerpt here). Burp.

As a fan of Carter's TV column in the New York Times, and his books the Late Shift and Desperate Networks, I couldn't wait to read about the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of the big O'Brien versus Leno Battle of 2010, and the book doesn't disappoint.

Ten great moments in Carter's The War For Late Night

There's no question that Carter's got sources and an ear for anecdotes and quotes, as proven by these 10, great moments in a book full of 'em:

1. Conan's retort

When Conan finds out that NBC wants him to move the Tonight Show Back an hour, he's mostly quiet, but finally says to the executives, "What does Jay Leno have on you?"

He repeats the comment at a later meeting, and can't help but think that the executives' reaction looks like "sympathy" as taught in "corporate school."

2. Dave's state of mind

Most of Letterman's staff think he needs mental help; however, they agree that if he were actually to get it, the comedy would suffer.

3. Dave's diet

Letterman drinks "enough strong cups of coffee to stimulate the economy" and eats a "chocolate tower" of Hershey Bars before hitting the stage every night.

4. Kimmel strikes back

When Jimmy Kimmel is booked on Leno's "10 at 10," he reads it as "that little fucker Jay intending to neutralize him on the show."

After the interview, he "had the feel of winning a 10-round fight. His haranguing of Jay on Jay's show had been, in his estimation, the best thing that had ever happened to his own show."

5. Jay's shoes

Jay only wears $14.99 Payless shoes, which he "buys by the crate." The USP: they're impervious to oil and gas.

6. The other late-night villains

The DVR and YouTube are the big villains in the book; late-night TV continues to fade, as viewers watch their favorite shows on playback, which they usually do late at night. YouTube is "the icing on the horrible cake."

NBC executive Jeff Gaspin suggests that "within five years, NBC might not necessarily even be programming a Tonight Show, or anything else for that matter, in what the networks label the late-night daypart."

7. Conan's joke

Although Conan appeared to quit his job with his famous "People of Earth" memo, the point of no return for NBC comes when he tells the joke, "Kids: you can do anything you want in life. Unless Jay Leno wants to do it too."

8. The Super Bowl ad

The famous Dave, Jay, and Oprah Super Bowl ad had another invitee: Conan O'Brien. "No fucking way I'm doing that," Conan said. "It's not a joke to me - it's real."

9. Seinfeld and Michaels' advice to Conan

Jerry Seinfeld and Lorne Michaels are among the few to question O'Brien leaving the Tonight Show.

Seinfeld on Conan: "All of this, "I won't sit by and watch the institution damaged." What institution? Ripping off the public? We tell jokes and they give us millions! Who's going to take over the Late Show? Nobody! It's Dave! When Dave's done, that's the end of that!"

"Here's big point number two in show business," Seinfeld continues, "Hang around! Just stay there, just be there. The old cliche, "95 per cent is just showing up." You never leave!"

Lorne Michaels recalls some advice he once got from former NBC exec Irwin Segelstein: "Our job is to lie, cheat and steal and your job is to do the show."

10. Where there's a hit, there should be a writ

The moral of the book: have good lawyers write up good contracts.
  • Conan's contract didn't specify at what time the Tonight Show would run (though lawyers said it would be a problem if NBC moved it to 4 p.m.).
  • Jay's contract had an unprecedented "pay and play" rider, which meant that he could sue if NBC took him off the air.


  1. Awesome post! I'm going to have to get my hands on a copy of this book. I followed the entire debacle earlier this year, and it'd be awesome to learn even more about it.

  2. I definitely agree with Jennifer this book is totally going on my Christmas wish list, right underneath itchy Norwegian sweater and right above fuzzy socks with reindeer on them. Seriously though I got tomato sauce on my old itchy Norwegian sweater, cried for weeks.


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