Monday, December 27, 2010

Book: The War for Late Night, by Bill Carter (2010)

The true wisdom in New York Times reporter Carter’s chronicle of the Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien debacle comes from someone who isn’t on TV anymore. Jerry Seinfeld recalls telling Johnny Carson not long after his retirement that for twenty years, comedians speculated on who would take over The Tonight Show. “And the one thing we never realized was that, when you left, you were taking it with you.” The creation of a viable late night alternative on CBS ended an era in television; as Seinfeld points out, comics say Jay or Dave or Conan now, not The Tonight Show. In retrospect, the writing was on the wall when Garry Shandling chose to do a behind-the-scenes comedy about a talk show as opposed to the real thing on NBC.

The slow-burn succession plan put in place in 2004 by NBC’s Jeff Zucker – Leno agreeing to step down as Tonight Show host in 2009 to make way for Conan – is usually characterized as the root of the problem. But by the end of Carter’s book I was convinced that the network unintentionally made the best of a bad situation. There was no way NBC could hope to hold on to both stars in the long run; one was always going to end up the competition. The current landscape, with Leno leading in the ratings and Conan on basic cable, no doubt suits the suits just fine.

Conan comes off as funny, decent and somewhat naïve. Leno, meanwhile, reads as hard-working and deeply uninteresting. When he does reveal something of himself, you wish he hadn’t; his explanation for why he refuses to take vacations (“I understand how people spend money to buy things they need or like. But spending money on an experience? That seems like an extravagance to me.”) seems utterly alien, especially when as Carter points out it’s people on vacation who pay for Leno’s fabled collection of vintage cars. It’s a sign of Leno’s lack of presence in spite of his success that his valid take on the situation – fiftysomething guy is forced out of his job, but returns triumphant – never caught on. Letterman, as always, remains inscrutable, while Carter gets plenty of good material from a savvy and scrappy Jimmy Kimmel.

The book is compulsively readable but evenhanded to a fault. Carter’s Gray Lady insistence on reporting everyone’s side as if he’s covering arms negotiations weakens the fascinating opening at the May 2009 upfronts, when Leno flopped with a long set of dated material. And he shies away from any assessment of The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, including the commonly held one that it was never vital television until it was on the verge of extinction.

Overall, there’s a sense that Carter is missing the boat. 11:30 on the broadcast networks may be where the money is, but not the excitement. Jay Leno couldn’t get millions of people to turn up for a rally on the Washington mall or shame Congress into passing a bill. The boldest late night personality is Chelsea Handler on E! The only late night clips I’m sent these days are from Jimmy Fallon’s show, and the one show I try to regularly watch is Craig Ferguson’s, where actual conversations occur. Carter’s book is filled with the crack of buggy whips. It’s diligent reportage on the final mastodon’s struggles in the tar pit.