The War for Late Night

Unfortunately, the first thing I need to say about this book is: Thank God it’s over.

I’m referring to two things here. One, the actual war for late night. Thank God that shit is over. Thank God the airwaves and gossip mags and news segments are not teeming with stupid quotes from Leno, hilarious jabs from Kimmel, depressing sighs from Conan, poignant memories from Letterman, and the like. That stuff took over our lives for far longer than it should have, and now everyone is settled back nicely in their timeslots and making money and all that. (More on my opinions of the actual “wars” later.)

Two, this book. Thank God it’s over. Bill Carter put together the most exhaustive report of anything I’ve ever read, and I went to private high school, where our European history book was like 1000 pages and size 6 font. The War for Late Night tells me more than I’d ever thought I’d be curious about regarding this initially fascinating topic. By the end of the reading experience, I was so ready to be done. Of course, I applaud Carter’s research. It’s detailed. It’s play-by-play. It answers every question you could ever ask, and it even gives some incredibly useful background on all the major players in the whole situation, including Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Fallon, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert. (Chelsea Handler got no love, however.) But the problem with this book is in the title: The word “war” is far too absurd to use, and Carter juices it, along with many other overblown metaphors, to a pulp.

Notice how I just used a shitty metaphor right then. I did that on purpose. I want you to feel a little bit of the pain that I felt while reading this. It was filled with crap like that. (Case in point: “The network lined their big clanking machine behind their choice and went full bore on his behalf,” p. 197. What does that even mean?) Granted, the issue was a big deal at the time, but Carter made it seem like it was the be-all, end-all of everything ever in the world. And I imagine the people involved did, too. So much secrecy! So much behind-the-back talk! So many gigantic egos, GOD DAMN IT! I’ve never been so annoyed with celebrities in my life! Reading this thing, you realize how absurdly delicate everyone’s egos are, and how many channels that contracts and negotiations and conversations and considerations and blah blah must go through in order to happen. You also realize how cutthroat the industry is, and how attached at the hip the executives at the top are to fatty paychecks. It’s disgusting.

Throughout the book, Carter refers to everyone by their first names, almost as if he’s besty-besty with them all. Maybe he is, but it’s annoying as hell. It’s as though he wrote a fictional story, complete with dialogue–which, wait a minute, how exactly did he acquire dialogue?–and conflicts, climaxes, and resolutions too convoluted and ridiculous and cliched to be real, and then just inserted real people instead of the characters. Conan this. Jay that. Dave here. I hate the term “inside baseball,” but it describes perfectly what was going on in the writing of this book. I actually hoped that there would have been more technical talk, more explanation of the executives’ obsession over ratings, more facts and less dramatic bullshit. Instead, I had to settle for almost 400 pages of ego stroking.

Not that I ever expect any of the people involved to ever read this book. Why would they want to rehash it? For all of Carter’s literary shortcomings, he does have a knack for building drama. I knew the absurdity of the topic, and yet I was completely wrapped up in it (when I wasn’t grumbling at the writing style). What the world says is true: Conan got royally screwed. Jay Leno had Jeff Zucker (the former NBC CEO) by the balls because, for some reason, Jay Leno has America by the balls, and America buys things, and advertisers like that, and Jeff Zucker did whatever the advertisers wanted. It really boils down to us. We (well, not me, I’ve only found him funny once in my life) keep giving Jay Leno the ratings pat on the back, and we never trust change. Twenty years ago, change came in the form of David Letterman. Last year, it came in the form of Conan, and not enough of us gave him a chance. He’s doing fine now on TBS, so we have no reason to feel sorry for him, but we do have to understand that numbers control everything. Money controls everything. Networks control fucking everything. As former NBC executive Irwin Segelstein said to Lorne Michaels on p. 393, “Our job is to lie, cheat, and steal–and your job is to do the show.”

In the end, this was a stupid pissing contest over a TV show. Jerry Seinfeld said it harshly, but he said it right on p. 386: “We tell jokes and they give us millions! Who’s going to take over Late Night or Late Show or whatever the hell it’s called? Nobody’s going to take it over! It’s Dave! When Dave’s done, that’s the end of that!” If you’d like to know way more than that, read this book. If you’d like to enjoy late-night television for what it is, do that. Simple.

P.S. Most awesome thing I learned in this book? That Craig Ferguson and Peter Capaldi were in a band together. Dear Lord, I wish I had been at those rehearsals.