Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The War for Late Night

Summer of Blogging, Day Two!  Reading this on Facebook?  Click over to Clouds in My Coffee--gives me another load on the page (onward to 75k!) so you can see the videos...

The Tonight Show used to be a big deal.  Now, its a show that comes on after news, one that Jay Leno is on, one that Conan O'Brien had for a forgettable amount of time (do you even remember anything that happened on the Tonight Show when Conan was on it?)... its a show that you might catch a second of, depending on who is on that night (Vedder?  Adam Carolla?  Tom Hanks?), or you might end up watching Letterman, or now, Kimmel, or yes, Conan on TBS.

But back in the day?  The Tonight Show was a big deal.  Johnny Carson was a big, big deal.  I can only remember him in the late 80s and into the 90s, when I actually paid attention to such things as late night television, but I remember how huge it was when he retired, and even remembered the last two shows... in the next to last show, Robin Williams came out first, and then Bette Midler came and sang a song or two.  At the end, she did a duet with Carson, "One for My Baby (and one for the road)".  You know sometimes when you see something, especially on television, and you know, even at a young age, you just witnessed something magnificent, something classic, something... well, perfect?  

Watching Bette softly sing to Johnny, both with tears in their eyes... that was one of those moments I'll never forget.

The clip has Bette singing a little with Carson, the video blips, and then it cuts to the final performance.  Its just breathtaking, and so filled with emotion.

His final show featured no guests, was more of a "retrospective" show, and opened with Johnny sitting on a stool facing a by invitation-only studio audience, and he said this:   And so it has come to this: I, uh... am one of the lucky people in the world; I found something I always wanted to do and I have enjoyed every single minute of it. I want to thank the gentlemen who've shared this stage with me for thirty years. Mr. Ed McMahon, Mr. Doc Severinsen, and you people watching. I can only tell you that it has been an honor and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you. And I hope when I find something that I want to do and I think you would like and come back that you'll be as gracious in inviting me into your home as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt good night.

And like anyone who remembers that era vividly, you know what happened after that... Letterman was the heir apparent, the one who was supposed to slide into Johnny's chair, because after all, Letterman had hosted Late Night with David Letterman for over a decade, right?  It was time... and then, Jay Leno got The Tonight Show.  In fairness, Jay was considered a "permanent guest host"... beyond that, I don't know much about exactly what happened, save for the HBO movie "The Late Shift". 

Bill Carter, the guy who wrote "The Late Shift", also wrote the book I just finished reading, "The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy".  And while I have a fairly decent recollection of Letterman vs. Leno, I vividly remember the 2009 battle between Leno and Conan and NBC.

"The War for Late Night" kicks off at the 2009 upfronts, where the new "Tonight with Jay Leno" would be premiering the following fall, a new concept for primetime... a five day per week variety show not seen since the 70s. 

What follows in the book is a brief history of how Jay Leno came to be the star of The Tonight Show, his background from the early days of comedy, Conan O'Brien's Ivy League beginnings and his eventually rise into Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and even David Letterman's history. 

To me, the book opens with a bang (because we know what a debacle the Tonight with Jay Leno show was to become) and closes with a bang, and everything in between is a fast read but totally enthralling. 

When NBC realized that Conan's contract was up in 2004, they were frantic because they knew they would lose him, likely to FOX who, at the time, was making a serious run at him.   So, with very little input from Jay Leno, they promised The Tonight Show to Conan in five years... it was a great solution for the near future, but a horrible solution long-term... perhaps they thought that Leno would be willing to walk away or retire, perhaps they never imagined that Leno's ratings would consistently thrash Letterman (and eventually, Jimmy Kimmel) or maybe they just figured they'd deal with it when it came up, but after five seemingly comfortable years where everyone knew their role (Jay on Tonight, Conan on Late Night, then Jimmy Fallon on The Late Show), 2009 finally arrived.

And all hell broke loose.

The book goes into detail with interviews and first hand accounts of how Leno didn't like the idea of being forced out in five years, and he especially didn't like the idea of leaving when he was on top...Conan worshipped Letterman and Carson, and considered The Tonight Show the coup de gras, the pinnacle, and when he was awarded it, he thought he was on top of the world...

And when NBC undercut him immediately, he realized how quickly it fell apart... it was when NBC decided that the 9pm Jay Leno Show wasn't working, and they were going to move Jay back to 1030, moving Conan to 11pm, that Conan realized it was over. 

The book highlights the arguments, the conflicts and the disagreements, and describes in detail the personalities of those involved--Leno, the people pleaser, who just wanted to stay at 1030, no matter what the show was called... Conan, the lanky red haired host who couldn't believe everything he was given, especially since he struggled with confidence issues... and Letterman, the crusty, grumpy, sharp witted host who has never gotten over the bitterness from being passed over by NBC...

We even get highlights on other hosts like Craig Kilborn, Craig Ferguson, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon, though sometimes their backgrounds get a little lengthy, especially when both Craigs are barely mentioned in the latter half of the book. 

One of the biggest revelations for me was when Conan was struggling with NBC's new idea of moving Jay to 1030 and The Tonight Show to 11, and Jay Leno offered to his own bosses to call Conan, to discuss with him what could happen--the bosses told him "No.  Don't do it.  Don't call him."  Conan, however, took it personally when he never got a phone call from Leno, even more so when he found out that Jimmy Fallon and Jay had spoken on the phone recently. 

And when Conan writes his "Manifesto", ostensibly telling NBC to essentially "Go Eff Yourself", its brilliant.  Not too long after that, Jay is relentlessly pummeled in the news and by other comics (though Jerry Seinfeld was pro-Jay), and the book details a hilariously funny, yet almost too-much bit when Jimmy Kimmel comes on the Leno Show and just verbally rapes him on-air. 

  It takes a minute or two to get good, but this is brutal.  I mean, Kimmel just slaughters Leno, right on the air, on LENO'S SHOW--this clip is from Jimmy's YouTube site, as he made sure he filmed it from every angle to make sure he'd have a copy--he paced his answers so closely together to make sure editing would be very difficult--you get Jay's very unhappy reaction in the book.

The NBC execs are portrayed as... well, jerks.  Greedy jerks who really want nothing but the bottom line to be filled, no matter who was promised what, and David Zucker, NBC Top Dog, looks like a complete d-bag.   Though it doesn't give Jay Leno a sympathetic light, you kinda feel sorry for the guy, because he really wasn't given much of a choice, and took a beating in the media over many decisions that weren't his fault.  Yes, he could have walked away from NBC completely when Conan took over, but why would he?  He was being offered gobs of money, plus he never wanted to leave in the first place.  Conan is shown as the victim in the book, the guy who just wants what he was promised, and tries to stand up to Evil Big Network when they try and renege on everything.

I loved the heck outta this book, and now want to find "The Late Shift" and find out what happened between

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