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The Late Shift

December 22nd, 2010

Like many of you out there, I followed the news of NBC’s recent late-night craziness — the collapse of Jay Leno’s 10 PM show, the feud this caused between newly-installed Tonight Show host Conan O’Brien and the NBC brass, and Jay Leno’s return to The Tonight Show and Conan’s departure from the network to launch a new show on TBS — with great interest and a sort of morbid fascination.  I read quite a lot about the situation as everything was going down, but when I read that New York Times reporter Bill Carter had written a new book about the whole mess, The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy, I immediately picked it up.

But before reading it, I thought that maybe the time had finally arrived for me to read Bill Carter’s earlier book about the Late Night wars: The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night.

Published in 1994, The Late Shift covers in great detail the dramatic behind-the-scenes story of the upheaval that followed Johnny Carson’s departure as host of The Tonight Show, and the battle between Jay Leno and David Letterman over who would replace him as host.  The book caused quite a stir when it was first released — I remember reading about it back then, and as I recall it was even made into a TV movie!  I’ve always been interested in the subject matter, but I’d never read the book until now.

For anyone fascinated by television and the inside story of how the networks work and how the shows that one loves actually get on the air (or don’t), The Late Shift is a must-read.  Mr. Carter writes with a concise, fluid prose that is easy-to-read, and the book is cleverly structured in the manner of  what’s almost a thriller.  Bouncing back-and-forth between the recollection of a vast number of participants, we watch the behind-the-scenes story unfold with building intensity, as the battle over The Tonight Show comes to a head.  Even though we all know who eventually won out, there’s a gripping intensity to the proceedings, as one wonders not so much WHAT will happen, but more HOW exactly did things turn out the way we all know that they did?

It’s also fascinating to get the perspectives of so many of the people involved in the proceedings.  The book is very well researched and fairly even-handed in its presentation of Mr. Leno, Mr. Letterman, and the other major participants in the behind-the-scenes goings-on.  Mr. Carter includes comments from a vast number of people involved in the saga, including Leno and Letterman and the key members of their teams, as well as NBC brass at a variety of levels.  I was pretty astonished, frankly, at the candor of many of the folks interviewed.

The book contains several revelations that I was quite surprised by.  First of all, I’d been under the impression that all of the network back-and-forth over who would host The Tonight Show happened immediately following Johnny Carson’s retirement.  But apparently it was very quickly decided that Jay Leno would take over, and indeed he began his tenure as host immediately following Mr. Carson’s last shows.  Most of the craziness went down in the months FOLLOWING Jay’s start as host, when Jay’s performance and ratings were shaky and Letterman’s team made a real run at getting their boy installed as host.

I was most astonished to learn that, after an enormous amount of back-room turmoil, NBC DID actually offer David Letterman The Tonight Show, more than a year into Leno’s run!  (But at that point, Letterman’s relationship with NBC had become so toxic that he felt he’d be much better treated — and that have much more opportunity to grow — by making the move to CBS.)  It’s interesting that this is still something that NBC apparently denies, but Mr. Carter includes corroborating comments from enough individuals that there seems to be little doubt that this happened.

There’s also a pretty nutty story about how, at the height of the craziness, Mr. Leno snuck into the NBC executive offices to listen in on a phone call in which the top NBC executives were debating whether to replace him as host!

But what most struck me, reading The Late Shift now, a decade-and-a-half after the events depicted within and a year after the whole Leno-Conan mess, is how many parallels there are between the 1993 Leno-Letterman battle and the 2009-10 Leno-Conan battle.  The two situations are eerily similar, something which I think a lot of people have commented on but which was really nailed home for me after reading this book.

Did you know that, back in 1993, when NBC was struggling to find a war to keep BOTH of their late-night stars (Jay Leno and David Letterman) on the network, NBC President Bob Wright considered offering Dave a five-times-a-week 10 PM show???  How crazy is that?!

The parallels continue.  As Jay began to feel the pressure of the mounting rumors that NBC would replace him as host of The Tonight Show with David Letterman, Mr. Carter writes of Leno’s concerns: “He thought about his writers and other staff members, many of whom had quit other jobs and moved their families out to L.A. to work on his show.  Some had bought houses; Jay himself had guaranteed home loans for some of them.  He cringed at the prospect that his fate might put all these people under financially.” Didn’t we read the exact same concerns from Conan O’Brien and his representative when HIS ouster as host of The Tonight Show was imminent?

It gets better.  Mr. Carter writes of the delicate balance that David Letterman and his representatives had to strike in their pursuit of The Tonight Show.  While they all felt that Dave deserved the job over Jay, they didn’t want the press to paint Dave as the Bad Guy for pushing to have Jay fired.  “They shuddered at the thought of fighting a defensive action against the PR campaign Jay Leno would mount if he lost the ‘Tonight’ show to Dave.  Every press story Jay did from that point on, they guessed, would be dominated by accounts of how the nice guy had been assassinated by the mean guy.” What a prescient analysis of what actually DID happen to Jay after he got The Tonight Show back from Conan O’Brien!!  It’s funny how things turn.

These are just a few of the great gems found in The Late Shift.  The book is packed full of fascinating anecdotes and insights.  The only unfortunate aspect of the book, actually, is the timing of where the narrative ends.  As it was published in 1994 (and revised and updated in 1995), The Late Shift ends with David Letterman seeming to have triumphed over his rival Jay Leno.  Yes, he did not wind up with The Tonight Show.  But at the point when the book ends, Letterman’s new CBS show has been trouncing Jay’s Tonight Show in the ratings, and Mr. Carter predicts only increasing prestige in Letterman’s future following his upcoming high-profile gig hosting The Oscars.

Well, we all know how THAT went (“Oprah…Uma…”), and pretty soon Jay’s Tonight Show took a ratings lead over Dave’s Late Show that would last, mostly uninterrupted, for the next decade-and-a-half.  So that gives The Late Shift an unfortunately out-of-date ending.  But that’s pretty much the main weakness of an otherwise great book (and one that is pretty easily forgiven — after all, Mr. Carter had to stop at some point and WRITE the thing!).  I thoroughly enjoyed the book — it’s well-worth your time.

I’ll be back soon with my thoughts on his 2010 follow-up: The War For Late Night!

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