After Hours, Out for Blood
It was a virtual barrage and media takeover of proportions far beyond the usual scale -- that which can be classified as merely epic. For weeks on end, the story was splashed across the front pages of newspapers and magazines from coast to coast; dramatically, and in a font as large and as threatening as a famous rapper’s protective posse of ex-cons. It was the biggest, most engaging issue in the country at the moment, weighing heavily on everyone’s lips and minds for what seemed like the passing of several dozen planetary heating and cooling periods; although, in reality, the actual timeframe for chaos and speculation lasted within the blink of a universal eye. Remaining neutral would have been an unprecedented impossibility for nearly all of the loyal public; indeed, polarization had never before coursed so rapidly inside the veins and sinews of America’s mass consuming body of subjects.
But this time, it wasn’t the federal government at fault over some failed legislative reform; in fact, the feds weren’t even to be found at the helm of some accidentally exposed, bureaucratic bout of calculated debauchery. Rather, the biggest boob in the room was not affixed to the Capitol building, but instead over the heads of the corporate goons at the National Broadcasting Company.
And as a spout of ill-fated luck would have it, those stiffly-coiffed, double-breasted suits had managed to pull an already-unstable looking rug out from under the feet of their devoted viewers; now as before, they had fumbled over choosing a host for the Tonight show.
Like the events unfolding around a lesser, more outlandish and familial oriented drama, everybody remembers where he or she happened to be when NBC announced it would be giving Conan O’Brien, the Tonight show’s host of seven months, the corporate boot. Well, perhaps there is more than a bit of hyperbole invoked in this statement: not everyone may be able to recall the exact whereabouts of their beings, but certainly we can all remember fervently forming an opinion. (And possibly affixing our signatures to more than one circulating Internet petition.) And Conan wasn’t exactly given the boot, per se; the tall, dashing and eternally youthful Tonight show host made his Burbank exit of his own volition, but only as the result of what many categorized as an unfair creative manipulation on the part of the NBC executives, controlling the twisted, behind-the-scenes elements of an American TV institution like so many tangled marionette strings.
History, as it is wont to do, was repeating itself. Though few of Conan’s rabidly resolute fans of the younger, Millennial generation set could recall the events of 1993, the mistakes and missteps of the past loomed uncomfortably familiar to those old enough to have witnessed the corporate bungling the first time around. “I could never have imagined the situation would have played out in any way like the previous battle for the Tonight show, because in this case Jay had voluntarily given up the position,” says Bill Carter, a New York Times television reporter and author of the book The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night. “I thought he would likely go to ABC and give NBC fits there, but there did not seem to be any fractiousness between Jay and Conan. Conan was getting what he wanted. Jay was not fighting to keep the Tonight show. Of course the 10 p.m. thing raised questions: could Jay really succeed there? Would Conan get a fair shot if Jay was still on every night before him doing a similar show? But it did seem a set-up for a pileup that would lead to all this rancor and the forced exit of one of them.”
Published in 1994, The Late Shift centers around Johnny Carson’s retirement from the Tonight show, and the subsequent clash of feelings and egos that came right on Carson’s retreating coattails. Carter’s book made waves upon its release into the popular subconscious, and though its current status of availability remains out of print, the book’s deeply researched and arrestingly fine-tuned storytelling helped expose the elaborate inner workings of America’s television industry, specifically by bringing the late night rival tension between now-iconic comedians Jay Leno and David Letterman to the forefront of the national discussion on after-hours comedy. In 1996, a campy TV movie based on the book, starring Kathy Bates and Ed Begley, Jr., was commissioned by HBO, but The Late Shift’s lasting legacy can be more directly attributed to its insightful analysis of NBC’s first late night fiasco nearly 20 years ago; in which Leno was appointed Carson’s Tonight show successor, and Letterman was effectively given the shaft -- asked to stay on at his 12:30 Late Night post before jumping ship in favor of The Late Show on CBS. Truly, The Late Shift is a navigational compass that might have helped the major players in the late night wars this time around absolve themselves of the mistakes of the not-too distant past.
Throughout the course of the book’s 289 pages, Carter spreads apart a Risk-styled world map and lays out a carefully intricate scene, wherein the offices of NBC and CBS function as an oversized chessboard. with all the necessary rooks and pawns available to further the action. Represented here are not only Leno and Letterman, but also Helen Kushnick, Leno’s scheming and domineering manager/producer; Peter Lassally and Robert Morton, producers and vocal Letterman advocates; and Howard Stringer and Bob Wright, presidents of CBS and NBC respectively and the proud kings overlooking the battlefield action from above. It’s an intriguing cast of characters -- the types of which TV movies are made for -- with just as many heroes as there are interlopers. In the world drawn together by Carter, no one is quite free from some nagging ulterior motive or underlying plot device, making for an expertly crafted look at the ragged attributes comprising the core of human nature, especially when enacted toward one or more fellow being. Carter writes:
Morton and Lassally knew that NBC was blaming them for the failure of the effort to win back Letterman, but they scoffed at the idea that it was self-aggrandizement that motivated them to steer Dave to CBS. Lassally had helped instigate the campaign inside NBC to match the CBS offer. Nothing would have satisfied him more personally than to march back into the offices in Burbank in triumph with Dave at his side. Lassally said his wife longed to move back to their Los Angeles home. All that was possible only with an NBC deal. As for Morton, he said he had a dream as well, a producer’s dream: to run the Tonight show. As a single guy he already felt he had more money than he would ever need. His motivation, he said, was what would be best for David Letterman.
Of course, as it might be expected, Carter’s best and most intriguing players here are the book’s two leads: namely, David Letterman and Jay Leno. For the most part, the public’s perception of Letterman as the unconventional talent and Leno as the ham-fisted, mediocre second-stringer are reinforced through Carter’s vividly detailed portraits of the two men’s struggles for late night supremacy.
When Johnny, the King of Late Night, stepped down, he took off his crown and left it on stage to be claimed by the next great late-night talent. Jay Leno had a year and a half to pick up that crown and put it on his head. He had to survive chaotic upheaval and even a threat from within his own camp. That he did both was a testament to his resiliency and his indefatigable willingness to keep on going forward. But a year and a half later, the crown still eluded Jay’s grasp… And then David Letterman came along, finally freed to seek the crown himself. Within a month, he had picked it up, carried it off, and fixed it firmly on his head.
Possibly at the risk of sacrificing one’s own element of hipster credibility, the book makes it exceedingly difficult not to nurture a simmering bit of sympathy for Leno at the times he is most vigorously tried. Although by all accounts his comedic talent is described in unrelenting middle-of-the-road terms, The Late Shift constructs a Leno figure that’s equal parts humble, generous, and overwhelmingly good-natured. Especially these days, we all want nothing more than to hate Jay Leno, but there isn’t anything easy about hating a guy who responds to network criticism with, “I’ll work all day and night. I’ll work around the clock. I’ll go to every affiliate that you want me to go to. I’ll do anything it takes. I’ll work with advertisers. I’ll work with affiliates. I’ll work with you guys in the network. I’m not afraid to hear any research data. I’m not afraid to do what it takes.”
Reading over these passages, in manners either in depth or in brief passing, one is especially susceptible to pangs of familiarity and identification with the person of Jay Leno. It’s difficult not to squirm and recall to mind similar, more personal instances in which one has been passed over for a promotion or some other sort of significant life advancement in favor of a more capable comrade; even in the face of a copiously dedicated commitment to self-improvement and skill building within the realm of the task at hand. Given the myriad amount of negativity attached -- however fairly or unfairly -- to the image and representation of Jay Leno, finding common ground amongst the strings of connection with the much-maligned funnyman is uncomfortably in close kinship with a shared camaraderie toward the smelliest -- but most bright and cheerful -- kid in the class.
Letterman, by contrast, is frequently thrust into a spot of light that is both unflattering to his off-camera demeanor and off-putting to his general temperament and work ethic. Although his talent and innate comedic sensibilities are largely undisputed, if not whole-heartedly fortified, several instances arise showing Letterman as a surly, embittered, impossible-to-please curmudgeon, inflicting his deep-laying insecurities mercilessly upon not only his staff, but his guests and supporters. One particularly brutal scene finds Letterman savaging and shunning one of his biggest advocates within the NBC network by disinviting her to Late Night’s anniversary party:
It was a devastating slap in the face for Sissy Biggers, who had cared so much about Letterman’s show, tried so hard to see that he was happy, paid the price of being in New York late each night, of being a mother away from two daughters under five years old. But she had paid it happily, because she believed so strongly in David Letterman. She cried all the way home on the train.
Naturally, all this damning evidence against both parties involved must raise the question: why is Leno so often singled out for public and media scrutiny over the far-more menacing shadow of David Letterman? “Villain? That's a word for drama (or maybe melodrama), not comedy. To portray Jay as a villain presupposes he was actively scheming for this result. I don't think there is convincing evidence for that,” says Carter, in reference to Leno’s high-profile perception, both then and now. “Jay can certainly point to his initial decision to step aside five years ago, a move he did not have to make and many others in the business questioned him for: he was still winning big: why agree to walk away? But the issue gets mixed up in what is now a generational feud.”
Ah, yes. In the span of more than a decade, betwixt the Carsons Johnny and Daly, there is the great question of Conan. “Many of Conan's fans, most under 35, not only resent Jay, they resent the entire baby boom generation and Jay is being cast as a symbol of that,” Carter continues. “They won't leave the stage, goes the cry. Jay certainly wants to continue his TV career. If that's a villainous act, he maybe could be accused of that. But his defense is: NBC wanted him to do it because they were convinced he would do better than Conan. If NBC did not have that conviction, nothing Jay could have done would have made this happen.”
But what’s a poor, unemployed comedian with a $40 million network buyout to do, now that the Tonight show has slipped from his grasp? If the lessons of the past are any solid indicator, then there’s likely to be a stable future for the bright and talented Conan at nearly any network of his choosing. Leno, on the flip side of NBC’s coin, may have a rougher go of it. “I think Jay may find the going tougher -- at least initially -- than he did before he left Tonight. I think the backlash against him -- especially among younger viewers -- may continue for awhile,” says Carter. “So I expect the competition with Letterman to be closer than it used to be. But Jay is nothing if not dogged. He will work it for all he's worth. I think it's going to be interesting.”