Rethinking the Conan/Leno feud in light of Bill Carter’s ‘The War for Late Night’

July 8, 2013 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

war for late night

Man am I on a roll with non-fiction books lately on my iPad mini. After steamrolling Dream Team by Jack McCallum I wasted no time in devouring Bill Carter’s The War for Late Night (subtitle: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy), the exhaustive account of the NBC debacle in 2010 when Conan O’Brien took over the iconic Tonight Show from Jay Leno for seven months before a scheduling dispute handed the show right back to Jay — but not before a hailstorm of crap rained down on NBC for the way it mishandled the network’s two biggest talk show stars.

I was one of those people who became engrossed in the whole saga when it was happening at the time. I, like most people, was on Team Coco. I just thought, and I still think, O’Brien is the funniest and quirkiest guy on late night TV. For me, Leno was never particularly funny or a very good interviewer. A lot of jokes, some good, some average, some bad, but to be honest I never understood why Leno was so appealing or why was always no. 1 in the ratings.

More importantly, I believed O’Brien had been lied to and abused by NBC and stabbed in the back by Leno, who essentially promised Conan his show but took it back almost immediately. I loved the support Conan was getting from everyone and the jabs Dave Letterman threw at Leno, his nemesis, on The Late Show over at CBS, the only late night show we got on free-to-air in Australia (as far as I know) throughout my childhood. I’ll never forget Conan’s emotional final words on his final show, which I may or may not have posted on this blog at the time.

But reading The War for Late Night has completely changed my perspective on the “feud”, if it can be called that. First of all, it’s a brilliant book, a must-read for anyone who was fascinated by the Conan-Leno thing or even just mildly interested in the world of late night television. Carter is clearly late night TV insider who knows all the characters and the politics of the industry inside-out and was well-equipped to provide a fly-on-the-wall account of the events by relying almost exclusively on first-hand interviews with everyone involved, from Conan and Leno to NBC president Jeff Zucker. Carter is also the author of The Late Shift, which told the story of how Leno beat out Letterman as the host of The Tonight Show in 1992, even though the incumbent, legendary Johnny Carson, had pegged Letterman as his rightful heir.  By the way, The Late Shift was made into a TV movie which I totally intend to see.

The War for Late Night, at 384 pages, is told through 12 long chapters and an epilogue, each of which feels like a little feature article in itself. There are lots of names to keep track of, and in that respect I felt Carter might have thrown some of them at me too fast and furiously. He also had a penchant for ultra-long sentences broken up by multiple commas and em dashes — just like this, though I am often guilty of this myself — which sometimes made the prose difficult to follow. But on the whole, it was a captivating and often unputdownable read that answered every question I had and even some  I hadn’t thought of.

I hadn’t expected, for instance, a short bio of just about every late night player in the industry. Yes, I learned about the backgrounds of Conan (who is a Harvard graduate and was the Simpsons star writer for a while, by the way), Leno and Letterman, but I also got an insight into the lives and minds of Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, Craig Ferguson and Craig Kilborn. It’s was great reading about where they came from and what sacrifices they had to make to get to where they are (or were), with the common threads being immense talent and lots and lots and lots of hard work and dedication. Makes me ashamed to be such a lazy bum.

The most praiseworthy aspect of The War for Late Night is how incredibly balanced it is. Carter asks the questions and tackles the arguments and angles of each side, but never steers readers in a particular direction. Everyone will have their own interpretations of the events that transpired, but Carter allows you to see why certain decisions were made and why people reacted the way they did. It was a mess, no doubt about it, but assigning blame became a pointless exercise for me in the end.

Anyway, I highly recommend it for any late night buff or people who just want to know what really happened and who should be blamed for the whole thing. I give the book a solid 4 out of 5.

Rethinking the Conan/Leno feud

Since The War for Late Night my thoughts about the feud have changed. I think there were a lot of misinformation and misconceptions out there, probably planted by Conan’s camp (though I do not believe it had anything to do with Conan himself) to generate support and sympathy.

To be honest, I don’t think you could really point the finger at someone and say, “This was your fault.” It was more a culmination of past events, NBC’s desire to hold on to both stars, a knee-jerk reaction from the executives and affiliates, and a difference in opinion over how things should be handled from both a business and moral perspective.

To understand how the debacle came about requires a bit of background. The whole thing really dates back to 1992, when Johnny Carson was retiring from TheTonight Show and NBC had to choose between Leno and Letterman, who hosted the Late Night show which followed Carson’s show. Leno won in the end because NBC thought he would have a wider appeal, but it probably also had something to do with his ruthless manager Helen Kushnick (whom Leno later fired for her unethical tactics) and the fact that Leno hid in a closet to eavesdrop on a conference call to give himself a competitive advantage. So Leno was branded the villain and a heartbroken Letterman headed off to CBS to host The Late Show, and actually beat Leno in the ratings for two years until Leno’s interview with Hugh Grant after that infamous prostitute incident on Sunset Boulevard.

But from that point on Leno just dominated Letterman. For about 16 years straight.

Conan O’Brien, a rising comedian who dreamed of hosting The Tonight Show since he was a kid, took over on Late Night for Letterman at NBC. Conan was getting offers to jump ship from rivals ABC and Fox — ones that were three or four times more lucrative —  but his dream of one day hosting The Tonight Show kept him at NBC, who told him that he would be Leno’s replacement as soon as big jaw retires.

In 2004, having already strung Conan along for several more years, NBC brass did not want to lose Conan, who by that time was kind of building a cult following among the younger audiences and dazzled as host of the Emmys in 2002 (and co-host in 2003). But at the same time, Leno didn’t look like he was ready to go anywhere, AND he was still beating Letterman every night in the ratings.

So what did NBC do? They picked Conan because he represented the future. Instead of letting him walk to ABC or Fox, they dangled that old carrot in front of Conan again and guaranteed him The Tonight Show in 2010. They then told Jay, thanks for everything, but we don’t want to lose Conan; when your time is up, please hand over the torch to Conan.

Leno was obviously hurt by this because it became very clear from everything that was written about him in the book that all he wanted to do was to tell jokes at 11:35pm every night and be no. 1 in the ratings. Leno’s just a weird guy. He’s never been about the money (he was earning US$30m+ a year, which was actually less than Letterman), hardly spent any of his money except on his vintage cars, and hated going on holidays because he just wanted to think of more jokes. He has been described as both a “schemer” and “guileless”, and my personal feeling is that he was closer to the latter than the former.

But what could Leno do except to agree to the fate his bosses had assigned him? He didn’t want to leave The Tonight Show but felt he had no choice, so to curb the embarrassment and save himself some face he told people he intended to hand the torch over to Conan in 2010 and retire. See, I even found the footage.

As 2010 approached, Conan’s people, and Conan himself, started getting antsy. Leno was still doing great in the ratings and they feared NBC would shaft them. But a promise was a promise (right?) and Conan would get The Tonight Show, no matter what.

However, NBC didn’t want Leno to just leave for a competitor, and Leno sure didn’t want to leave either because he loved routine and hated change. So the NBC execs came up with a radical new plan: move Jay to prime time at 10pm for a new half-hour show where he could still tell jokes and maybe have a guest on some nights. It was something that had never been tried before because prime time was usually for shows like Desperate Housewives and CSI, but those shows cost a lot more money and the majority of them failed anyway. So why not put on a cheaper show and see what happens?

Leno didn’t love the idea but it was better than retiring. Conan didn’t like the idea either but at least he was still getting The Tonight Show as promised. So they both said OK.

The new Tonight Show with Conan started off with a bang and was pretty successful. He wasn’t getting Leno’s total numbers but he was beating Letterman in the key demographic (18-49), which is what really matters because that’s what the advertisers care about. Over time, however, Letterman’s overall numbers started beating Conan’s overall numbers and Conan’s edge in the key demographic was shrinking. This made NBC execs nervous.

And after the summer, The Jay Leno Show debuted — and it was a disaster. NBC took a gamble and it failed. Leno was doing horribly, and worse, as Conan’s “lead-in” show, it was affecting The Tonight Show’s ratings as well. The lead-in is regarded as extremely important in television. If you’re watching a great show on a particular channel, there is more of a chance that you’ll just keep watching whatever is on next. And no one wanted to watch The Jay Leno Show.

To me, it made very little sense to put on another similar talk show right before The Tonight Show. Why would people want to watch something so similar in such a short space of time? Besides, there was still Late Night (now hosted by Jimmy Fallon) after those two shows, so you effectively had three talk shows running back-to-back-to-back.

Coupled with DVRs (which allowed people to record shows to watch at another time), NBC’s ratings were getting smashed, and their affiliates demanded something be done immediately.

The options were simple. One, pay off Conan and put Jay back on The Tonight Show. Two, cancel Jay and say goodbye to big jaw forever. The problem with option two was that Jay had an unprecedented “pay-and-play” contract. Normally, industry contracts are “pay-or-play”, meaning the network could either play your show or pay you so they don’t have to play it. Jay’s “pay-and-play” contract, on the other hand, meant NBC was contractually obligated to keep The Jay Leno Show on the air AND pay him.

At the same time, Conan’s contract had a fatal flaw — it did not have a time clause that locked The Tonight Show at 11:35pm, something that Letterman always made sure was in his contracts. So the geniuses at NBC decided to think of a way to keep both stars, and the solution they came up with was to move The Jay Leno Show to the 11:35pm slot previously occupied by The Tonight Show, which would be pushed back to 12:05am the next day. And poor Jimmy Fallon would be moved back another half hour too.

The NBC execs went to Leno first and told him the idea, which he of course loved because it meant he’d be able to tell jokes at 11:35 every night again. But he did ask them whether they thought Conan would be “OK” with the time change. They told him they were confident he would be. So Leno said he was in.

Of course, Conan was not OK with it. Part of it probably had something to do with him being nearly the last person to find out about NBC’s plan (he would have found out even later had there not been leaks in the media). Either way, he could not accept the new proposal. He said no f*&%ing way, and the rest is history. His team went on the assault to paint NBC as the bad guys. They were successful. He got a massive payout around US$32m, took some time off, and went over to cable network TBS to start his new show, a show where he could be exactly who he wanted without the pressures of appealing to “a wider audience” as NBC had wanted him to do.

Conan’s perspective

Conan’s perspective was this: he had worked all his life to get a chance to host The Tonight Show, passing up far more lucrative offers along the way because they had promised it to him. After waiting for so many years, he finally got the chance, but they never gave him the support he needed to be successful. Leno took two years and some luck to eventually beat Letterman in the ratings. NBC was essentially pulling the plug on him after just seven months. Most of all, one of the main reasons he was struggling so bad was because of his “shitty lead-in” (in Conan’s own words). It was ironic that Leno, whose poor ratings had handcuffed Conan’s ratings, was getting the “promotion” and was getting his time slot, while he would be forced to move back to accommodate. It just wasn’t fair.

Another aspect of Conan’s disdain for the situation was that he believed moving The Tonight Show back half an hour would be destroying its legacy. He loved the show and it meant everything to him, and he didn’t want The Tonight Show to effectively become The Tomorrow Show by being moved to the next day.

A third, unspoken part of Conan’s feelings, which Carter alluded to in his book, is the fact that Conan has never been a big fan of Leno. He idolized Letterman and thought Leno was a bit of a hack who didn’t deserve the praise. That wasn’t an uncommon view among other hosts and comedians, by the way. And I suppose when Leno floundered at 10pm it proved that America was more in love with The Tonight Show than it was with Jay Leno. While he had always been polite and cordial with Leno, perhaps Conan’s subconscious dislike for the man was now rising to the surface.

For Conan, Leno should never have accepted NBC’s proposal. The “classy” thing to do would have been to contemplate the impact such a move would have on Conan and turn it down, and ride off into the sunset. Jay was turning 60 years old and had held on to The Tonight Show for nearly two decades. It was time to give someone else a shot. Like he said he would in that video above.

Leno’s perspective

As I said earlier, Leno is a weird guy. He just wants to work and win. He had been doing both when he was essentially fired by NBC. For him, he had been a good and loyal soldier who produced results, but was getting shafted in favor of the young hotshot. But he took the embarrassment on the chin and said the things he was supposed to say.

When the opportunity came to stay on the air, albeit at 10pm, Leno was happy to take it on. He didn’t really think about how that would affect Conan because Conan was, after all, the winner for getting The Tonight Show. This was more of a consolation prize for him.

When The Jay Leno Show failed, Leno knew his time was up. But when he was thrown a lifeline by NBC to return to his old time slot, he reached out and grabbed it with both hands. Again, he probably was thinking more about himself than Conan. He just wanted to go back to doing what made him happy. And he was successful at it too — more successful than Conan, at least. Besides, in the book, Leno actually said he would do it if Conan was OK with it.

That is why Leno was so hurt by all the vitriol directed at him. He was painted as the guy who promised Conan his show but took it back off him almost immediately. The reason he was so accommodating with NBC’s plans was because he wanted to avoid what happened between him and Letterman last time — but instead the debacle was not only replayed but amplified by social media.

Throughout the whole ordeal, Leno never said a bad thing about Conan. He was blasted for never calling Conan to talk things over, but he was specifically instructed by NBC brass to not call him. Could he have called Conan anyway? Of course, but I can understand why he didn’t.

I now genuinely think Leno’s just a weird, kinda bratty guy who just wants to tell jokes — not the Machiavellian mastermind he has been unfairly labeled.

NBC’s perspective

For NBC, it was simple: money. Whatever they decided, it was for business purposes. They promised Conan The Tonight Show because they didn’t want to lose him to a rival network. They gave Leno his own show at 10pm because they didn’t want to lose him. They wanted to move Leno back to 11:35pm and Conan to 12:05am because they were failing and needed to stop the bleeding (plus Conan’s contract had flexibility while Leno’s didn’t). They might have made some bad decisions from a business standpoint but it was never about what was ethical, fair or loyal.

Letterman’s perspective

Having been through a similar situation back in 1992, Letterman had a field day with the whole debacle, throwing jabs left and right at Leno from The Late Show with glee. As he said, he didn’t have a dog in this fight, but his dislike for Leno was seeping through every joke and every monologue.

In the last part of that video Letterman showed the difference between him and Leno. Letterman said if NBC had pushed him out of The Tonight Show in favor of Conan he would have gone over to a competitor and made them pay. But that’s just not the kind of guy Leno is. It’s stupid, perhaps, but that’s just not who he is.

Jimmy Fallon’s perspective

One guy who did have a dog in the fight was Jimmy Fallon, who will (seriously) take over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno next year, or so we’ve been told. For good. Fallon was hosting Late Night at the time and was happy where he was, so when NBC told him he would have to be moved back half an hour to accommodate Leno, he gladly accepted with no complaints.

It wouldn’t be fair to compare Fallon’s reaction to Conan’s, because Fallon was still an up-and-coming guy just happy to have a gig, while Conan was the guy who had paid his dues and was getting his dream taken away from him. But because he stuck around like a good soldier, Fallon will now get to host The Tonight Show after just five years on Late Night (and before turning 40).


Jimmy Kimmel’s perspective

Another guy who got involved in the feud was Jimmy Kimmel at ABC. Kimmel had always been a Letterman guy, but got close to Leno after big jaw phoned him a few times to befriend him during discussions about a potential move to ABC. After Leno decided to stay at NBC, however, the phone calls stopped, and Kimmel felt that Leno had been using him.

When the tide of public opinion swelled against Leno he decided to bring Kimmel on his show for support. What he didn’t count on was Kimmel having the balls to turn into a hostile witness and completely embarrass Jay in front of everyone. If you haven’t seen it yet just check out the video below. It’s a classic.

While some have blasted Kimmel for going at Leno on Leno’s own show, most have been supportive because, let’s face it, it was very funny. Kimmel defended himself on the basis that he had wanted to talk about the whole Conan feud but Leno’s people would not let him and wanted to make it a bland, generic Q&A session. He wasn’t happy with leaving the elephant in the corner of the room and knew that the format had 10 questions, meaning they would not be able to edit his answers out.

The Aftermath

It turned out all right for everyone involved in the end.

Leno got back to doing what he always wanted to do — tell jokes at 11:35pm every night and stay at no. 1 in the ratings . Conan got a massive payout and is now hosting a great show on TBS, and most of all the feud gave him the recognition and fan base he would never have had otherwise. Letterman got a great laugh out of it, Jimmy Fallon will soon be hosting The Tonight Show, and Jimmy Kimmel’s stunt boosted his popularity immensely.

As for NBC, they did some number crunching and decided it was all worth it for them too. Had they let Conan walk right at the beginning (before promising him The Tonight Show), the losses would have been far more significant.

I’ll finish off this long rant with the incredible Superbowl promo between Letterman, Leno and Oprah, which stunned everyone so much that they thought it was put together with digital effects. PS: It was Letterman’s idea, and Conan was originally invited as well but declined.