I typically abhor celebrity gossip and tell-all type books. (But I did get a kick out of this CBS Sunday Morning segment.) Anyway, I was surprised at how much I wanted to read and then ultimately enjoyed Bill Carter’s “The War for Late Night.” Carter is a legend in the business as a New York Times reporter and the author of the book that chronicled the first late night war in the nineties when Jay and Dave battled it out to take over for Johnny. This is really Book Two—a chronicle of what happened to the late night wars circa 2009-2010.
Carter has great sources: he talked to all of the major players at each show. And he plays them fair–never really choosing sides or overreaching on who should be portrayed as the protagonist or the villain. In fact, the most surprising part of this book was that all of the players seemed relatively normal. Like “normal” as in you would meet them in Cincinnati someplace and they could have a regular conversation with you. Even Jeff Zucker should be happy with his portrayal. Carter wisely (since he is someone who still needs to write copy for a newspaper) makes no one look too bad.
Jay, typically cast as the villain in the media, gets a fair shake at explaining how hurt he was by the fact he was dumped by NBC while he was at the top of his game and before he was ready to go. I had more sympathy for him than I wished I would have. His lack of a real agent, and his “working-man” persona plays well and seems very middle-America. Which is what he is billed as. And it is hard to argue with success.
Letterman comes off a bit maniacal but hilarious and well-respected for being the real comedy father of guys like Conan, Kimmel, Stewart. Kimmel gets major points in my book for scoring on Jay’s show. Colbert’s private persona was surprising given his public one.
All through the book, I go back and forth on Conan. One day, I think the guy had crummy ratings, didn’t do what he was supposed to do, had too much of a niche personality/comedy style, and didn’t seem like he was willing to take feedback. Fire him. No question. Jay had better ratings. And don’t feel sorry for him, because he’s rich as hell now.
But the other side: Conan got screwed. While his is not my favorite style of comedy, I see its brilliance and that it takes real talent to execute. (Like “The Simpsons,” I’ve never been a huge fan, but I understand why it is so critically acclaimed.) Conan did everything he was asked in making the move, he negotiated in good faith, he was true to himself, and his personal story is a winning one. He dreamed of hosting “The Tonight Show” and then had it publicly ripped from his hands.
Back and forth I went during this book (and during the events of 2009-10). But it wasn’t settled until I got to a part where Carter writes: “Beneath his feat, Conan sensed the ground moving, shifting finally from a baby-boom-centric culture to one controlled by Gens X and Y. Messages on sites all over the Web were rife with sheer anger at the boomers–symbolized by Leno–refusing to cede the stage and culture.”
Damn straight. This was about a new generation and it was about the future. Conan represented a new generation (we don’t get to vote on these things) and yet NBC chose the old guard. Upon reflection, though, what the hell did any of us expect? That the baby boomers were going to go quietly? That they were ready to loosen their grip on stage and culture (and politics and business and media and society and….)? When will Xers (and Ys too) get it through our heads? Boomers ain’t going anywhere. There are too many of them. They have too much money. They know too much. Some might say they are too selfish. Boomers ain’t going anywhere. Time to get used to it. Hell, they outnumber us on Facebook now! Stop.
I’m glad Conan has a new show. I watched parts and laughed. But I’m loyal to my favorite late night host–Jon Stewart. I think he is hands down the funniest guy on TV. His style is suited to a well-informed audience and he has an incredible (and I think appropriate) impact on culture, politics. America needs a national satirist. He is ours.
This is a quick and fun read. It’s a good inside look into network TV wars, agents, managers, talent, etc. But there was one interview that would have made it so much better. Johnny’s.