Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Bookshelf: "The War for Late Night"

Once the dust had settled, one piece of good news emerged from the much-publicized melee between Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, and NBC over the future of The Tonight Show: Bill Carter, the New York Times writer whose 1994 book The Late Shift brought to vivid life the last fight for Tonight, was hard at work on a follow-up. The resultant volume, The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy (Viking, $26.95), shares many of its predecessor’s virtues: the prose is crisp, the narrative is tightly-wound, and Carter has a knack for fleshing out and humanizing key players. It is excellent reportage. The (admittedly minor) disappointment is that Carter is so busy playing fair that he doesn’t push past the surface to the analysis that seems the next logical step.

In The Late Shift, Carter breathlessly told the story of how Leno, the regular guest host of Tonight, took over the show after the retirement of Johnny Carson (muscling out Late Night host David Letterman). Carter’s tale was assembled from interviews, secret memos and stories told on background—including the now-notorious account of how Leno hid in a closet to listen in on an important NBC conference call. That anecdote, and others like it, gave ammunition to those who see Leno as a Machiavellian figure, hiding a conniving thirst for power and fame behind his aw-shucks, regular-guy, grease-monkey persona.

That impression made it easy to brand him the villain in the debacle of NBC late night circa 2009-2010, in which he handed off his top-rated Tonight Show to Late Night host O’Brien, only to remain O’Brien’s lead-in when NBC offered him The Jay Leno Show (a poorly-conceived experiment in low-cost programming that ultimately amounted to a kind of Tonight-Lite at 10pm). The reviews were brutal; the ratings were worse. And then, in the midst of his television free-fall, Leno announced in a print interview that if the network “wanted” to offer him the 11:35 slot, well, “that would be fine if they wanted to.” By the following March, he was back in as the host of Tonight.

The anti-Leno meme dominated the public conversation, and much of the audience for The War For Late Night will presumably approach it from that point of view. But Carter isn’t interested in writing a slash-and-burn job; he is even somewhat sympathetic to the lantern-jawed host (he details how Leno and ABC host Jimmy Kimmel became friends during the writers’ strike, and how Kimmel quickly threw that relationship overboard to skewer Leno on both of their shows). That said, Carter’s portrait of O’Brien is certainly the more affectionate one, and one of the book’s considerable strengths is the clarity with which it examines the work ethic, ambition, and complicated psychology of the literal red-headed stepchild of NBC’s late night—his life-long outsider status, his love/hate relationship with authority figures, his difficult development as a performer.

If the book has a narrative flaw, it’s that it lacks the kick of a clear villain like Leno’s manager Helen Kushnick in The Late Shift. Even the least likable network suits in The War for Late Night—squirrely NBC president Jeff Zucker, blowhard exec Dick Ebersol, smug climber Jeff Gaspin—come across more as clueless than nefarious, first miscalculating the danger of the five-year hand-off process designed to keep both men in-house and happy, then the damage of the Leno hour and the PR nightmare of abandoning O’Brien and his young demographic.

In his writing, however, Carter never loses sight of the story’s drama. He employs an inventive, non-linear chronology, starting in the middle of the story, then going back further and playing catch-up, pausing for biographical sidebars and contextual anecdotes. Carter turns the story of overpaid comedians and timid network executives into a compulsively readable, masterfully controlled page-turner, in part by painting these familiar entertainers as real (and really complicated) individuals, in part though the sheer force and finesse of his writing. Carter hustles from scene to scene and composes short, punchy paragraphs, pacing the book like a spy thriller; his description of Conan and his team leaking a press release plays like something out of le Carré:

     “Let’s all be aware of this—we’re about to blow this fucker up,” Ross said, full of portent. “This is going to blow this fucking thing up.”
     There was only one reaction that mattered, only one pair of eyes for Ross to check out. Conan stood outlined by the doorway of the conference room, his swoop of copper hair almost touching the frame.        He looked directly at Ross, unblinking.
    “Blow it up,” he said.

When Carter gets on a roll like that, The War for Late Night is a joy to read. But its pleasures are mostly confined to the page, to the moment; he dutifully tells the story, but doesn’t dwell much on what this story meant, and doesn’t particularly encourage the reader to drift off in that direction either. The closest he comes is late in the book, as the “I’m With Coco” movement is in full force. “Beneath his feet, Conan sensed the ground moving, shifting finally from a baby-boo-centric culture to one controlled by Gens X and Y,” Carter writes. “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.”

That moment of critical evaluation is over as it has barely begun. But in that flash, we glimpse the book that The War for Late Night could have been—not just a well-paced and voyeuristic look behind the scenes at a slow-motion entertainment train wreck, but also an examination of what that disaster said about the current (and frantic) state of the entertainment business, about the readjustment, at this very moment, of the popular culture metrics, a kind of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls for modern network television. The War for Late Night may fall slightly short of its potential, but what it does, it does with skill, wit, and panache.

"The War for Late Night" is available now.

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