Sunday, January 23, 2011

Late Night Leaderboard:
The War for Late Night

Just finished Bill Carter's The War for Late Night, his follow-up to The Late Shift. Both books, you'll recall, cover the behind-the-scenes machinations of late night television during its two biggest seismic shifts of the last few decades: Leno's succession of Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and ... well, Leno's succession of Conan O'Brien on The Tonight Show.

Unlike that first book, though, the events covered in War were reported exhaustively on Web sites, blogs, forums and the shows themselves. It was public, and remarkably so. That left Carter with a difficult task: present the story in a fresh way with insight and perspective not already offered up in real time.

I was disappointed to discover that he didn't really succeed.

There was little in War that I wasn't already aware of -- so little, in fact, that I cannot even toss off an example or two of something new I learned ... and I just finished the book yesterday. Here's why that matters: anyone inclined to read this book was probably inclined to keep up with the drama as it unfolded. They'll be looking for something new (and a biography of Jimmy Kimmel doesn't count).

Still, it was interesting to see what perspective(s) the book would adopt: O'Brien as victim of Leno, Leno as victim of O'Brien, both as victims of NBC, NBC as the victim of circumstance, etc. The answer is: all of the above. That's just a little lazy, I think, because those are the same storylines that unfolded during the daily drama: hasn't our perspective changed just a little since then, since O'Brien's team stopped heavily populating blogs with pro-Conan, anti-Jay storylines? Since O'Brien bumped another guy from his time slot (George Lopez)? Since Fox decided they didn't need a late night talk show that bad? Since the best O'Brien has been able to come up with is TBS ... this from the new king of late night?

Yes, I admit -- the "O'Brien as victim" storyline tired me out back then and I found I had little patience for it in the reading of War. During the initial play of the drama, I think far too many people overlooked the fact that O'Brien wasn't reliably winning his time slot on Late Night (thanks to Craig Ferguson), relied on a left-of-center style of humor that anyone paying attention knew wouldn't fit Tonight (yeah, let's see him roll out the Masturbating Bear at 11:35 pm) and forced out the guy currently in the number one position (meaning that anything he did other than improve those numbers could've been spun as a let-down).

That sounds really anti-Conan, and I'm honestly not. It's just that I never saw him as a mainstream comedian capable as playing as today's Bob Hope, which is how some view Leno.

But because O'Brien had a team of lawyers and PR reps behind him, and Leno had ... well, Leno, the story people are still telling is the O'Brien-as-victim one. I wanted more from Carter and didn't get it.