Flipping Through Late Night: Andy Burns on Bill Carter’s The War For Late Night and Conan’s Return To TV

So I’m right in the middle of reading what I think is going to go down as one my favourite non-fiction books of all time – The War For Late Night by New York Times writer Bill Carter. While I’ve never read any of his other books, I know that Carter’s 1994 work The Late Shift, on the battle for The Tonight Show between David Letterman and Jay Leno, is regarded as the bible on that particular era of network television and also spawned an HBO film of the same name. Having followed the latest Tonight Show war from this past winter between Leno and Conan O’Brien, I was extremely eager to read Carter’s take on all of the events.

I suppose it’s a little early to review the book since I’m not even close to finishing it, but it’s just such riveting stuff that I really wanted to let you know about it, since it feels like The War For Late Night is a little under the radar, at least in Canada. For those of curious about the machinations of NBC and the entire debacle that unfolded at the beginning of 2010, and I know there’s a lot of Biff Bam Pop! readers who are, I guarantee that Carter’s book will capture you immediately. There’s so much I didn’t know about either Conan or Leno that comes out within the first few pages. I’m not talking about salacious gossip; far from it. Rather, I’m thinking specifically of their two diverse approaches to comedy and how those approaches not only impacted their success, but how those differences almost set up Conan’s issues with NBC. Without spoiling anything, it’s safe to say that there were legitimate problems with Conan taking over from Leno years before it all came to a head.

But more than just a chronology of the recent past, Bill Carter’s book takes us through the various twists and turns that have been part of the late night landscape ever since NBC passed over David Letterman for Jay Leno as host of The Tonight Show. A lot has happened since 1993. It’s hard to believe that prior to Letterman leaving NBC, they were the only network to have their own late night talk show. Carter manages to cover how that whole battleground shifted and ultimately permanently changed, with the addition of more shows (The Late Late Show, The Daily Show) and more personalities (Jimmy Kimmell, Craig Kilborn, Jon Stewart and Craig Ferguson are the big ones) and how they effect the main players in the story.

While we all know how The War For Late Night ultimately ends, Bill Carter is weaving as compelling a story as any fiction I’ve ever read. Even worse – the author is managing to make this fairly committed Team Coco member feel more than a little sympathetic for Jay Leno. That’s about as amazing a literary achievement as one could achieve.

And since we’re talking about late night, I figure it’s worth briefly chiming in my take on Conan’s new self-titled TBS show, which is pretty much like his Late Night show and far looser than his Tonight Show. While the Queen and I haven’t watched episode since his November 7th debut, what we’ve seen have been pretty enjoyable, if not out and out comedy home runs. While I must admit that I really miss Max Weinberg’s presence on the show, the chemistry between Conan and Andy Richter is as strong as it ever was; the two of them are just comfortable working together and I think that they’re able to inspire one another. This week has seen some hilarious bits too; my favourite is undoubtedly the Conan blimp that’s following whacked out actor Gary Busey all over California the last few nights. It’s that sort of crazy and plain out strange comedy that keeps the kids coming back to Coco.

That and waiting to see how long it will take for Gary Busey to go postal. I give him ’till Friday.

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