Monday, August 01, 2011

BOOKS: The War for Late Night by Bill Carter

I'm envious of anybody who can write about both sides of a skirmish and have the sides each think the writer was supporting their side. I think Bill Carter's done that with his latest investigation into the phenomena known as Late Night TV.

Carter's original examination, The Late Shift, detailed how Jay Leno won the coveted spot as successor Johnny Carson over David Letterman. I read SO many excerpts from that book that I thought I had read it, but I hadn't. So, to a certain degree, Carter was a kind of unexplored author for me when I sat down to read The War for Late Night. I am delighted to say that I intend on seeking out Carter's other book, Desperate Networks, and read that. He's that good of a writer.

The War for Late Night also features Leno, this time in 'battle' with Conan O'Brien. I've stated my position on this before, but it pays to repeat it for those disinclined to search through the archives here. I'm a Leno guy. I enjoyed The Bowery Boys and The Three Stooges when I was just a kid. Like all kids, I liked silly slapstick. But I grew up and came to appreciate Carson and Bob Hope, and the talents of joke-tellers, more than prat-fallers. I treasured Carlin and Brenner and the host of comics who made me laugh with words. I'll still laugh at the odd sight-gag. I'm human. But a diet limited to silliness? Ahhh, not so much. And Carter gets O'Brien to admit that that's his schtick. He wanted to bring silliness back.

So, I had an axe to grind through much of the early part of this book, which reads in a lot of ways like PR material for Team Coco. The fact is, that I do come to like O'Brien and his executive producer Jeff Ross. Everybody else, not so much. I do think O'Brien was incredibly naive and the foundation of his anger with Leno does appear to stem from one gigantic, idiotic idea--that Leno was happy and eager to end his run as Tonight Show host and hand it over to him. Everything else O'Brien gets angry about is based on that premise. And only somebody completely clueless could assume Leno accepted being pushed out with equanimity.

For his part, Leno made mistakes. Again. He let other people talk him out of contacting Conan O'Brien during the early stages of last year, when the 10 pm experiment Jeff Gaspin had concocted failed. Spectacularly. Gaspin then had created the idea of a half-hour of Leno jokes leading into an O'Brien fronted Tonight Show, which could have been the equivalent of a game-winning homer in the bottom of the ninth, had O'Brien only embraced the concept. He'd only started doing a longer monologue because that's what Carson and Leno had done before him. Had he thought it through, he might very well have decided to cut back on HIS monologue and then get into the kind of show he was bringing from the East Coast and his old time slot. The mix would have worked, had he let it work.

He certainly can't deny that it would have worked because he never tried. At least he shouldn't from his nightly slot at TBS. You know the one that used to be occupied by George Lopez, until Conan arrived and pushed him back an hour. All voluntary of course (and I can sell you some high-yield Greek bonds if you want. ALL you want to buy). The irony completely escapes Team Coco.

In the end, you see experienced TV legends like Lorne Michaels and Dick Ebersol try to make sense out of the carnage created by Gaspin's short-term plan with the long-term disastrous consequences. And let me say, hurrah for our side.

Most of the late night yakkers get some time in the spotlight in the book. My opinion of them doesn't change except the strengthening of my resolve never to spend a second of my life viewing anything with Jimmy Kimmel in it. I almost gagged at the niceties to Kimmel in the acknowledgement. Kimmel's viciousness during the worst parts of the fight was beneath contempt. He's the kind of slime you wipe off before stepping into mud. 

Leno is NOT the favourite of drunken/tired frat boys and the group of internet voices that have only recently graduated from the same institutions that now houses the next generation of their ilk. So he gets skewered with little push back from fans who don't live on the internet or older guys like me, who like a familiar face with familiar jokes on the way to sleep. I never was quite sure why I preferred Leno to O'Brien beyond that monologue.

Now I know. 

Go ahead and read the book, even if you're a Team Coco member. I'm sure you'll read the book your way too. Carter's THAT good!

No comments: