16) The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy by Bill Carter
One of the very first entertainment news stories I ever remember giving my active and full attention was the battle between Jay Leno, perennial guest host for the Tonight Show, and Dave Letterman, host of Late Night, for Johnny Carson's spot as the host of NBC's long running talk show. My mom was a huge Dave Letterman fan, often recording it and watching his show the next day. His comic sensibility helped to shape my own because if that type of humor could make my mom laugh, then that's the kind of humor for me. When Jay Leno won out over Letterman for the Tonight Show gig, I was stunned because Letterman was just so much funnier than the Doritos guy. I always thought it made more sense for Leno to take over Late Night and Letterman to get the bump up to Carson's job, but then again, I was 12. This book covers the latest transition, the attempt and failure to avoid the ugliness of the Letterman/Leno fiasco, and NBC's fascination with wanting to have its cake and eat it, too.
The first I heard about this book was in a published excerpt on the Vanity Fair website, thinking it was a joke that the same guy who wrote The Late Shift, about the first Tonight Show fracas between Leno and Letterman, had already written one about the events from last January. It seemed far too soon. And perhaps it was, but that doesn't make it any less interesting a read. Carter tells the story of Conan O'Brien's tumultuous ride at NBC, from whipping boy to golden child to blindly loyal patsy and finally to cult hero.
Meanwhile, Carter paints Jay Leno as an enigma. He's the most fascinating character in the book because he's the one with most subtle of neuroses compared to the other comics, broadcasters and performers portrayed. As a guy firmly in the Team Coco camp, I can't say I walked away thinking that Leno is the working stiff put in a tough spot he portrays himself as to the public, but I also no longer think of him as the Machiavellian manipulator that Conan's "side" believes him to be either. If anything, I feel sorry for Leno because there seems to be an aspect of the human condition that is completely lost on him. There's a passage where Jay says, "I understand how people spend money to buy things they need or they like. But spending money on an experience? That seems like an extravagance to me." That blew my mind. For one, Carter goes on to explain that Leno makes his living providing just such an experience. More importantly, it's just about one of the saddest thing I've ever read. The entirety of living is for experience. Experience, and remembering it and learning from it, is what makes people human and separates us from the animals. Things are nice. I love things. I like to own things and take good care of the things I own. But an experience is worth so much more.
Carter attempts to remain impartial and largely does so. It's very much a story of the differences between generations and how DVRs will eventually be the death of traditional late night television.
So...read it because it is good.