The Late Shift by Bill Carter
When New York Times reporter Bill Carter recently broke the story that NBC was planning on gently escorting Tonight Show host Jay Leno out the door for a younger, fresher face, it felt a little like déjà vu. That's because the same decision happened about ten years ago.
Carter's definitely the most qualified person to reveal such information. The news made me seek out his book, The Late Shift. The title is a breakthrough account of the shake-up at NBC after Johnny Carson surprisingly announced his plan to retire within a year. The network famously snubbed their Late Night host, David Letterman by hiring Leno, who had been a successful guest host for the legendary Carson.
No one writes about television personalities in a more analytical and in-depth fashion than Carter. He is able to take icons and humanize them, identifying their flaws and relationships with others.
Letterman and Leno, through Carter's eyes, are fascinating figures. The former presents a confident, bad-boy exterior on his show but is plagued by self-loathing and a seething desire for perfection.
Carter relates an anecdote when actress Teri Garr was a guest on Late Night with David Letterman. When the band was loudly playing the show to a commercial, she leaned over and asked the host how he was doing. Rather than compete with the loud band, Letterman scrawled a note on a piece of paper and pushed it towards her. The note read "I hate myself." When Garr tried to give him some reassuring words, he took the note back, energetically underlined his words, and pushed the note back to her.
Leno tries his best to be the nicest comedian in the business, but that also makes him a complete pushover for his verbally and emotionally abusive manager Helen Kushnick to ruthlessly take the reins of producing The Tonight Show. Her management style was that of a slash-and-burn variety, making many enemies as Leno's first few months hosting progressed. A lot of Kushnick's stink wound up on Leno. For some people, the stink is still there.
The crux of the story is how Letterman tries to get out of his contract to go head-to-head against Leno, starting the late-night wars. Some of the business talk bogs down the narrative, but the writing makes up for that.
Now, all of this is ancient history. Still, my interest was piqued by the confirmation from NBC that, yes, Jimmy Fallon is going to replace Leno and, no, this will not be a re-enactment of the fiasco from 2010, which was covered in Carter's other book, The War for Late Night.
This later title revolves around the ill-informed decision to give Conan O'Brien the Tonight Show while still trying to keep Leno in a contract with an 11:00 pm show. Its more important point covers what it really means to host a late night show in an era where every network has a host, a monologue, and a couch.
There is no undisputed king of late night anymore, but it will still be interesting to see if NBC can make their Fallon situation work out. If it doesn't, we can probably expect a new book from Carter in a couple of years.