Conan Should Have Seen It Coming

The lessons of Bill Carter’s The Late Shift.

Please find below a paragraph placing the troubles of TheTonight Show in the context of NBC’s larger woes:

The entire network was reeling: Prime time had hit bottom. Problems sprang up everywhere. The Olympics were looming, and NBC’s grandiose plan to pay for them was a fiasco. “An enormous amount of avoidance techniques were being employed,” a senior NBC executive in Burbank said.

While the links will lead you to articles regarding current affairs, the words themselves constitute a very close paraphrase of a passage found on Page 110 of The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night (1994).

Plus ça change. The book, written by the New York Times’ Bill Carter and later adapted as a frisky HBO movie, is a classic inside-showbiz tale. Detailing how Jay Leno maneuvered his way behind the Tonight desk and how David Letterman scowled off to CBS in 1992, The Late Shift emerges as a thriller about the egos of NBC’s comedic talent and the follies of its executives. (Long story short: NBC president Bob Wright failed to listen to his gut and dismiss Leno.)

Lamentably, the book has fallen out of print, but that is no excuse for the key players in this month’s late-night intrigues not to have absorbed its lessons. Carter’s book cites interviews with Leno, soon-to-be-deposed Conan O’Brien, and executive Jeff Zucker—whose career, it bears repeating, is regarded by every journalist on the TV beat as the most amazing instance of falling up in the history of telecommunications. We must assume that these men know this history, and it’s too much to hope that they’re repeating it as a farce just for entertainment’s sake. In any event, here’s a Top 10 list of fun facts, simple reminders, and sundry things to bear in mind when chattering about this trainwreck during the weeks ahead.

10. In his time, Johnny Carson was “the single biggest money generator in television history,” and Tonight was responsible for as much as 20 percent of NBC’s profits. Today, you could perhaps be responsible for 20 percent of NBC’s profits by selling a few cases of Biggest Loser protein supplement.

9. Carson considered it a “slap in the face” when NBC assented to its affiliates’ plan to push the start of Tonight back from 11:30 to 11:35. (The affiliates used the coverage of the Gulf War as a pretense to elongate local newscasts and thereby earn more ad money.) “If it had happened earlier in his career,” Carter writes, “Carson would have threatened to quit and stopped this encroachment dead in its tracks.” Is it too much to interpret this to mean that Carson would approve of Conan’s refusal to host a Tonight Show beginning at 12:05 a.m.?

8. When NBC trashes Conan as “an astounding failure,” it is doing so based on a yardstick it just pulled out of thin air. When Leno began his tenure on Tonight in May of 1992, there was no competition on CBS. Then, when Letterman launched the Late Show in August of 1993, Tonight became a second-place show—for two years, it would turn out.

7. “Astounding failure” is more like The Pat Sajak Show, which aired on CBS for 15 months in 1989 and 1990, and, after a smashing debut, quickly descended to the point that it could not fill its studio audience.

6. Conan could have benefited from a manager as Machiavellian as Leno’s hard-nosed, story-planting, fantastically abrasive Helen Kushnick, memorably played by Kathy Bates on HBO. “She’s a fuck-you person,” Carter quotes a source.

5. In the early ‘90s, when Leno was the permanent guest host of Tonight and CBS was wooing him, he worried that it would look bad to compete against Carson, that to do so would contradict his “carefully assembled persona of the all-around good guy, straight shooter, and network team player.” Contrast that all-around good guy with the fellow bludgeoned by Jimmy Kimmel on his own show last night to the hearty applause of his own audience.

4. When it seemed possible that Letterman might unseat Leno from Tonight, Leno consciously used monologue jokes about his relationship with NBC as part of a PR campaign, painting himself as a victim. Last week, when he joked, “What does NBC stand for? Never Believe Your Contract,” he was actually stealing 17-year-old material from himself.

3. Here’s a fun quote to taunt Leno with, Meet the Press-style, recycled by Carter from a piece that ran in the Times on Dec. 23, 1992: “Am I crazy? I feel like a guy who has bought a car from somebody, painted it, fixed it up and made it look nice, and then the guy comes back and says he promised to sell it to his brother-in-law.”

2. “Mr. Leno turned to espionage to monitor his status within NBC when, in late 1992, the network considered dumping him in favor of Mr. Letterman. He hid in a closet to eavesdrop on a conference call that would decide his fate.”

1. Conan should have seen it coming. When, 17 years ago, he had all but inked the deal to take over Late Night, the network weasels blew their own deadline to make a past-the-last-minute play for Garry Shandling, the only comedian who’s ever made up fiction stranger than the late-night truth.