Remember early 2010? That was when the Internet brandished its pitchforks against Jay Leno and rallied in support of the embattled Conan O’Brien, who was being demoted only seven months after taking over The Tonight Show. At the time, it seemed so clear-cut to me: Conan was good and Leno was bad.
Thanks to a really in-depth look at the whole fiasco, I can see a few more nuances. That in-depth look comes courtesy of Bill Carter of the New York Times in his book, The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy.
While all this unfolded, I was pretty angry at NBC for trying to have it both ways, and the book just adds to my feeling that this was their fatal error. If they weren’t prepared to let Jay Leno go to another network, why tell him he was retiring in five years? If they weren’t prepared to let Conan do the same, then why promise him the Tonight Show in five years? By scrambling and trying to put Leno on at 10 (9 Central, which is my time zone of residence), they just hurt them both and never really gave Conan a chance to get out from underneath his predecessor.
Full disclosure: My brother and I grew up watching Conan. My brother liked it first, and in a typical big sister way, I wanted to like what he did, because my brother seemed like The Coolest Person Ever. As I’ve gotten older, my sense of humor has definitely developed to be a lot more like Conan than Jay. As far as the two men are portrayed, Conan comes off as manic but funny, while Jay Leno comes off like a workaholic joke machine, always pumping out jokes, be they funny or not. Leno also hates to be seen as the bad guy, and his team insists he’s not nearly as manipulative as the angry college kids made him out to be. He’s not my cup of tea at all, but I can’t find anything in the book that suggests he’s flat-out evil, either. Sure, he should have either spoken up earlier about how he wasn’t riding off into the sunset or just plain move on, but he’s far from the only one who screwed up in this situation.
One constant point the Leno side brings up is that Conan wasn’t doing well at all in the ratings. That’s true, and it’s hard to know how much was the bad lead-ins vs. not being a good fit. It’s hard not to think that NBC would have given him a little more time to settle in had Leno not still been on the payroll, though.
Another thing Leno did right was play the network game better. He had a pay-and-play clause in his contract, which meant he both had to get paid and had to be on the network a set amount of time. That’s pretty much unheard of in the business. Meanwhile, Team Coco failed to get a time slot guarantee in Conan’s contract, which meant NBC was perfectly within its rights to try to bump The Tonight Show to 12:05 and put Leno at 11:35. This doesn’t come across as a very well-thought out plan, more a last ditch effort to once again not pick a side. Few people in the NBC hierarchy come off well at all here, notably Jeff Zucker, who comes off like a bumbling prick.
The book came out in late 2010, and with the benefit of hindsight, it seems like The Tonight Show may have just been too mainstream for Conan. At his best, Conan is a little edgier and darker and out there, and that’s not going to play well to a lot of audiences. I like humor that makes people feel a little uncomfortable, because life seems a little uncomfortable, but obviously that’s not going to work for everybody.
Also mentioned in the book are other late-night hosts, including Fallon, Letterman and Kimmel. It’s interesting how similar Conan and Letterman seem, with the notable exception that Conan has managed to eliminate the self-loathing enough to have what seems like a functional personal life. Letterman comes off as brusque and kind of a jerk, but also incredibly hard on himself. Conan has those moments, too, but Conan wasn’t the one who matter-of-factly told a studio audience that someone tried to blackmail him with the threat of going public about affairs he’d had with members of the Late Show staff.
This is way too long already, and I haven’t even touched on some of the stuff, like how Team Coco was reluctant to bring Sarah Palin on the show after she publicly called out Letterman. That further upset already anxious executives. Just read the darn book. It’s on Amazon for less than $11, and might be at your local library as well. If you’re a pop culture and entertainment industry nerd like me, I think you’ll love it.