The Late Shift


When I was on holiday a few weeks ago, I got into the habit of reacting to bad news with an even worse Johnny Carson impression. “The Chinese government is cracking down on Tibetan protesters? That is weird, wild stuff,” I’d say. “The world is coming to an end? Boy, that is weird, wild stuff.” So, it was appropriate that my return home coincided with the arrival of a book I’d placed on hold at the library, Bill Carter’s The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, & the Network Battle for the Night. I might not be an ideal successor to Johnny Carson, but from what I’ve read, that turns out to be a bit of a tall order to fill.

Whenever I read an article that refers to The Late Shift, there usually seems to be a mention of its accounting of how Jay Leno once hid in a closet to eavesdrop on a conference call in which NBC execs discussed his future as host of the Tonight Show, so that part wasn’t particularly revelatory for me. (That didn’t actually make me think any less of Leno. What did that for me was that he couldn’t resist smugly quoting bits of what he’d heard back to NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield to freak him out. It worked, but it also caused president of late-night programming Rick Ludwin to fall under suspicion of being a mole for Leno.) No, for me, the juiciest part was that a proposed NBC late-night highlight show called Sunday Best was scuttled simply because Carson was furious over the airing of a Saturday Night Live spoof of Carson called Carsenio; he subsequently refused to provide clips of the Tonight Show for Sunday Best and persuaded David Letterman not to provide clips of Late Night either, and, without these, Sunday Best was dead in the water.

The funny part of the book, in hindsight, is the way it ends with Letterman killing Leno in the ratings and Carter crowning him the new king of late night. That’s the original ending; there’s a bonus chapter that discusses Letterman’s continued dominance in the ratings and ends, optimistically, with him poised to carry on Carson’s legacy as host of the Academy Awards. Of course, Carter might as well have written And then the Hindenburg took her maiden voyage and ushered in a new era of lighter-than-air travel. You could literally (and I did) pencil in one more sentence after the final paragraph of Carter’s text that would both change everything and say all that needs saying about the subsequent 14 years: Then Dave bombed at the Oscars, and Jay had Hugh Grant on the show after he was caught with a hooker and has beaten Dave in the ratings ever since.

Or maybe not. I’m starting to think there may be more than a sentence’s worth of material for a sequel, if Carter wants to write one. One thing I’d forgotten is that when Leno originally got the Tonight Show, Letterman didn’t just quit in a huff and show up on CBS the next night. Rather, there was actually over a year’s worth of an NBC lineup featuring Leno at 11:30 and a galled Letterman at 12:30, and NBC execs spent much of that year ruminating over whether they ought to can Jay and avoid losing Dave to another network by giving him the Tonight Show after all. The funny thing is that the exact same situation is now playing itself out all over again with Letterman’s Late Night successor, Conan O’Brien.

After a shaky start, Conan did so well in the 12:30 time slot that NBC execs, fearful of losing him just as they lost Letterman, anointed him Leno’s successor as host of the Tonight Show in 2004, with the transition to take place in 2009. The five-year plan was supposed to ease the transition, but now the deadline’s approaching, and Jay doesn’t seem to want to go. And maybe he shouldn’t. One argument in favour of keeping Jay in place is that Conan’s shtick might not work at 11:30, but then, that’s exactly what was said of Letterman, and he made the adjustment masterfully. The better argument is the same one Jay had in 1993, when the network suits first considered replacing him and he was able to point to his good ratings as a reason to keep him on. Now in 2008, he can point to a decade and a half of trouncing his closest competitor in the ratings. One way or another, it looks like NBC has set itself up to lose either Jay or Conan. Keeping Jay now means reneging on the deal with Conan, an insult big enough to practically force him to walk. Just as in The Late Shift, NBC has gotten itself into a lose/lose situation. I wouldn’t be surprised if Carter’s watching this closely and taking notes.

I can see the succession going ahead as planned, with Jay crossing over to ABC, pushing Jimmy Kimmel back to 12:30, and setting up a pretty evenly matched three-way battle between the two old war horses of late night and the rookie taking over the legendary Tonight Show. Someone’s leaving soon anyway, be it Jay or Conan, as NBC is apparently on the verge of confirming the rumours that Jimmy Fallon is taking over as host of Late Night. It makes sense. Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels is executive producer of Late Night, and in fact, before former SNL writer O’Brien talked his way into the job, NBC’s first choice to succeed Letterman was Carsenio himself, Dana Carvey. So it makes sense to go with another popular SNL alumnus. (That is, if you conveniently overlook the five ignominious weeks of The Chevy Chase Show.)

Besides, Fallon needs a job. On the other hand, Horatio Sanz needs one even worse. I dread the idea of Sanz ending up on the couch beside Fallon in the second-banana role, but it’s a virtual dead lock to happen. (Sanz, I knew Andy Richter. I laughed at Andy Richter. I wept at the cancellation of countless sitcoms starring Andy Richter. Sanz, you’re no Andy Richter.) With Fallon and Sanz incessantly giggling at each other, every episode of Late Night would essentially become an insufferable 60-minute “Jarret’s Room” sketch. Look for Seth Myers to be brought in as DJ/bandleader, and then shortly thereafter, the apocalypse.

6 Responses to “The Late Shift”

  1. 1 Ken

    Good to see you return in full-force, Pete! I ‚̧ this blog.

  2. 2 Peter Lynn

    Thanks, Ken!

    Speaking of Conan’s rough start, I’d like to pass along a link to one of my new favorite webcomics: Early Conan.

  3. 3 Matt

    But… that webcomic is awful.

  4. 4 Peter Lynn

    I like it exactly the same way I liked L. Ron Hubbard vs. The Killer Bees.

  5. 5 Matt

    Which was even more awful!

  6. Just dropping in 7 years later to say – damn, you got almost all the names right (if not their precise locations). Late night TV fortunately remains sans Sanz.

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