Late Night Wars, Exposed: New Book Reveals Why Conan Lost, How NBC Fawned Over Leno

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Conan O'Brien on the "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny On Television Tour"

Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

Now all it needs is a Ken Burns documentary!

Vanity Fair today just released an exclusive except from Bill Carter’s upcoming book The War For Late Night. There are no landmark surprises — Jay Leno comes off as affably opportunistic, Conan O’Brien as a tragic self-dramatist with a little bit of a martyrdom complex — but it’s a worthwhile look at the procedural negotiations that led to last winter’s messy divorce. The five best revelations:

1. The man with the best contract won

An oversight by Conan’s lawyers in their negotiations with NBC was the hidden germ of the scheduling conflict. As Carter tells it, when David Letterman was negotiating his move to CBS, he made the network give him a contractual guarantee that his show would air immediately after CBS’ late local news. Jay Leno’s Tonight Show deal had similar language. During a dinner with Conan O’Brien’s producer and manager in December 2009, Letterman’s producer Robert Morton happened to mention the clause:

“You guys got that for Conan, too, I’m sure,” Morty said.

Crucially, they had not, leading to NBC’s infamous attempt to shift Conan’s Tonight Show back to 12:05 to make room for Jay Leno at 11:35.

2. Leno for a second there thought he was fired

Leno knew his 10 p.m. show was underperforming and that NBC affiliates were threatening to revolt over the issue. When Jeff Gaspin, head of NBC’s entertainment division, visited Leno’s studio, it was clear there was a problem. Gaspin told Leno the network was aborting the failed Jay-Leno-in-prime-time experiment, news that Jay met with a glum “OK.” Then Gaspin told him the good part: Jay would be going back to 11:35.

Jay’s relief, Gaspin noticed, was instantaneous. His face lifted and brightened. “Yeah, let’s do it!” he said, the pitch of his voice almost as high as his performance level.

Leno’s people were initially suspicious of NBC, especially after the network explained its full scheduling plan. Jay doubted Conan would go along with it; Gaspin told him they were 75% sure Conan would. After being assured that nothing would change with the production of a half-as-long Jay Leno Show, that no one on the crew would get fired, Jay assented to NBC’s plan.

(This section, incidentally, reflects quite well on Jay Leno. He’s always painted himself as essentially passive in the whole story, and Carter’s account appears to verify this. Jay is much more acted-upon than active.)

More on The Top 10 Moments of the Late-Night War

3. Conan first launched his zingers at NBC in private…

Conan spent much of December with premonitions of having The Tonight Show taken from him. When he was informed of the proposed schedule, he initially remained calm, even as he chafed as NBC executives explained how painful the decision had been for them, how it had been a “Sophie’s choice.” Finally, he laid his case for keeping his show in the same time slot to the executives. When they apologized, saying that they felt they were letting both Jay and Conan down, the redhead let it out:

“What does Jay have on you?” Conan asked, his voice still low, his tone still even. “What does this guy have on you people? What the hell is it about Jay?”

4. …But the jokes in public were the ones that finally convinced NBC that Conan wouldn’t go along

Even after Conan’s “People of Earth” statement, NBC quietly hoped he would reconsider his options and decide to accept the network’s plan. That changed during Conan’s monologue on January 13, when the host joked, “I just want to say to the kids out there watching: You can do anything you want in life. Unless Jay Leno wants to do it too.”

The joke displeased Jay (who, still seeing the move as a favor to Conan, wondered why he would have to cut his show in half for someone who mocked him in public) and NBC executives. It was the beginning of the end:

Gaspin asked himself: How could these guys work back-to-back if Conan hates Jay? There was no longer any question about resolving this in a fashion that might keep Conan at NBC, as far as Gaspin was concerned. It had come down to how the matter would be settled, and Conan would go on his way.

5. Leno’s people thought Conan handled the situation with regrettable naïveté

Leno and his team could not understand the self-righteousness that led Conan to walk away from The Tonight Show. To them, Conan was ignoring the fact that, by failing to bring in ratings, he had failed

When Jay was a kid he’d dreamed of hosting The Tonight Show, too. But when he was an adult it became his employment … one that required bringing in winning ratings. On Jay’s side of the late-night divide, pretending that ratings didn’t matter so much qualified as a form of arrogance, of a kind to which he and [his people] could just not subscribe because, as they saw it, they were too busy doing shows.

It’s a great account of the fiercest pop-culture war of our time, one that you really should take time out to delve into sometime today. Go to Vanity Fair to read the whole thing.