Late Nights | Essay | Chicago Reader

Late Nights 

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It was once reported of the Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson that "he hath consumed a whole night lying looking at his great toe, about which he hath seen Tartars and Turks, Romans and Carthaginians, fight in his imagination." Alas for my poor imagination: all I see at night in the void around my feet are Jay and Dave engaged in their spectral skirmishing. I don't even have the slightest idea what they're fighting about, any more than I did back at school, when my history teacher kept trying to drum into my head whatever the hell was up with Carthage.

Fortunately we now have available to us in paperback Bill Carter's book The Late Shift: a handy guide to the bungled negotiations and incoherent conspiracies that broke out at the networks after Johnny Carson retired. It admirably fulfills the one primal urge all Americans feel these days: to be a Hollywood insider. It's all very well to be up on Ellen DeGeneres's sex life, but you can get that kind of low-caste gossip out of the Star. Carter provides real dirt: Jay Leno eavesdropping on a meeting of NBC executives and, with careful, split-second timing, placing a call to Entertainment Division Vice President Warren Littlefield while he's in the john. Suetonius would have loved it.

Since The Late Shift is written in full-blown Bob Woodward zero-disclosure mode, everybody involved gets to be Deep Throat. This is exasperating in real history but perfect for showbiz gossip -- especially since all the players in the war between Leno and Letterman had a motive for getting their versions of events on record. There's actually a fair amount of metatextual suspense, as we wait to see which informants will come through with enough dirt to buy themselves flattering treatment. Surprisingly, many NBC executives turn out to be warm and caring guys once you get to know them, while Leno's former agent and producer Helen Kushnick, diplomatically thanked in the acknowledgments for sharing with the author "her opinions on late-night television," is for her trouble painted as a demonic psychopath straight out of the Oresteia.

Kushnick's brief run as executive producer of the Tonight show the most spectacular part of Carter's story, plays like a sitcom version of Blade Runner, in which the network's upper-echelon replicants are hilariously befuddled by human irrationality. From her first day on the job Kushnick makes wildly unreasonable demands of the network and goes ballistic when she's refused. No one attempts to fathom her behavior; it's just one of those human things that replicants weren't programmed to understand. After one particularly apocalyptic tantrum a delegation of NBC executives finally shows up at Jay's house to tell him to get rid of her. They scrounge around desperately for some human construct that would keep them from looking like villains and at the same time prevent Jay from following her out the door. Here's what they hit upon: they tell him they're "staging an intervention" to "break his addiction" to Kushnick. Jay, understandably, has no idea what they're talking about. Instead, he does everything short of sending up smoke signals to convey (without actually saying the words and lousing up his image as a nice guy) that as far as he was concerned, if he still had his own job, he doesn't give a shit what happens to his producer/mentor/number one fan. Now that's comedy: the droids struggling to connect on a human level, any human level, and the human being turning out to be more casually cold-blooded than the droids can comprehend. I can't wait to see how it plays in the movie.

You think I'm joking. HBO has bought the rights to The Late Shift. Kathy Bates will reprise her ax-wielding-lunatic act from Misery as Kushnick, and Betty Thomas, fresh from The Brady Bunch Movie, will direct. Clearly HBO sees it as the perfect successor to Barbarians at the Gate, their jauntily cynical and unfunny true-life docusatire about the RJR Nabisco buyout. And why not, really? Barbarians at the Gate tried to pretend there was something wickedly humorous about bond offerings; so what if the dramatic climax of The Late Shift is Letterman and CBS negotiating about profit participation and affiliate clearances? Add enough high-spirited music, and the audience may get so giddy they won't notice that the inner workings of show business are about as interesting as real estate tax law.

This is not, needless to say, Carter's take on events. Seeing the contest between Leno and Letterman in wildly mythic terms, he goes heavy on the Arthurian reverberations. Carson decides to retire--or, as Carter puts it, "the King was about to abdicate"--and Leno and Letterman, friends of old and warriors together in the showbiz crusade, duel for the throne: "Events inevitably conjured up the royal metaphor." Carter even builds them up as contending symbols of showbiz morality: Letterman as the darkly troubled man of honor counting on Carson's oft-declared blessing to ensure his succession; Leno a self-made, classless upstart in the Goneril mode, who correctly bet that Lear would be powerless the instant he took off the crown.

Carter's Letterman worship has its icky moments, as when Dave, meeting with CBS's executives for the first time, has "questions to ask--smart questions"--and the droids are awed to discover "they were dealing with more than a star; they were dealing with an experienced, knowledgable broadcaster." But for the most part, his epic builds satisfactorily up to Letterman's spectacular, if fleeting, triumph. The CBS show soars up in a star burst of Nielsen glory, and Dave himself is proclaimed, in the book's thunderous last line, "America's talk-show host." The villainous Leno is left lurking in ratings purgatory, gathering his strength for the sequel--resoundingly trounced, but somehow, infuriatingly, not humiliated off the air and back into the crappy comedy clubs where Letterman's people (and Carter as well) plainly believe he belongs.

In the nonlegendary world, of course, this whole battle is a daydream. Leno and Letterman will both be with us as long as their demographics hold up. There's another unromantic factor at work as well: The Late Shift makes it clear that a lot of NBC executives have staked their careers on Leno--even to the point of sabotaging a last-minute deal to give Letterman the Tonight show after all, when it became obvious how unfit their own annointed prince was for the job. If they ever conceded that they'd backed the wrong guy, they'd all be out of work. The truth of the late-night war proves to be nothing more than dreary corporate ass-covering.

I can't blame Carter for preferring a more colorful fairy tale. And surely he's right about one thing: there's something unfathomably creepy about Leno. Reading The Late Shift's unrelenting accumulation of nasty gossip about his limitations as a performer and a human being--or watching that awful show of his--you can't help but wonder what he's doing on the air at all. Ultimately you have to start looking for explanations in the realm of myth: perhaps even the one Carter helpfully supplies in his epilogue, when describes Leno as "risen back up, zombie-like, from the competitive dead."

But to be fair, there's a spookier character in The Late Shift--Carson. His ethereal presence pervades Carter's story as maddeningly as it does the late-night landscape itself. At decisive moments Carson is consulted, like Merlin or the Cumaean Sybil, and his mysterious oracles serve to guide events towards their foredestined ends. NBC's president Robert Wright belatedly and penitently asks whether they should fire Leno and go with Letterman; Carson refuses to say, but adds darkly, "It's going to be a shame if you lose David." (Wright then makes a halfhearted try at a deal, but is undone by his own henchmen). Letterman is torn whether to quit NBC; Carson says, inevitably, "I'm not telling you to do that"--and yet Letterman, more attuned to occult meanings than Wright, receives the message as "Do what your heart tells you," heeds the counsel, and becomes fabulously rich. And when it becomes obvious that Carson disdains Leno, but won't say a word against him publically or privately, you can't help wondering if he's secretly manifesting himself to Leno now and then in midnight visions of dread.

There was always something unearthly about Carson, especially in his later years on the Tonight show. Having long since transcended the need to entertain people, more and more he devoted himself to wholly abstract and metaphysical problems of talk-show form--as though he were only interested each night in executing the most elegant segue into a commercial, or providing the most unobtrusive cue to ease a skittish guest into the next story. In his hands, the Tonight show came to resemble Cosi Fan Tutti or a P.G. Wodehouse novel: a sublimely beautiful version of something that wasn't worth doing in the first place.

That's proven to be a dangerous model to try to imitate. It torments Letterman. The Late Shift confirms what any Late Show viewer could guess, that Letterman is a fanatical perfectionist who worships Carson and despises everything else about show business. The lesson he absorbed all too well from Carson is second-by-second control, something that's increasingly made Letterman's show the most nerve-wracking program on the air. No one is as blisteringly fast as Dave is to cut a dull guest off at the knees or to throw out a prepared piece the instant it falters. The other night, after the opening joke of a long bit bombed, he switched places with the guy holding the cue cards and began scattering the cards across the stage in Jerry Lewis-style bewilderment. He's grown so frenzied, he won't even permit guests simply to walk on and off: it costs him intolerable nanoseconds of dead air. Sandra Bullock had to careen in at the wheel of a bus, and a camera trailed Mary Tyler Moore out the door just so she could be caught chiding Dave's neighbor Gilbert with a cheery "Stop staring at my ass!"

Switching over to Leno sometimes comes as a relief: you know he doesn't give a damn how well his show is going. He will plow through every bit, no matter how feeble, in listless obedience to the script. As Carter tells it, it's just not in Leno's character to challenge anything, no matter how miserable his oppression. He has spent his TV career steadfastly refusing to stand up for himself, either to the monstrous Kushnick or to the hordes of NBC droids who now run his program for him. The most bloodcurdling anecdotes in The Late Shift concern Leno's casual willingness to wreck some of his oldest friendships rather than disagree with Kushnick over some trivial issue where she was blatantly in the wrong. And yet when NBC canned her he obliterated her presence in his life with remorseless, old-style Soviet thoroughness. He even tells Carter proudly that he now has extracted a guarantee from NBC that the Tonight shows Kushnick produced will never be rerun.

The kindest remark made about Leno in the book is that of a Tonight show staffer: "There's no term describing a psychological state that Jay relates to. He's not in touch with his emotions at all." This is obviously why NBC went with him: they thought he was one of them. Even once they recaled that Norman Bates was similarly cheerful and eager to please, they were still convinced that Leno was preferable to the dark and anguished Letterman. But they never bothered to wonder what kind of difficulties Leno's blank-faced blandness would cause him on the air. After years of practice, he's still useless at dealing with human beings. Once he's asked a male guest what car he drives and a female guest about her latest nude scene, he's out of conversation. Only once has this made him the perfect host: when he was interviewing Hugh Grant. A guest who doesn't want to explain himself needs a host who wouldn't get it anyway.

I came across a rerun of an old Bob Hope movie on AMC a few months ago and was stunned to discover that Hope had once been something other than the contemptuously lazy hack I'd grown up watching on Carson. I have a feeling couch potatoes of the future will someday make a similar discovery about Leno: fleeing in horror from his gruesome 30th-anniversary special, they'll come upon one of his early-80s appearances on Late Night. There the two combatants will still be posed: Leno spinning out those brilliantly polished jokes he used to do, and Letterman feeding him straight lines with undisguised delight, trusting his guest to get the laughs. It's a poignant scene, really: like old newsreel images of careless happiness, from the days before the war.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Konstantin Valov.

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