RSS
Conan vs. Leno: Behind the scenes
Leno was anxiously hopeful. Conan was furious. An inside look at how the Late Night Wars unfolded, according to Vanity Fair's Bill Carter
Both late night hosts suffered ratings issues, with Leno "floundering" at the 10 p.m. spot and O'Brien often finishing almost a million viewers behind Letterman on CBS.
Both late night hosts suffered ratings issues, with Leno "floundering" at the 10 p.m. spot and O'Brien often finishing almost a million viewers behind Letterman on CBS.
Getty
T

he bitter war of words between Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno played out publicly in January of this year, as each host made ever more pointed jabs at the other. But behind the scenes, reports Bill Carter in Vanity Fair, a drama of a different order was playing out as NBC attempted to persuade both Leno and O'Brien to form part of a revamped late night line-up. Conan, far from his online persona as a mischievous prankster, negotiated in a "calm [and] totally professional" manner, but inside he was boiling with anger at how he was being treated. Leno, on the other hand, "outwardly affable but emotionally opaque," saw NBC's decision merely as a practical solution to a ratings issue. Here's what happened at the meeting where NBC's entertainment chief Jeff Gaspin broke the news to O'Brien that the network planned to bump The Tonight Show back a half hour:

"It's not perfect," Gaspin said. "I'm offering you both half of what you want." He added, "This has been an unfair situation for both of you."

But Conan was seeing no equivalency on the fairness meter. Leno had hosted The Tonight Show for 17 years. He had handed it over and immediately shifted to 10 o'clock, voluntarily. How, Conan asked himself, could any of this be construed as unfair to Jay?

"I know how hard I worked for this," Conan told the NBC executives. "It was promised to me. I had a sh***y lead-in." His tone was soft, but the words were clipped. Graboff knew this was Conan in the raw, speaking from the heart...

Conan listened to Gaspin, still with a faraway look in his eye. Finally he did have something he really wanted to say, something that was all but burning a hole in his chest. "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?"

Neither of the NBC executives had an answer and cast their heads down. Conan thought they were working at looking sympathetic, following some lesson that had been taught at corporate school.

Read the entire article at Vanity Fair, as excerpted from Carter's new book,"The War for Late Night"

EDITORS' PICKS

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week