Monday, November 29, 2010


I've always been fascinated by the craft of stand up comedians and late night talk show hosts and the whole Tonight Show debacle from earlier this year had my attention the entire time. It was just one great thing after another. Bill Carter, a journalist for the New York Times, wrote an excellent book on the whole situation and I tore through it in a matter of a few days.

I've never liked Jay Leno and after reading The War For Late Night, I'm Dying Up Here (about the early LA days of comedy clubs like The Comedy Store and The Improv) and having started The Late Shift (about Leno and Lettermad battling for Johnny Carson's chair in the early 90s, also written by Carter) I like him even less. Sure, he's a hard worker I guess, but he doesn't really seem like a guy you'd want around. He'd tell the same bad set up, pause, raise your voice for the punchline jokes he makes in his monologues just so people like him. He desperately wants to be liked by everyone, but doesn't want to be friends with anyone. He doesn't want to be a bad guy but doesn't do anything that shows he has any real integrity.

The book doesn't let anyone off lightly and everyone gets their time to shine but it mostly focuses on how Conan got the short end of the stick. Not so much screwed, but just treated unfairly, Conan is the guy that comes across as the one with the most integrity and the biggest heart for the job.

It goes into detail about all the late night players and I like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (who Carter believes will be the future of network late night as soon as he decides he's through playing second fiddle to Stewart, which he shows no signs of doing right now) even more and have newfound respect for Jimmy Kimmel and Craig Ferguson.

I did lose a little respect for Letterman though, unfortunately. Always been a huge fan of his (he and Steve Martin are my two favorite comedians of all time, I think) but it just seems like he's gotten lazy in his old age. Every once in a while he gets fired up about something and he shows the brilliance we know he's capable of and becomes literally untouchable to anyone else in the game, but those moments are few and far between. And the fact that he tapes his friday show on Monday night so that he can fly home to Montana immediately after the Thursday taping left a bad taste in my mouth.

The saddest part about the whole book is that you get the feeling that Conan really wanted to push the boundaries of late night talk shows, but NBC didn't want to let him or didn't think he deserved to try. Not while they had Leno ready to go back to try and bring up the ratings he dragged down with his awful primetime show. Leno came across as apathetic about the whole thing and just wanted to keep doing what he's been doing, which is that he wants to tell jokes on TV every night. He doesn't actually care about anything after that opening monologue, but that's what he wants to do. And Letterman just doesn't want to admit defeat even though he enjoys it less and less as time goes on.

Great book if you're interested in any of these guys or about the situation in general. I'll even loan you my copy if you want.

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