Bill Carter's new book, 'The War For Late Night', hits bookshelves next Thursday and Vanity Fair has put up some interesting excerpts from the new book online.
Carter also wrote 'The Late Shift' which chroniclized the controversial Jay Leno/David Letterman fight for The Tonight Show and 'The War For Late Night' follows the events of the Leno/Conan O'Brien fights for The Tonight Show.
Here's the article by Carter from Vanityfair.com:
The Unsocial Network
Plunging ratings. Tense negotiations. A bewildered, increasingly outraged Conan O’Brien and an anxiously pragmatic Jay Leno. In this excerpt from his new book, Bill Carter unfurls the behind-the-scenes story of late night’s explosive 2010 showdown.
Robert Morton had been David Letterman’s producer at both NBC and CBS, from 1982 to 1996. He retained many friends in the late-night world, but none closer than Jeff Ross, Conan O’Brien’s producer. The two men shared the shorthand of warriors who had been in the trenches. Morty, with Letterman, had experienced the tumultuous ride from 12:35 to 11:35. Now, as 2009 was drawing to a close, his good buddy Jeff was in the middle of the same bumpy transition with Conan; naturally, they had much to talk about.
It had been only six months since Conan assumed the host chair at The Tonight Show, the culmination of a five-year wait that began when NBC unexpectedly invoked term limits on Jay Leno in 2004, ordering an end to his long run at Tonight to make room for Conan, then following Jay on Late Night. Jay, still winning in the ratings virtually every week, had chafed with unhappiness as the hourglass dripped his evenings in the host chair away. NBC, fearing the financial consequences of Jay’s likely move to ABC, came up with an alternative at the last minute: relocating Leno into prime time. In an unprecedented move that NBC labeled a new paradigm for the troubled network-television business, it handed over its 10 p.m. hour, five nights a week, to Jay, effectively leapfrogging him ahead of Conan again.
But just three months into The Jay Leno Show, both programs were beset by ratings issues: Jay was floundering so badly at 10, NBC’s affiliates were ready to revolt; Conan, also suffering from the collapse of NBC’s 10 p.m. hour, as well as from the defection of many loyal Leno fans, had drifted steadily downward in the ratings and, to NBC’s great consternation, was often finishing almost a million viewers behind Letterman on CBS.
With these issues just beginning to bubble and stir that holiday season, Morty and Jeff Ross set a date to meet for dinner. Jeff said he would bring along Rick Rosen, who by that point had become more than Conan’s principal agent; he had become Jeff’s intimate friend.
Much of the talk at that meal, as might be expected, centered on The Tonight Show. Jeff expressed just a little sense of uneasiness about relations with the network. He couldn’t quite put a finger on it, but something about the situation felt a bit weird to him.
That tripped a wire for Morty. Back in the days when the Letterman team were haggling with NBC over their exit—the network had given The Tonight Show to Leno over Letterman following Johnny Carson’s retirement—CBS and Dave’s representatives hammered out a contract stating in explicit detail that Dave would be programmed each night directly following the late local news on CBS’s stations. The time-period stipulation remained in Dave’s deals forever, and Morty knew Jay had the same guarantee.
“You guys got that for Conan, too, I’m sure,” Morty said.
He waited while watching Rick and Jeff exchange a little look.
“You didn’t?” Morty asked, holding back his next thought, which was: You’ve got to be kidding me.
Both Rosen and Ross indicated that they knew it could be a risky situation, but they didn’t dwell on it. Neither did Morton. But as he left the dinner that night he made a point to remember the conversation: there might be consequences down the road.
Presenting the Plan
By the time he arrived at his office at Universal on the morning of Monday, January 4, Jeff Gaspin had already made up his mind about what was going to happen. The longtime head of NBC’s hugely successful entertainment cable channels, Gaspin was just five months into his added duties leading the network’s struggling entertainment division. Faced with the threat of massive station defections if Leno’s show continued at 10, Gaspin, after consultation with the NBC Universal C.E.O., Jeff Zucker, had finally settled on an elaborate remodeling plan, one designed to keep both NBC late-night stars in-house: Jay would be offered the chance to return to late night, and his old 11:35 p.m. start time, but only in a shrunken, half-hour format; Conan would hold on to his title and control over the storied late-night franchise The Tonight Show—but not its storied time period. He and the show would slide back to 12:05 a.m.
The moves had contractual rationales. Gaspin believed he could finesse Conan into agreeing because Conan had no legal recourse to refuse to work on a Tonight Show moved 30 minutes later. Leno’s situation had been made more challenging by the contract he had squeezed out of NBC in exchange for his agreement to forsake ABC and instead test prime time. NBC had signed an apparently unprecedented guarantee to “pay and play” Leno—meaning he could sue, or possibly even seek an injuction, if NBC tried to yank him off the air. Winning Jay’s agreement to go back to late night rather than initiate an ugly court fight was the first linchpin in Gaspin’s plan.
Gaspin had his assistant set up the appointment for six-ish, shortly after Jay finished taping his show, on Tuesday, January 5. That evening, with darkness descending, Jeff got in a car with Rebecca Marks, the head of publicity, and they made their way east on the freeway, over to Burbank.
Jay, already in his denims, greeted them in the private digs in his new studio. To close observers, Leno remained as he had always been: work-obsessed, single-minded, outwardly affable but emotionally opaque, driven by the unrelenting daily routine of joke creation, collection, and delivery. He saw the nightly monologue as his self-definition, the unifying principle of his life.
Debbie Vickers, Jay’s producer, drifted in, saying hello a bit tensely to Gaspin and Marks. Gaspin suspected she might know what was coming.
Gaspin initiated a bit of small talk about that night’s show; the conversation was forced, and it was pretty obvious that it was forced. Finally, Rebecca Marks bit the bullet, saying simply, “We have an issue.”
“We have a problem,” Gaspin seconded, stepping up to the task. “Our affiliates are incredibly unhappy with 10 o’clock. They want us to make a change. If we don’t, they’re threatening to pre-empt. We’ve got a real problem here.” Gaspin spoke directly to Leno, and he could read the impact of his words on Jay’s face.
“What do you want to do?” the host asked.
Gaspin, though feeling terrible, didn’t hold back. “We’re going to pull the show,” he said.
Very quietly Leno said, “O.K.”
Debbie Vickers grasped the bottom line: We’ve just been fired.
The room fell silent. At last, Jay spoke up again. “What do you want to do?” he said. “How do you want to handle it?”
“I want you to go back to 11:30,” Gaspin said.
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.
Vickers, in her quiet but forceful way, got herself in between Gaspin’s and Jay’s enthusiasm. She suggested that they hear more.
“It’s not that simple,” Gaspin told Jay. “I only want you to do a half-hour.”
Now Vickers jumped all the way in, clearly thrown by the proposal. What did he mean, a half-hour? What kind of show is it?
Gaspin emphasized that Jay would get to do his long monologue every night—just as always. That was the prime selling point, as Gaspin saw it.
Starting to put it together, Jay brought up the other obvious lingering issue. “What happens with Conan?” he said.
“He goes at 12,” Gaspin said. “Everything just moves back.”
“So I wouldn’t get The Tonight Show?” Jay asked.
“No, Conan would keep Tonight,” Gaspin said. Jay stared at him during an extended silence. “Look, we have a tough situation here,” Gaspin finally said. “NBC is in trouble. If you leave or Conan leaves, it gets worse. We really want both of you. We think both of you are big talents.”
Leno told Gaspin he didn’t want Conan to be hurt, but he was still trying to get his head around what this half-hour-11:35-not-The-Tonight-Show really meant.
“I don’t need an answer tonight,” Gaspin said. “Think about it, and let’s talk more tomorrow.”
Vickers had one final question, something she had to know before she committed even to thinking about switching to a half-hour format: What would happen if they said no? “Would you release us from our contracts?” she asked.
“No,” Gaspin said. “We’re not going to release you.”
The next evening, back in Jay’s post-show enclave, Gaspin presented his rationale again to a suddenly waffling Jay, talking it through, this time adding a little high emotion. Speaking of how difficult it had been to find a solution that would not leave either Jay or Conan behind, Gaspin said, “I’m not trying to make Sophie’s choice. I’m really trying to be fair to both of you.”
Jay and Debbie pressed him on the Conan issue: did Gaspin really think Conan was going to take this?
Gaspin said NBC was about 75 percent sure he would.
“What happens to the staff?” Jay asked. “Do I stay on this lot?”
“Nothing has to change,” Gaspin said.
“Nobody loses a paycheck?” Jay asked. Gaspin guaranteed that would not happen.
“O.K.,” Jay said. “I’m in.”
They stood up and shook hands on it.
Gaspin wasted no time. Feeling a surge of confidence, he called Zucker, who had just arrived in L.A. for a get-acquainted-with-Hollywood tour with a team from NBC Universal’s prospective new owners, Comcast. (The current owner, G.E., was selling a controlling interest.) Gaspin told Zucker he thought this was really going to work.
Jeff Zucker was thrilled.
A Nagging Fear
Conan O’Brien wrapped up what he considered another strong show on the evening of Wednesday, January 6. The overall trend felt right; the shows were getting positive reviews. All the negative attention in the press was centering on Jay, and how his 10 p.m. show was wrecking the network.
And yet, as he gathered his writing and production group for the postmortem, Conan felt out of sorts. Realizing he was coming across as edgy, he dismissed the group early. Gavin Polone stayed around. Conan’s manager had dropped by the show that night. Nothing seemed in the least wrong about the show to Polone, but he knew Conan well enough to recognize the clouds circling above his star’s head.
“What’s wrong?” Polone asked. “That was a really funny show. Things are going great. The show is growing; you’re doing good work every night. The numbers aren’t there yet, but that’s because of Jay.”
Conan’s glum expression was unchanged. “I just have a bad feeling,” he said. “I just think Jay’s going to hurt me in some way.”
“You’re crazy!” Polone said. What could NBC do? Move Jay back?
That was clearly Conan’s fear.
A former president of the Harvard Lampoon, Conan had dreamed of hosting The Tonight Show since he was a boy. Now that dream seemed somehow jeopardized. He finally went home, with a raging headache. He dropped his things and walked into the spacious country kitchen, where he collapsed onto a couch. His wife, Liza, found him stretched out there.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I think maybe they’re going to cancel Jay,” Conan said. “I just think that guy is going to hurt me.”
“I don’t really see how that’s possible,” Liza said reassuringly.
At six a.m. Pacific time, Thursday, Jeff Zucker was already up, in his room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, getting ready for his day leading his prospective new bosses on a grand tour of the Universal lot, when he got a call. His top corporate-communications executive and close friend, Allison Gollust, had received an e-mail that morning from one of Jeff’s own media properties. CNBC wanted a reaction to a story someone there had just seen on an obscure Web site called FTVLive: had The Jay Leno Show been canceled? Gollust reported that she had told CNBC she would look into it. She and Zucker agreed that was all they planned to say for the moment.
A short time later, Conan O’Brien slid behind the wheel of his car in his driveway in Brentwood. The first radio news Conan heard cited reports on the Internet that NBC had canceled Jay Leno’s show. Conan listened intently—not a word about The Tonight Show.
At just about that time, Jeff Ross was arriving at the Tonight offices. The show’s staff was buzzing—the rumors were by now aflame all over the Internet, though NBC had not confirmed anything: Jay was supposedly getting canceled.
“Hopefully that’s true,” Ross said, figuring almost anything NBC came up with would improve the 10 p.m. hour and help Conan. But he wasn’t really sure what to think. The uncertainty was only compounded a few minutes later when he got a message from his assistant. Jeff Gaspin wanted to see Jeff Ross—and Conan—in his office as soon as Conan arrived. This immediately struck Ross as a curious and worrisome request. To him the protocol should have been right out of Show Business 101: the network boss can summon the producer to his office, but he never summons the star. That just isn’t done.
A few minutes later Marc Graboff, the co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and the chief Hollywood dealmaker for the network, walked into Jeff Gaspin’s office in response to a similar request for an immediate meeting. Gaspin explained that the Jay story had broken because of an apparent leak by an affiliate, and it was imperative that they break the news to Conan immediately.
Gaspin then put in another call, this one to New York. It was time to let Lorne Michaels, executive producer of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, know that that program was headed for very late night—a 1:05 a.m. start time. The feedback from Lorne, Jimmy Fallon, and Jimmy’s producer, Mike Shoemaker, was all positive. Shoemaker told him, “We love what we’re doing. Don’t worry about us.”
“I appreciate that, guys,” Gaspin said. “I’m really in a shitstorm out here.”
When Conan O’Brien walked into Jeff Gaspin’s office at a little after 10 a.m., his expression said everything. Marc Graboff saw it and realized at once: Conan knows.
The NBC executives greeted O’Brien and Ross formally and stiffly—there was no call for a bogus show of warmth. Gaspin got right to the point—they faced a crisis with the affiliates. NBC’s biannual Press Tour meeting with reporters was around the corner. Something had to be done. So he had come up with this plan: a half-hour of Jay at 11:35 followed by The Tonight Show. “I don’t want to choose between you,” Gaspin explained. Once again he referred to his refusal to make a “Sophie’s choice” out of the situation.
Conan remained calm, totally professional, which impressed both Gaspin and Graboff. Inside he was churning, but part of him was struck by how surreal, farcical almost, the moment felt: Sophie’s choice?
Still keeping his eyes averted, Conan responded, “I completely understand the difficult position you’re in,” but began to lay out his case. It included the commitment that had been made to him in 2004 that Jay would step down and he would inherit The Tonight Show, as well as a rundown on the money he had forsaken by spurning Fox and ABC. If someone had told you six years ago what he was going to do, and you based all your actions on that promise, and then he turned around and reneged on that promise … He had sacrificed a lot of money. He didn’t want to go to the competition; he wanted to be loyal to NBC.
“I get it,” Gaspin said. “It’s not perfect. 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 shitty lead-in.” His tone was soft, but the words were clipped. Graboff knew this was Conan in the raw, speaking from the heart.
Conan asked if Lorne knew; how about Jimmy Fallon? Gaspin said he had spoken to both of them already. He then urged Conan to give the idea some time, take it in, think about it.
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.
“Now We Know That Jay Knows”
The walk back to the Tonight offices required less than two minutes. In that expanse of time both Conan O’Brien and Jeff Ross realized the same thing: despite the fact that Gaspin had ended the meeting by suggesting they take some time to figure out what they wanted to do, NBC wasn’t asking if this move would be O.K. And it had now become clear that they had been summoned to this hurried meeting because the news was leaking out.
“Fuck,” Ross said. “Well, now we know that Jay knows.”
O’Brien walked into an office in an uproar. A post on the entertainment-gossip site TMZ—“NBC Shakeup; Jay Leno Comes Out on Top”—had basically reversed the rumor: now it was Conan who had been canceled.
Even more than the meeting with Gaspin and Graboff, the TMZ story upset Conan. The day had begun with sharks circling Jay’s rejected show; now they had suddenly turned in Conan’s direction? Who could have fed the Web site this bogus story? Conan didn’t have to guess long to come up with a suspect. He thought about the famous 1993 episode of Jay’s hiding in an NBC closet to listen in on his fate during the struggle with Letterman for The Tonight Show, a move that Jay had been proud of, seeing himself as simply resourceful, but a move that played to some as evidence of the unholy lengths he would go to in order to protect his position.
That night, Conan didn’t perform a show so much as simply get through one. He made no mention of the events of that day. He knew he was only half there, the other half still distracted by the anvil hanging over his head.
Jeff Ross allowed Conan to wind down after he left the stage and then headed up to his office, anticipating the arrival of their guest. Jeff Zucker had asked to come by to talk the decision over with them. Zucker, immensely bright and an extraordinarily talented news producer, who had led the Today show to its greatest ratings heights, had butted heads with the powers of Hollywood in a stint running NBC Entertainment. The network’s recent dismal track record had opened the door to incessant criticism from a corps of enemies. Zucker always dismissed the barbs as meaningless to him, but insiders at the network knew his skin had been thinned by years of flaying in the press. His position now seemed threatened by the looming Comcast takeover. Still, he retained the respect—and even the affection—of many who worked for him, none more so than Jeff Ross, whose relationship with Zucker amounted to a genuine and deep friendship.
Zucker arrived at around seven. Ross signaled the formality of this occasion by sitting behind his desk rather than out in one of the chairs or on the couch across the room. Zucker settled into a chair facing the desk, and after about 15 minutes Conan, having changed out of his suit into his usual uniform of T-shirt and jeans, ambled in slowly, his hands folded, his eyes downcast. His face was so drawn, his expression so stony-blank, that Zucker thought he looked catatonic. Conan sat down all the way at the end of the couch, about as far from Zucker as he could get.
The host didn’t say much, allowing Zucker to lay it all out, repeating the message that NBC did not want to lose him. This wasn’t about driving him away. This was about finding a way to get him to stay. Finally Conan asked again, “What does Jay Leno have on you guys? I just don’t get it.”
To Zucker, the question said more about Conan than it did about NBC. To Zucker, the answer to that question should have been, no more than what Conan O’Brien had on NBC. In an honest evaluation, as Zucker saw it, both late-night stars would have faced the same judgment: their shows had failed.
But Zucker didn’t say that to Conan, instead discussing in greater detail the dilemma NBC faced with the affiliate revolt. He referred to Jay’s unusual pay-and-play contract and the impact it had on NBC’s position.
Conan, who grew only more silent and closed up as the conversation wore on, did not express outrage, though he found himself astonished by Zucker’s almost casual tone. He seemed to be making merely a passing observation about the deal that had driven NBC’s decision-making, even though to Conan that decision was of such monumental importance.
Overall, the talk lasted about a half-hour. Zucker concluded by urging Conan to take his time, think it over, review things with his representatives. Then Conan stood up, tossed off some parting words, and left the room.
Jay Leno phoned Gaspin first thing the next morning, aware that the discussion between Zucker and O’Brien had taken place the previous evening.
Jay asked Gaspin what he thought was going to happen with Conan. Gaspin replied that Conan was truly upset, but there were some indications that an agreement might be possible.
“Should I call him?” Jay asked.
Gaspin, recalling the edge Conan had revealed when discussing Leno in their meeting the day before, and how personal it seemed to be getting, said, “You know what? Don’t call him.”
Conan was not surprised that he had not had any word from Leno. That Friday he said to Ross and his head writer, Mike Sweeney, “I’m not gonna hear from that guy. I’ll probably never hear from him again.”
Friday was at least a better day in one respect: the show got a handle on how to be funny about the situation. “NBC has finally come up with an exciting idea,” Conan pronounced at the top. “They want me to follow Jay Leno.”
While he focused on the show, his team invaded the Tonight conference room to work on his options. Gavin Polone took to calling it the “war room.” From the first moment they had all gotten the news, Polone had taken the hardest line of anyone working for Conan. He was unrelentingly aggressive in pushing to plant attack stories against NBC.
Friday evening, after Conan wrapped his show for the night, he joined his support group in the conference room. As they discussed the situation, Conan found himself trying to see if he could slip that 12:05 suit on. What would it feel like? He figured he had time to let the notion marinate; NBC had assured him nothing was imminent.
As the group was breaking for the night, Rick Rosen asked Jeff Ross if he wanted to grab some dinner, and they drove to the Brentwood Restaurant and Lounge, on South Barrington in Brentwood Village. Just before nine p.m., Rosen’s cell rang. He checked the readout: restricted number. Rick had a loose rule not to answer his cell when he didn’t know who was on the line, but things were so unsettled that he decided he had better pick this one up.
“Hello, Richard,” a voice said. Jeff Zucker often used the formal first name affectionately when he greeted someone. After inquiring how everyone was doing, he asked, “Well, have you seen tomorrow’s New York Times yet? Let me read you something.” He proceeded to share an update on the Conan situation, already available online, which included a reference to overt interest in Conan from the Fox network, expressed by an unnamed executive, as well as an assertion from a representative of Conan’s that the star had not accepted NBC’s plan and was not likely to anytime in the near future.
“Let me explain something to you,” Zucker said. “I want a fucking answer from you. If you think you are going to play me in the press, you’ve got the wrong guy.”
“I haven’t spoken to the Times at all,” Rosen replied, getting a bit heated himself.
“Well, I guess we know who did, don’t we?” Zucker replied, not quite saying the name Gavin Polone. “I want an answer from Conan and I want an answer quickly. You know I have the ability to pay him or play him, and I could ice him for two years.”
“Well, Jeff,” Rosen answered, ignoring the threat, “we’re going to give you an answer when we have thought about it.”
Zucker remained hot. “Just let me tell you something: you are not going to fucking play me.”
Over the weekend, Team Conan gathered at the star’s house to work through their choices, such as they were. Given the high-volume pressure Zucker had sought to impose, Rosen decided they might need a litigator, and he made contact with the best, toughest one he knew, Patty Glaser. While they waited for her to return from a ski trip, no decisions could be made on the next move.
As the news media and the bloggers batted around the fine mess NBC had gotten itself into, much of the commentary sympathized with O’Brien. Jay was being portrayed as the usurper, the guy who didn’t stand by his pledge to hand the late-night chair to Conan, the old act who refused to leave the stage when his time had passed. Worst of all for Leno, he was again being tagged as a Machiavelli who had possibly set up the entire episode: give up The Tonight Show under protest; assail NBC on the air for years for this shoddy treatment; then accept the 10 p.m. move, knowing the pathetic lead-ins it would generate would inevitably undermine Conan and force NBC to dump him. That this would entail the monumental embarrassment for Jay of a public cancellation caused no apparent cognitive dissonance.
Conan’s defenders also included many in the comedy world, who had never embraced Jay because of his workman-like style. Even one voice from the Carson camp weighed in. Jeff Sotzing, Johnny’s nephew, who managed all the Carson business activity after Johnny’s death, called Debbie Vickers and told her he agreed with Conan.
Like most others backing Jay, Vickers questioned the logic in the pro-Conan argument and told Sotzing, “If Conan is doing well and they have to push him back, you go, No, I’m not doing it. But if you’re not doing well, don’t you have to look in the mirror and say, What’s my part in this?”
The vitriol in much of the commentary—most of it directed at Jay—disturbed the NBC executives, who were growing ever more anxious at the lack of communication from the Conan side. To them, this smacked of Team Conan’s trying to get a message out there that was intended not to enhance their own position, or even to challenge NBC on its decision, but purely to trash Jay. Certainly that was Zucker’s view. That Monday he picked up anti-Jay threads that he believed traced right back to Gavin Polone. This would not do.
On Monday night, after he wrapped his show, Conan dragged himself back upstairs to the conference room next to Ross’s office, where his brain trust had reconvened, this time accompanied by the formidable Patty Glaser.
Conan had found himself more and more beaten down as the days passed. He had learned of Zucker’s blast directed at Rick, including the threat to keep Conan from working again. Sure, he knew it was just business, but he was shocked by what was transpiring. He had put in almost 20 years at NBC, devoting himself body and soul to the network and its needs, and now he was being told—in effect—that soon they would be posting his picture on NBC’s properties with orders to give him the bum’s rush if he ever showed his face. He recalled how, when his Late Night finally burst through in the ratings and with the press, and all the heat it generated was pumping cash into the basement at 30 Rock, NBC came and asked him what kind of gift they could give him—probably expecting he’d say a Porsche or a yacht. Instead, he had asked if NBC happened to have a vintage microphone hanging around somewhere. They managed to dig one up, an old-fashioned mike with “RCA” on it, and he had treasured it. Now, suddenly, that was another memento headed for a scrap heap somewhere as this long marriage was threatening to blow to pieces.
It struck Conan that Jay had played it well, in his passive-aggressive way, and wound up winning again. And maybe, in contrast, he himself had simply played it all wrong.
In The Tonight Show conference room Glaser, accompanied by an associate, sat at one end of the big table with a Bluetooth earpiece at her ear. The lawyers, Rosen, Polone, and Ross were discussing the contract dilemma, and how it might all come down to what had been in earlier drafts, and whether they could find something there to at least throw out a charge that NBC was in breach, in order to gain leverage. Conan sat silently listening, slowly getting more and more worked up, until he was all but shaking with emotion.
Finally, Glaser looked across the room to where Conan was sitting and asked him, “What do you want to do?”
His chest muscles were so constricted, Conan wondered briefly if he might be having a heart attack. “What I want to do,” he said, haltingly, his voice rough and raw, “is something that all of you are going to tell me I can’t do.”
He had their full attention now, all eyes pinned to him. “I want to write a statement that says exactly how I feel about it. You guys are going to tell me that I’m giving up all my leverage if I’m supposed to go to another network or something, but I can’t wait. I don’t want to play games here.”
All his life, Conan O’Brien had lived through periods of debilitating self-doubt and insecurity, knowing that when the moment came to stand up for himself, when he was truly pressed against a wall, he would find a way to push all that aside, straighten his long Irish backbone, and be at his best. He described how much the show meant to him, the legacy of Carson, the offers he had passed up to get this chance, and how losing it would be crushing—and unfair. Because they were never really given a chance.
The words came freely; he composed them on the spot. But they flowed, syntax perfect, no hesitation between sentences. His voice grew softer, even more strained with emotion when he got to the core of his message: he could not accept a postponement in a nightly habit Americans had participated in and shared for nearly six decades; he would not be an accomplice to the destruction that this idea of NBC’s might inflict on the greatest franchise in television history. If it truly came to this, if NBC would actually force him to decide whether to give up his dream or play a role in undermining a cultural landmark, then maybe it would be better for him to find someplace else to work, someplace that prized the art of late-night television more than NBC now apparently did.
When Conan finished, his group sat silent. Jeff Ross, his own eyes welling up, looked around and saw no dry eyes on the Conan team. Patty Glaser finally broke the silence. “I like it,” she said. She paused, then said definitively, “Let’s do it.”
Her quick assent was the last thing Conan expected to hear, but it stunned—and disconcerted—Jeff Ross. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he said. “Really? We’re gonna do this?”
“Why not?” Glaser said. “It’s from his heart. It’s what he feels.” She turned back to Conan. “Why don’t you write it, and we’ll look at it.”
That was all Conan needed to hear.
At home, he gushed it out almost all at once to Liza before sitting down at the computer to write. But he struggled. The formality of actually typing the words presented unexpected mental roadblocks, and he kept getting stuck. When he told Liza, she said, “When you talk about it, it’s so clear. So I’ll just sit at the computer and you just walk around and say it.”
He dictated; Liza typed; he re-wrote. He tossed out as the salutation of his letter “People of Earth.” He was a comedy writer, after all. He figured he would change it later, until Liza said she liked it and urged him, “Leave it in.”
When Jeff Ross woke, around 5:30, he found a message on his BlackBerry: “If you’re up, call me.” Conan said he wanted to e-mail his more or less finished version. Ross read it as he walked his black Lab. He had no doubt this was a pretty great piece of work, but he also had no idea what the lawyers would think of it.
The entire Conan group, now nine strong, counting Glaser and her several associates, gathered in The Tonight Show conference room again that morning, ready to consider the message Conan wanted to deliver to the people of the planet. The sleepless Conan got in early as well and settled into his chair at the end of the table. Ross had printouts of the statement in hand for Glaser and her group to read as soon as they sat down.
One of Glaser’s associates started reading and immediately set to lawyering up the language, making suggestions out loud.
“Leave it alone,” Glaser commanded. “It’s perfect. It’s him.” It laid out Conan’s point of view unequivocally, but without compromising his legal options. Nothing in there overtly said he was quitting, so he could not be accused of forsaking his contractual obligations.
The noon hour approached. Each person around the conference table gave the statement one last read, checking for potential land mines. “O.K.,” Glaser said. “Let’s send it out.”
Conan and Jeff Ross had similar thoughts race through their minds at that moment: Conan was about to step off the roof of a building, not at all sure he’d find a net to land in. The stories that Fox would welcome him were all noise at this point; nothing like a serious approach had come from Fox’s direction. Did any other realistic options even exist? Ones that wouldn’t look as if Conan were going from late-night star to hired clown making balloon animals at birthday parties? They were about to tell the world their employers had their heads up their asses. How many stars had disappeared without a trace after grandstanding, breast-beating moves like this?
“O.K.,” Conan finally said, “you guys do what you need to do. I just need to go into my office.” He stood up and made for the door, intending to say not one more word about it—just let it happen.
For Ross, the room all but spun. He was light-headed; he couldn’t remember the last time he had felt this nauseated. “O.K., everybody, hang on,” he said at the last minute, before a set of fingers pressed the buttons to send out the first press leak of the statement. Ross had to speak out; he wanted one last moment of consideration of just what it was they were about to do. Conan stopped at the door.
“Let’s all be aware of this: we’re about to blow this fucker up,” Ross said, full of portent.
There was only one reaction that mattered. Conan stood outlined by the doorway of the conference room, his swoop of copper hair almost touching the frame. He looked directly at Ross, unblinking.
“Blow it up,” he said.
At noon, as the statement hit the official release time, Rick Rosen called Jeff Zucker. “I just want to let you know Conan’s releasing a statement now, and we believe you are in breach of your contract.”
Zucker interrupted. “What does he want?”
“What he wants is The Tonight Show at 11:30.”
“Well, that’s not fucking going to happen,” Zucker said. “So what does he really want? Money? He wants money.”
The conversation got nowhere.
Wednesday night, a clearly liberated Conan bounced out and hit his monologue spot—free and on fire, again inspired by a huge outpouring of support from his studio audience:
“I’m trying very hard to stay positive here, and I want to tell you something. This is honest. Hosting The Tonight Show has been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for me. And I just want to say to the kids out there watching: you can do anything you want in life. Yeah, yeah—unless Jay Leno wants to do it, too.”
At NBC, the joke represented the point of no return. All throughout the legal wrangling, even after the manifesto, Jeff Gaspin maintained a quiet wish that Conan would examine his options one more time and decide that staying at NBC still made the most sense.
After the joke, that dream vaporized.
Gaspin got a call from Jay about the joke. This one did not strike Jay as funny. He asked Gaspin, Why the fuck am I giving up a half-hour for this guy?
And 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.
After days of frustrating negotiations, Conan O’Brien won his release from NBC. He settled for a little over $32 million. (Another $12 million or so was given to his staff.) It wasn’t much solace for the end of his dream of hosting The Tonight Show. But Conan left with a lot of class, urging his fans, now rabid in their support, not to give in to cynicism.
The talks with Fox did not pan out, largely over station concerns once again. Conan wound up being wooed by the cable channel TBS, which promised to relaunch him in November as its signature star.
Jay made an effort to explain his point of view by sitting down with the national television confessor, Oprah Winfrey. As she often does, Oprah mixed chumminess with some tough interrogation. Jay swore he had done nothing to oust Conan and suggested that anything else NBC could have done would have been better than what had transpired, even if they had simply “shot everybody.”
While it was surely better that Jay Leno had escaped his exile in the Siberian wastes of 10 o’clock, was it really all back to normal for him? Hadn’t Jay been part of NBC’s ritual of human sacrifice? How many pieces of his spirit had the experience carved away?
In his appearance on Oprah, Jay had looked almost shattered—puffy-faced and profoundly sad. Was that the real Jay? Nobody masked emotion better than he; he was so good at it, many people accused him of having none to mask. How much of that flat, emotionless disposition was real and how much was just another part of the persona he presented to the world? Even many of those close to him had trouble sorting out that question. One NBC executive who was truly fond of Jay called him “a strange, strange guy.”
What Jay had to say about the rough ride of 2009–10 sounded at once sincere and somehow calculated, depending on who was doing the listening. He expressed surprise that things had turned so bitter on the Conan side, and remarked that he found it truly sad that it was likely he and Conan would never speak again.
At the same time, when Jay discussed with his staff all the actions and reactions of that chaotic month, the one thing none of them really understood was that whole dream-destroying theme that Conan had expressed so eloquently. When Jay was a kid he’d dreamed of hosting The Tonight Show, too. But when he was an adult it became his employment. Debbie Vickers questioned why Conan persisted in seeing the show as a dream when it was, in fact, a job—and 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 Debbie could just not subscribe because, as they saw it, they were too busy doing shows.
The fact that show-business people, who really should have known better, could possibly conclude that it was somehow incumbent upon him to walk away from The Tonight Show simply stunned Jay. His view remained that the show had been taken from him, which was fair and square. But the wheel had spun and, totally unexpectedly, the show came around again.
No deal in a back room was involved. Circumstances played out; NBC moved him back where he had always wanted to be.
Jay slept well at night.