In 1992, Johnny Carson retired from hosting The Tonight Show. American audiences were both heartbroken to say goodbye to Johnny Carson, and intrigued by the drama that seemed to be brewing behind the scenes at NBC. There could only be one “King of Late Night,” and both Jay Leno and David Letterman were ready for the crown.
It’s no secret that Jay Leno wound up winning the battle for Carson’s gig, but the story of just how that happened is incredibly compelling. Bill Carter, then a media reporter for the New York Times, interviewed key players within the transition and wrote The Late Shift, a “vivid, behind-the-scenes, blow-by-blow account” of the surprisingly scrappy fight between Leno and Letterman (Chicago Tribune).
The gripping nonfiction book became a bestseller, and more than 25 years later, American audiences are still fascinated by stories of how late night television is made.
On May 2, CNN is launching a six-part docuseries called The Story of Late Night. Produced by Bill Carter, among other experts in the industry, the series will take a deep dive into the 60-year history of late night tv, its wildest moments, and how it’s evolved over the decades.
Bill Carter is also hosting a companion podcast called Behind the Desk: Story of Late Night, with the first two episodes releasing on Thursday, April 22nd.
Below, read an interview with Bill Carter about his writing, our fascination with late night television, and whether or not we’ll ever have another Johnny Carson.
Why do you think people are so fascinated by the behind-the-scenes drama that goes into making late night television?
It surprised me a bit that so many people were fascinated by the behind-the-scenes machinations of late night TV until I got down deep into it and realized the special nature of this genre of entertainment: It has an intimacy and personal connection few other forms of art can claim. It involves developing a relationship with a "host," and everyone knows that repeated visits to a host's place deepens a relationship. The meetings also take place very late in someone's day, often right before they go to sleep. And in not a few instances, when the viewer is already in bed. And you can spend a LOT of time each week with the host you are drawn to, as much as five hours a week, all in that intimate setting.
The host also is playing himself-herself, not some character, and they often reveal aspects of their personal lives during the shows, which enhances the "relationship" and stokes the fascination. A psychological closeness is probably inevitable.
Were you surprised by how much media attention was given to the controversy over who would replace Johnny Carson?
When I was covering the day-to-day developments of the competition to replace Johnny Carson for the NYT, it was clear the story was about as big as anything I had encountered on the television industry beat. The coverage was so intense that when I was considering writing a book about it, some people suggested it was a foolish idea, because every single aspect of what had gone on with Carson leaving and Letterman and Leno jousting for the job has already been exhaustively covered. But my own work had brought me in contact with many of the participants and several of them told me there was oh so much more to be uncovered. And by then I knew there was a real hunger for an even deeper dive into the story.
The Late Shift was first adapted into an HBO film in 1996, and there has since been (mostly joking) talk about adapting The War for Late Night (covering the shift from Jay Leno to Conan O'Brien and back again) as well. Do you think The Story of Late Night will spark more serious interest in making that sequel?
Right after the publication of my second book on the late-night saga, The War for Late Night, I did have some brief discussions with HBO about making a second movie after their production of The Late Shift. I was all for it, of course, and in some ways I felt like the drama might be even heightened. One of the reasons the HBO executive I spoke to said he was reluctant was because casting real people was not something HBO found easy or liked to do.
I admit this surprised me because it seemed like that was a SPECIALTY of HBO. Everyone from Sarah Palin, to Clarence Thomas, to Liberace and dozens more real people have appeared in HBO movies. I happened to mention that the notion there might be a second film had generated some fun speculation in the media about who might play Conan O'Brien, for example. And Conan himself had some fun with it on the air, suggesting at one point that Tilda Swinton would be the perfect casting. (He showed a photo of her where she DID look a lot like him.) The remarkable thing was Tilda saw this and said she would LOVE to play the part in a movie. I mentioned this to the HBO guy, and he seemed to think it was a joke. I thought it would have made for a really exciting kick to such a movie. That didn't come to pass, of course. But it STILL seems like a great idea to me!
Do you think the rise of streaming services makes it unlikely that we’ll ever have another television host as beloved as Johnny Carson?
Streaming is changing what we formerly knew as television in so many ways that no icon of TV's past, from Lucy, to Seinfeld, to Tony Soprano and certainly to Johnny Carson seems remotely repeatable. But Carson already was beyond duplication, though Letterman definitely gave it a shot, and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have carved out unique careers, as have other current hosts like Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon and James Corden (all the guys named James.)
But the era of mass, contemporaneous viewing of anything on TV other than sports and news, is gone forever I believe. That doesn't mean late night shows are: People clearly are watching them in far different ways now, but the fact that a show is on four or five nights a week at bedtime that might make you laugh—or think about—what's going on in America on a daily basis, remains appealing enough that I do believe we'll still see what we recognize as late-night shows for some time to come.
What book do you think the world should be reading right now?
I am tempted to say that people should definitely be reading the works of the Young Adult author Caela Carter (her next, coming in October, is Fifty-Four Things Wrong with Gwendolyn Rogers) but there's clearly some paternal bias there. My other idea is "The Hill We Climb," by the amazing young poet, Amanda Gorman.
Featured image courtesy of CNN.