Before the dust had even settled on NBC’s disastrous late night experiment with Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, New York Times television writer Bill Carter set about writing a book about the saga. That book, “The War For Late Night: When Leno Went Early And Television Went Crazy,” will be released on Nov. 4, and Vanity Fair posted a long excerpt on its website Thursday.
Conan asked NBC executives, “what does Jay have on you?”: NBC Universal Television chairman Jeff Gaspin told both O’Brien and Leno that he did not want to have to make “Sophie’s choice,” but that his plan to move Leno back to 11:35 and push “Tonight” to 12:05 was the best solution. Carter writes that O’Brien found the proposed plan totally unfair:
“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.
…”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?”
NBC told Leno not to call Conan: One of the more famous parts of the Leno/O’Brien saga was the fact that Leno never called O’Brien to talk about the situation — something he was heavily criticized for. Carter writes that it was NBC executives who convinced Leno not to pick up the phone. Jeff Gaspin, he writes, remembered “the edge Conan had revealed when discussing Leno in their meeting the day before,” and told Leno, “You know what? Don’t call him.”
As it turns out, that was a mistake. O’Brien was angry that he didn’t hear from Leno, and told two of his associates, “I’m not gonna hear from that guy. I’ll probably never hear from him again.”
Jeff Zucker thought Conan’s team was leaking to the press: Carter describes a scene where NBC Universal President Zucker placed an angry call to Rick Rosen, O’Brien’s agent. Zucker felt sure that O’Brien’s camp had leaked information to the New York Times, and let Rosen know how he felt about it:
“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.
[Zucker]:”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…Just let me tell you something: you are not going to fucking play me.”
Conan decides to send the statement out: Carter writes that O’Brien’s famous statement rejecting the proposed deal came to him almost fully formed, and that his camp was extremely nervous about sending it out. He describes the moment when O’Brien gave the go-ahead to his producer, Jeff Ross, to leak the statement.
“Let’s all be aware of this: we’re about to blow this fucker up,” Ross told him. O’Brien, Carter writes, “looked directly at Ross, unblinking. ‘Blow it up,’ he said.”