“The War for Late Night” Quotes

I recently finished reading The War for Late Night by Bill Carter. Here’s the quotes I found most interesting. Instead of my usual page numbers, they’re marked “KL” for Kindle Location.

“After a while you don’t bomb anymore. You do better than you might have done, or you do a little worse. But you don’t go out there and just bomb.” (KL 239-240).

“He got laughs—genuine, honest laughs. The sound wafted up from the audience and enveloped him, embraced him, cocoonlike—or maybe like the ring of smoke in an opium den. O’Brien had never used drugs and never would. But this? This was the same thing; this was cocaine.” (KL 1064-1066).

“Conan spent his free time fighting off anxiety and frustration—and depression. He had always been prone to falling into an occasional slough of despond, sometimes even when things were going relatively well.” (KL 1253-1255).

“That day Conan proved he had some mettle. When he entered the building, he stepped into an elevator and was immediately confronted by a reporter from the New York Post, who taunted, “I counted how many laughs Letterman got in his press conference leaving the show and I’m gonna count how many you get!” Far from throwing Conan, the encounter relaxed him. It was when things were calm that he leaned toward depression or panic. When his back was against the wall, he seemed to do things he didn’t know he could do.” (KL 1441-1444).

“The knock was that he didn’t delegate well, mainly because he always seemed certain he could do the job as well or better himself. “Sometimes it’s a curse to be too smart and think you can do too much,” said an NBC executive who worked closely with Zucker for a time.” (KL 1697-1699)

“Earning just enough to live on so that he could show up every night at the Comedy Cellar and go on as the last act. Every weeknight, somewhere near two a.m., Jon Stewart performed before the drunk and the lonely of the New York metropolitan area. “I sucked for two straight years,” Jon would later tell aspiring comics, partly as advice and partly as storm warning.” (KL 1884-1887)

“Leno seared that advice into his psyche. If he wasn’t as gifted as other kids—later, other comics—he would hit them where they might be weak: their work ethic.” (KL 1954-1955).

“He was living by what he called “the first rule of show business: Don’t create anything bigger than your act.” Jay interpreted the rule to mean that, if you found yourself consumed by something bigger than what you are known for, your downfall was assured. If something distracting or dispiriting was going on in his life, his duty was to shrug it off, get back in the game of telling jokes, and be funny, day in, day out.” (KL 2036-2039).

“As Zucker had often said before, “It’s sometimes easier to see the world when you’re flat on your back.” (KL 2909-2910).

“Michaels still believed that what worked on late-night talk shows was a host people could identify with and like. “The more time you fill on television, the more and more of you comes out,” Michaels said. “These jobs define overexposure.”  (KL 3093-3095).

“Every night the show, for good or for bad, defined who he was. The act of stepping out nearly daily onto a stage and standing in front of people, millions of people, and soliciting laughs almost defined the term narcissism. Every performer would have needed an outsize ego to get through that crucible every night. Clearly the two giants of this late-night era had that in common, but they reacted to it in totally opposite ways. Jay Leno told friends and colleagues he had the easiest job in the world. One friend remembered hearing Jay say that and replying, “Jay, I know you’re at ease with what you do. But you really think you have the easiest job in the world? Every night getting a report card? Nobody else’s job gives them a grade every time they finish up their work. No, Jay, really this is the opposite of the easiest job.” The same friend also knew Dave well. The significant difference between them, the friend said, was that “with Jay nothing is ever wrong and with Dave nothing is ever right.” Jay’s narcissism took the form of an overarching single-mindedness about his career and the material that fed it. To some close observers of Jay over the years, the Tonight Show star didn’t seem to be living life so much as he seemed to be living comedy material.” (KL 4013-4022).

“I think Conan chooses not to have a point of view, unlike Jay, who doesn’t really have the mentality to have one.” (KL 4189-4190).

“Conan thought they were working at looking sympathetic, following some lesson that had been taught at corporate school.” (Kindle Location 5364).

“Early on, Conan had said, “I don’t care what happens in my career as long as it’s interesting.” (Kindle Location 6351).

“Here’s big point number two in show business: Hang around! Just stay there, just be there! The old cliché: 95 percent is just showing up. OK, I’m on at twelve; I’m still showing up. You never leave!” (KL 7012-7013).

“Conan was trying to be both outrageous and mainstream. “You can’t be both things. He didn’t have enough time. He was three-quarters of the way there.” (KL 7045-7046).

Lorne walked into Segelstein’s office, sat down, and laid out all the reasons he had decided to resign. And Segelstein, who had a sardonic streak, listened patiently, not uttering a word until Michaels had finished. Then he launched into a story, a parable of sorts, one that touched on the religion of television. “Let me just take you through what will happen when you leave,” Segelstein began. “When you leave, the show will get worse. But not all of a sudden—gradually. And it will take the audience a while to figure that out. Maybe two, maybe three years. And when it gets to be, you know, awful, and the audience has abandoned it, then we will cancel it. And the show will be gone, but we will still be here, because we’re the network and we are eternal. If you read your contract closely, it says that the show is to be ninety minutes in length. It is to cost X. That’s the budget. Nowhere in that do we ever say that it has to be good. And if you are so robotic and driven that you feel the pressure to push yourself in that way to make it good, don’t come to us and say you’ve been treated unfairly, because you’re trying hard to make it good and we’re getting in your way. Because at no point did we ask for it to be good. That you’re neurotic is a bonus to us. Our job is to lie, cheat, and steal—and your job is to do the show.” (KL 7136-7145).

If you find these quotes interesting, please buy the whole book here.

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