Bid Farewell to Jay Leno by Revisiting The War for Late Night (and 5 More Juicy TV Tell-Alls)

Bill Carter's The War For Late Night

Tonight is a momentous occasion in the annals of late night TV history: after 22 years, Jay Leno is stepping down as the host of The Tonight Show. Again. For serious this time. Probably.

Of course, that’s what we all thought five years ago—the last time Leno retired, making way for Conan O’Brien to take the reins of TV’s most long-lived after-hours institution. Things didn’t exactly go as planned, as I’m sure you remember. Leno was shocked when his planned exit was announced years in advance, and bitter at being forced off the air against his will while on top in the ratings. Conan’s brand of humor didn’t translate as well to the earlier hour as expected, and a plan to placate Leno (and shore up NBC’s flagging lineup) by giving him an hour a night in primetime was a disaster. Conan was canned, Leno was reinstated, and NBC lost face (if not ratings—Leno proved to be as popular as ever upon his return).

It’s all chronicled in The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy, New York Times reporter Bill Carter’s investigation into how making audiences laugh became such serious business. It might seem like old news at this point, but it’s still a fascinating piece of journalism—and it’s hard not to see the parallels to 2014. After all, Leno is still number one in his time slot, and there’s no telling whether audiences will want to watch Jimmy Fallon at 11:35.

Is there another insider account in the offing? You never know. And if Carter’s book has whetted your appetite for insider gossip, there’s plenty more where that came from. Below, 5 more TV industry tell-alls loaded with juicy behind-the-scenes gossip:

Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must-See TV, by Warren Littlefield
In an era when NBC has been defeated in the ratings by The CW, and only keeps its low-rated, critically acclaimed comedies on the air because the stuff they keep trying to replace them with is invariably even lower rated (and terrible), it’s tough to remember that just a few short decades ago, the network could seemingly do no wrong. ER. Cheers. Friends. Seinfeld. Those 12 shows that aired in between Friends and Seinfeld. Former NBC President Warren Littlefield takes us through the development of the most successful string of shows in network television history—and the failure to figure out what to put on the air next.

Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, by Tom Shales & James Andrew Miller
Grumpy comedy fans have been writing Saturday Night Live’s obituary for the past 38 years (the show turns 40 in 2015): invariably, the current cast is terrible, and whoever was on it a few years back was way better. The mystery of how today’s travesty becomes tomorrow’s nostalgic favorite is sadly too nebulous for Shales and Miller’s oral history of the show. You’ll have to content yourself with plenty of catty commentary from embittered former cast members like Chevy Chase and Janeane Garofalo. Essential reading for anyone who knows the bittersweet regret of staying up until 1 a.m. every week hoping for magic.

I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, by Craig Marks & Rob Tannenbaum
Kids today might be confused to learn that the “M” in MTV used to stand for “music.” You’ll be hard-pressed to find much of it on the network these days, which is probably why they officially rebranded themselves in 2010 (the M now stands for…nothing). This exhaustive, fascinating oral history of the network’s founding and flourishing will take you back to a time when you had to stay up late in the vain hope you’d catch the latest video from your favorite band, instead of falling asleep in front of YouTube.

The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News—and Divided a Country, by Gabriel Sherman
Love ’em or not, you’ve got to hand it to Fox News: they completely changed the cable news landscape en route to becoming my dad’s preferred source for information guaranteed to start fights during holiday get-togethers. This new book places the credit (or blame?) on the shoulders of one man, former CNBC President Roger Ailes, who was lured away by Rupert Murdoch in 1996 and given free rein to create an entirely different kind of news network. It’s an intriguing look both at the man (who previously worked on Republican presidential campaigns and as a Broadway producer, yes, you read that right) and what he created.

Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV, by Brian Stetler
To hear New York Times journalist Brian Stetler tell it, the glossy smiles of those TV morning show hosts can’t be trusted. From the brutal battle for ratings between Good Morning America and The Today Show to the controversy over Ann Curry’s exit as cohost of the latter, there’s enough salacious material in his book to fill a Lifetime movie—which is probably why the network is making it into one.

Will you be tuning in for Leno’s last show?

  • Joann Azevedo Moran

    Don’t forget Late Shift, Bill Carter’s other book about Jay Leno and the Tonight Show. I found it to be compelling writing and great behind the scenes information.

Follow BNReads