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The Late Shift

Letterman, Leno, & The Network Battle for the Night
by Bill Carter

First, the obligatory mea culpa that absolutely nobody cares about: I did not become functionally illiterate late last summer, but I did fail to diligently record my reading habits here for a good string of months. I'm hoping to kickstart the habit again. I know some folks (used to) read this, but I actually have kept up with this blog largely for my own purposes, and I'm annoyed with myself for having to hang onto the bookmarks and scrap paper where I loyally jotted notes on books I read for half a year and never posted about.

Now, the reason why I had my local library dredge this up from the reserve stacks should be obvious, right? Like a lot of people who didn't actually watch late night TV shows, but enjoy drama and spectacular public screwups, I was totally riveted by the NBC scheduling/Leno vs Conan shitfight last month.* Back when the Leno/Letterman thing played out I didn't follow the events very closely, but still had a very deeply-held opinion on the matter. Letterman all the way. I didn't watch much of late night TV shows back then, either, but I'd seen enough of each man to know who my sympathies lay with. Reading this book didn't change my opinion one bit** but I did find myself reinterpreting the events from a perspective that was totally alien to me back when it actually happened: Office politics. I'm serious!

An oft-repeated bit of "How To Be Great At Your Job" advice is that an unwritten part of every job description is "Make things easier for your boss." There are some people who get that advice and think "Yeah, that's a great idea!" and they go out and do it, just like they join the party-planning committee. There are some people who get that advice and think that it seems like cheating, to say nothing of weirdly sycophantic and gross, and do not even attend committee-planned parties. Person #1, obviously, has a lot in common with Jay Leno. When he was the permanent guest host of the Tonight Show, he did things like visit affiliates to shake hands, suck up, cut ribbons, and tell jokes at local charity car washes. He showed up whenever and wherever he was asked to be by NBC. (It should be noted that he did this stuff largely on the advice of his then-manager, who nearly torpedoed him once he actually got the Tonight Show, but that's a whole 'nother story.) Basically, he busted ass, and a lot of that ass-busting was not in service of being better at his job per se (though he does a lot of that too - performing standup on weekends, never taking vacation - all that "I ONLY SLEEP FOUR HOURS A NIGHT" obnoxiousness) but at stuff that would put his bosses (NBC, the affiliates) on his side. Letterman worked his ass off too, but he worked his ass off at his actual job, and often did things that actively antagonized his bosses. As a fellow Person #2, I feel like I know where Letterman may have been coming from (though I am probably both not as talented as him and I hope not as hostile to my employers). The consensus at the time was that Letterman was better at the job itself: funnier, a more practiced TV host, a "natural broadcaster" as many TV execs quoted in the book put it. But they gave the promotion to Leno anyway, and a big part of why is all that "Make things easier for your boss" stuff. It's not the only reason, but it definitely mattered, and may have been what made the difference.

If we're being honest, I've never had a job where I worked absolutely as hard as I possibly could have. I've worked hard, really hard sometimes, but I'd always rather be not working if there's a choice, and unlike Jay Leno, I do take vacations. Long ones. I don't check my work email while I'm on those vacations either. Say me and my colleague, both equally successful, are up for the Tonight Show hosting gig. I'm successful because I'm just good, and he's successful because he spends like ten hours a night working on his monologue and fine-tuning it based on poll results and demographic info from Nielsen, but the results are identical. (It's a hypothetical. Work with me.) There are people who think it's a 'duh' decision, and that I should get the job. There are also people who think it's a 'duh' decision and that my colleague should get the job. Though I still think Jay Leno is a creep who might be a sociopath and is definitely not that funny, it's true that there's something to be said for the people who work their guts out for you and don't take breaks to watch Lady Gaga videos on YouTube and aren't lying when they say in interviews that their 'flaw' is perfectionism and maybe aren't that talented in the strictest sense, but still get stuff done because they don't stop until it's done, and done well. I'm just never going to be one of them, which is why I'll always be on Team Letterman, except when he's doing it with his female staff because that's actually creepy too.

* Wow, only last month. Does that feel to anyone else like that was forever ago? I did move a couple days after Conan's final show, which may have something to do with the antediluvian feel of it fo rme.
** It did, funnily enough, make me a wee bit less sympathetic towards Conan O'Brien, just because he seems to have had a pretty charmed existence. I kinda didn't appreciate someone with that kind of fairy tale backstory telling me that he really hates it when people are cynical. I understand why he"s not cynical, but I didn't get plucked from virtual obscurity at 29 to host a TV show even though I had no on-camera experince under my belt just because my boss was Lorne Michaels and I seemed likeable.

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