Story time children! Gather around and crack open a cold one (or get an adult to open one if you can't work the lid). I am about to unfold a tale of deception, redemption and comedy.
Prologue aka "The Setup"
It's often said (by reductionist morons) "There are two kinds of people in this world..." This statement is usually followed by two artificially limited choices considered to be mutually exclusive personality tests. It's generally used to contrast massive sociological, or cultural forces represented by two parallel brands. For example there is Coke vs Pepsi (old fashioned nostalgia vs new wave hipness), Beatles vs Stones (clean cut good guys vs raucous dirty, bad boys), Lennon vs MacCarney (lyrics vs melody), Mac vs PC (arrogance vs nerdery), and Hulk Hogan vs Randy Savage (pro bandana vs pro headband). I could go on forever.
All of these false dichotomy's ignore the third (and statistically biggest) group: "People who don't give a flying f*** about either choice."
For most of my life (while I was old enough to care about such things), there was another "either/or" choice used to define comedy fans: Jay Leno vs David Letterman.
Within the realm of comedy, the contrast is stark. Letterman is cutting edge, biting and sometimes dry. Leno is accessible, inoffensive and designed for mass market appeal. Leno is MacDonald's, mass produced, cost effective and generally the same no matter where you get it. Letterman is that little Indian place around the corner that makes your favourite Tikka Masala and gave you the runs that one time but you keep going back because when it's good, it's REALLY good.
Having recently finished another run through of Bill Carter's "The War for Late Night" (Yeah, I did the audio book. You want to fight about it?), I'm beginning to get a clearer picture on why I'm so fascinated by this story.
I think it's because it's a story that's positively Shakespearean in it's scope and complexity. There are so many complex personalities, behind closed door machinations and seedy stories it would feel right at home in the Bard's catalog. It's positively dynastic in scope because very few entertainment sectors maintain the same players long enough to be so.
One of the other reasons I loved Carter's book so much is it challenged my perspective on the whole scenario. The characters involved are so well drawn (being real people gives them a distinct advantage) and the villains and heroes are never quite as they seem. It all makes for a fascinating tale of broken friendships, unlikely heroes and jokes...lot's of jokes.
So with that we begin our tale with a trip into the past.
Chapter I - The Kingdom of Carson
In the spring of the year 1991, the beloved King Johnny, longtime ruler of the Tonight Show Kingdom, announced that in one year he would abdicate his throne to live out his remaining days in peace. This would bring his illustrious 30 year rule to an end.
It was a tenure chalked full of highlights which are still fondly remembered to this day. A time of mystic mind readers, inappropriate animal interactions, exposed psychics, Jimmy Stewart tears, pancake fights and plaid suit jackets. It was a time of great social change and King Johnny was there every step of the way to make us laugh about it.
King Johnny was not the first to rule the Land of Late Night. The Kindgom was established by the multi-talented Sir Steve Allen in 1953. After 3 years, in 1957 the affable Sir Jack Parr assumed the throne. Possessing a high skill in interviewing subjects, King Jack became colloquially known as The King of Conversation during his tenure.
King Parr's abdication of the throne in April of 1962 led to a multitude of temporary rulers. Sir Groucho Marx, Sir Jerry Lewis & Sir Merv Griffin all had short tenures until a new King could be officially crowned.
Sir Johnny Carson ascended to the throne in October of 1962 to become King Johnny. After a tentative start, King Johnny eventually grew to be embraced by the people as the one true King of Late Night.
While beloved by the populace, King Johnny was known to the court to be a complex and mercurial figure who possessed several charater flaws not often seen by the public. While appearing to the people as a gregarious jokester, King Johnny was also known for having a vindictive mean streak. In 1986, when Lady Joan of Rivers (a longtime friend of King Johnny and official temporary replacement in his absence) attempted to set up her own hold across the way (at FOX) King Johnny took it as a personal affront. When Lady Joan's hold fell in less than a year under the might of King Johnny, she was banished from the Kingdom of Tonight. After the King's son Ricky died in a accident in 1991, Lady Joan wrote a personal note of condolences to the King. Their relationship was never repaired and the two never spoke again. Lady Joan would not be allowed back into the Tonight Kingdom for nearly 3 decades. The prohibition was upheld by successor Kings out of deference to King Johnny.
For better and worse, King Johnny ruled for 30 years and all looked well in the Kingdom of Late Night. In 1982, a new hold was developed in the land of Late Night. Sir David the Duke of Letterman was installed as ruler of the hold ("Late Night") and things were good for a time. Sir David held his King in high regard and the feeling was mutual. King Johnny had privately anointed Sir David as his successor to the throne, should the King have to step down.
Sir Dave, long regarded as one of the brightest and wittiest comics in the land, would grow to cast a long shadow of influence in the Late Night Kingdom. Known for being smart, incisive and uncompromising, Sir Dave was something of an acquired taste to the public. While many appreciated his inventive ideas and outside the box thinking, and equal number found themselves in confusion or disdain of his antics.
Known for being awkward and socially reserved, Sir Dave was rarely seen outside of public performances. Those close to him describe a man prone to mood swings and chilly personal interactions. A man who routinely manifested displeasure in others with cold silence. A man who manifested displeasure in himself with self loathing.
Even with his personality flaws, Sir Dave remained a widely admired King in waiting.
There was another, however, who believed he held claim to the throne. A contemporary and friend of both King Johnny and particularly Sir Dave had been selected to temporarily assume the throne one day a week when King Johnny showed signs of slowing.
Sir Jay Leno was introduced to the Kingdom by his friend Sir Dave Letterman who had come up through the clubs with him. The populace found Sir Jay to be an equal entertainer to Sir Dave, if not an equal wit. Sir Jay's fiery polemics on the absurdities of daily life endeared him to the people. With his trademark thatch of black hair (now slowly going grey) and prominent jawline, Sir Jay Leno instantly struck a chord as a populist.
Sir Jay had come to comedy with a mindset of a working man. He was raised to be hard working and unpretentious and believed strongly in putting in the work for a day's pay. Once he found his calling as a comic, he devoted all of his energy to this pursuit. His talent also caught the eye of King Johnny who requested for Sir Jay to perform for him.
King Johnny was so impressed with Sir Jay, that he installed Sir Jay as temporary steward of the Tonight Throne on Mondays so the King wouldn't be overworked. It was understood that while Sir Dave was designated King Johnny's successor, Sir Jay would be installed in the Late Night hold in the event of King Johnny's abdication.
For a while, all was good in the land of Late Night.
Little did the Kingdom of Late Night suspect, the table had been set for a clash over the Throne that none would walk away from unscathed.
But that's a story for next time...
Stay tuned for Chapter II: The Usurper and the Exile