“After that, I went outside and saw their tour manager hanging around with some guys. They started getting all chuckles with me and so I told them I wasn’t gonna have it. After that, Wavves tour manager hit me square in the face with a bottle. Blood started pouring out and six dudes fucking started kicking me until I blacked out.”
— Black Lips singer Jared Swilley explaining his fight with Wavves at Daddy’s in Brooklyn
Last week I read The Late Shift, Bill Carter’s book on what transpired after Johnny Carson announced his retirement from The Tonight Show on May 23, 1991 — specifically the battle between David Letterman and Jay Leno to inherit his throne. The book is excellent, and a big reason is the level of participation: Letterman, Leno, and all of the other principles sat with Carter to discuss the events, and their admissions are honest and open. There’s no way this book could be written today.
The book itself was published in 1994 when the late night wars were still raging, and so much of the accepted wisdom that we have today (Leno won, Conan good, Arsenio Who?) is completely contradicted. It makes for awesome reading.
I found myself marking a lot of pages with interesting bits as I read through it, and I wanted to share the best facts and quotes. So here are the best parts of a great book:
- The late night war for The Tonight Show wasn’t much of a war at all. Just days before Carson surprised the world with his retirement message, Jay Leno signed a secret contract with NBC guaranteeing him The Tonight Show. Not even Letterman knew.
- As negotiations with CBS heated up, NBC offered to take away The Tonight Show from Jay Leno and give it to Letterman — provided that Dave wait a full year. It was an agonizing decision, but ultimately he turned it down.
- Jerry Seinfeld was signed to NBC as a potential late-night host. Seinfeld (“only a cult following,” notes Carter) was basically busy work while NBC waited for a late night slot to open up.
- “If Jay Leno had a best friend in the comedy business, it was probably Jerry Seinfeld.”
- “Like just about everyone else on the comedy circuit in the early 1980s, Leno had met and palled around with Arsenio. They had written jokes together and played endless video games all night long at Jay’s house.”
- This whole Jay Leno at 10pm thing? Old news.
“[NBC President Bob] Wright was considering offering Dave a weeknight show across the board at 10:00pm as a possible fallback if that was the only way they could keep him at NBC.”
Letterman was not interested.
- Lorne Michaels first approached Conan O’Brien while he was writing for The Simpsons to ask him if he would be the producer of the new 12:30 show.
- 1993 was not a good year for Lorne Michaels: “He was readying his film Coneheads for release at the same time Wayne’s World 2 was beginning production — without a finished script.” Plus Dana Carvey quit SNL. Good times for Lorne.
- Conan’s very first test show sounds pretty awesome. Mimi Rogers was his first guest:
When Rogers talked about posing for Playboy and said she had done it in a ‘classy way,” Conan replied: “So you’re wearing a top hat and reading The New Yorker?”
- Jay Leno’s manager Helen Kushnick was legendary for how unbelievably awful she was as a person. I’m not even sure how to put it into words it’s so bad. It was she who made the disastrous decision for Jay to not acknowledge Carson on his very first show. “Fuck him,” she said. (Kushnick died in 1996.)
- Letterman is incredibly difficult. He critiques himself constantly, and was often an asshole to staffers while at NBC. He would watch each episode repeatedly and get furious with himself for every bad joke and every missed opportunity.
- After the first season of The Larry Sanders Show, Garry Shandling was offered the slot to replace Letterman on NBC and the slot to follow Letterman on CBS. He passed up both. Also passing on both slots: Dana Carvey.
- You know who will always be an asshole? Chevy Chase.
“Chase came on with an opening show so excruciatingly awful that it became an instant television classic — of the wrong kind. With an opening that simulated vomiting and a mawkish display of mutual congratulations with his onetime costar Goldie Hawn, Chase lost all credibility in just one night.”
Here’s a clip that proves that, if anything, Carter undersells how terrible this was:
- After CBS decided to put Letterman in the old Ed Sullivan Theater, they began rehabbing the long-dormant space. They “encountered further unexpected difficulties including the necessity of exterminating a colony of rats the size of wolverines.” WTF
- As I mentioned before, the book was published in 1994, and at that time Letterman’s CBS show had launched and was a massive success. Leno’s ratings dropped in a big way, and the late night victor was so settled, here’s what Leno himself has to say:
“I never felt like I had to win. To me the ideal result of this would have been Dave wins a week, then I win a week, then Dave wins a week… Hey, I would like to win just one week!”
- People really didn’t like Conan back then. Carter provides a summary for the story’s major players, and the Conan paragraph includes the following descriptions: “amateurish and his on-air personality [is] immature and grating” and “a public access show being put on by a bunch of college kids in a garage.” Ouch.
- And finally, The Late Shift was turned into a terrible HBO movie starring John Michael Higgins of Christopher Guest movie fame as Letterman and Daniel Roebuck, whose biggest credits are, um, The Late Shift and Nash Bridges, as Leno:
I have seen it and it is atrocious. Read the book, though!
A funny thing happened to me at the weekend: something I wrote on Freaky Trigger, a little piece about the band Fall Out Boy, was linked to on Twitter by FOB member Pete Wentz.
Now, you may not know or care who Fall Out Boy are, but Wentz is (according to Twitterholic ) the 32nd most followed person on the site. So obviously - as well as being quite exciting! - this caused a bit of a traffic spike.
Independently, I read this interesting post by Simon Kendrick about the CTR (Click Through Rate) he’d experienced when a post of his had been retweeted a few times. It inspired me to try a similar calculation for the Wentz repost.
Pete Wentz has 1,492,000 followers on Twitter, give or take a thousand. According to Google Analytics, my blog post has had 5,974 hits since I put it up on Friday morning.
Looking at the previous post I put up, about 250 of those hits might have been expected anyway from my regular readers (thanks regular readers!). So 5,724 are via Pete Wentz. Massively more than I’d usually expect, but -
That’s a click through rate of 0.004%. Not exactly high. Now, as Kendrick points out, only a fraction of anyone’s followers will see a given Tweet. Let’s say a fifth of Wentz’ saw it: that takes us to a mighty 0.02%.
I’m well aware that it’s sheer folly to try and generalise from one single data point. But on the other hand, I’m unlikely to get linked to by any other celebrities in a hurry. So allow me to at least form a few hypotheses:
1. Celebrity links don’t necessarily move the needle much: Those extra 5,700 hits were great to have and I am very grateful that Wentz enjoyed my (TBH somewhat confused) review, but the CTR was surprisingly low.
Maybe my content was to blame? Well, this was from a band’s songwriter endorsing a description of a review as “particularly interesting” with no other context. So if the content was crap, they’d only have found that out after clicking! I think the point is that celebrities aren’t generally seen as content providers: that’s not their role in the network.
2. Followers don’t equal fans: The low CTR also suggests to me that the number of people following Pete Wentz because he’s a celebrity is a great deal larger than the number following him because of WHICH celebrity he is, i.e. what he actually does. This is sort of obvious, but has interesting implications viz…
3. Celebrities areas of influence aren’t always clear: I wonder what would have happened if I’d posted a kitten picture and (for some mad reason) Wentz had linked to that. Same amount of extra hits? More? Fewer? If what’s being followed is celebrity-ness rather than specific achievement then perhaps what they do for a living is largely irrelevant to how much traffic they channel and to what.
4. Celebrity Tweets have a longer afterlife: From looking at what typically happens my content is linked to, I see a fairly typical pattern - a very short burst of hits, rapidly dwindling, and then nothing. For the Wentz tweet I also saw this but with a gentler slope: I got more than 1/4 of the hits from Wentz’ Twitter the day after the Tweet - it was still being looked at.
This suggests to me that a big proportion of the followers treat the singer’s feed more like a blog - something to be browsed on its own, rather than experienced as part of a stream. (The feed is also linked to from petewentz.com, which supplied about 10% of the hits).
But like I say, these are hypotheses and that’s one datapoint. Make of it what you will.
(One final bit of information: out of the 5,700 extra hits I got 10 or so extra comments. Which, as usual, I especially enjoyed.)