‘The Late Shift’ at 30: Bill Carter Looks Back

Editor’s note: 2024 marks 30 years since the original publication of “The Late Shift,” Bill Carter’s mind-bending chronicle of the  behind-the-scenes power struggle to succeed Johnny Carson at his legendary Tonight show desk. The book was an instant bestseller, spawning an HBO movie of the same name and a 2010 follow-up, “The War for Late Night.” It also solidified Carter’s own reputation as “The King of Late Night Journalism.” Now the editor-at-large for LateNighter, we prevailed upon Bill to mark the book’s 30th with a little look-back. Humble man that he is, it took some coaxing, but we’re thankful that he agreed.   

In the early 1990’s, about three years into my job as media correspondent for The New York Times, I found myself writing a lot of daily newspaper stories about the craziness surrounding the departure of Johnny Carson from the Tonight show and the pseudo sibling rivalry between David Letterman and Jay Leno to succeed him.

I was not alone. It was a compelling national story, compulsively covered by every media outlet interested in American culture–because the Tonight show and Carson represented a unique shared experience for a good percentage of the US population.

At some point in the midst of the conflicting claims of worthiness to ascend to the late-night throne, after NBC had already announced Leno as the winner, CBS had already announced a pending deal with Letterman, and rumors of last-minute, second-and-third thoughts were seeping out of NBC offices on both coasts like ominous smoke, a behind-the-scenes player from one star’s camp, who had been supplying me with a stream of information on the state of play, called me up with a significant observation:

“This story is in every paper, magazine, and TV talk show; but people have no idea what is really going on. It’s mind-boggling.”

To me, that sounded like it might be a book.

And so it was. I was reminded this week that 2024 is the 30th anniversary of my book “The Late Shift,” which attempted to tell that mind-boggling story. Though I get a strong message of how time has passed every time I see Dave in his Santa beard, Jay with his gray mop of hair, not to mention what I’m confronted with myself every day in a mirror, I’m taken aback that it has really been that long.

That is largely because so many people still talk to me about details in the book: about the bruising machinations of Jay’s manager Helen Kushnick to win him the job; about Letterman’s counter by hiring the then-zen god of Hollywood agenting, Michael Ovitz; about the internal conflict at NBC between supporters of each star; about the almost surreal late-minute offer to Dave to get the Tonight show (if he’d only wait a year for it); about the role Carson himself played in Letterman’s ultimate decision; about Jay’s sly-fox maneuver to eavesdrop on an NBC meeting determining his fate.

I’m amazed that people remember so much, and still care so much. And that they want to talk so much about it. Which I am always pleased to do (though sometimes I have to go back to the book to remember some minor details.)

My main takeaway has not changed. It was an amazing story to tell because it concerned the departure of an icon (often literally dubbed a “king”); a rivalry between two nobles (princes at least in the comedy realm); over one prize that could not be shared. When one review of the book called it: “A tale of passion, ambition, infighting and runaway ego worthy of Shakespeare,” I made my Mom swear she hadn’t snuck into the LA Daily News to write that.

But I sort of got the–very vague—association with highly theatrical, royal power struggles. Kingdoms come in different sizes and shapes, and the kingdom of late-night television was a throne very much worth the game in the 1990’s.

What made it deeper for me—I might even say poignant—was the personal connection between the two rivals. Jay and Dave had grown up in comedy together, learned from each other, advanced their careers with the help of each other.   

Then they were handed broadswords and told: “Lay on, Macduff.”

When I was finishing the book 30 years ago, I initially concluded that Dave had won, because he instantly commanded the biggest audiences, knocking Leno’s Tonight Show from the pinnacle of late night for the first sustained period in the show’s history.

But then Jay regained superiority and seemingly vindicated NBC’s decision to coronate him.

Except it never seemed fully resolved. Letterman retained his elite position in the late-night pantheon, while Leno piled up ratings titles. They could never fully escape being linked together.

Almost two decades after it all went down, when they appeared in a promo (for Dave’s show) during the Super Bowl in 2010, supposedly sitting together (with Oprah) watching the game, while munching corn chips, the reaction bordered on national hysteria, as though Lincoln had sat down to watch the game with Booth. President Obama, watching in the White House, had someone call CBS to determine if the two late-night rivals had actually sat together or if it was done by camera tricks.

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I had to leave a Super Bowl party myself to run home and write a piece about how this earthshaking event had come together.

It struck me that day, as it continues to now, that I was absurdly fortunate to have had the opportunity to recount this weirdly captivating—and enduring—story. The people involved—especially the two principals–all generously talked to me about it. All I had to do was tell it.

It was a really great yarn.

Still is.

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