New York Times reporter Bill Carter set a serious benchmark for TV journalists with his first major book, The Late Shift, in which he revealed that Jay Leno hid in a closet to eavesdrop on a conference call with NBC executives during his early, rocky tenure taking over as host of NBC's Tonight Show.
In that detailed, insightful look at the bitter battle for Johnny Carson's legacy between Leno and David Letterman, it was a standout scoop that also proved the key scene in HBO's film of the story.
Carter's new book on the ouster of Conan O'Brien from the Tonight Show, The War for Late Night, doesn't have a similar moment. But there still are tons of delicious tidbits.
Here are five juicy things I learned from Carter's War for Late Night:
1 Daily Show host Jon Stewart was initially the favorite to host the talk show that airs on ABC after Nightline. But meat-and-potatoes funnyman Jimmy Kimmel landed the gig instead after longtime booster Michael Davies (the producer who brought to America Who Wants to be a Millionaire?) convinced an ABC executive to give him a shot.
2 One big reason Leno got the Tonight Show back after his 10 p.m. show failed was because of contracts. He had a pay and play agreement that required NBC to keep him on air and pay him his agreed salary, regardless of how The Jay Leno Show performed. When NBC tried to rescue its schedule by moving Leno back to 11:35 p.m. for a half-hour, O'Brien quit.
3Craig Ferguson, the wily, free-spirited Scottish comic actor who has proved a surprising success hosting the Late Late Show on CBS after Letterman, has been guaranteed he will be anointed successor whenever Letterman stops doing The Late Show.
4Lorne Michaels, the guy who built Saturday Night Live and discovered O'Brien, Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon, was getting paid $25,000 a week as an executive producer on O'Brien's 12:35 p.m. Late Night show until the comic took over the Tonight Show.
5 Jerry Seinfeld says O'Brien quit over an illusion — that the Tonight Show remained a great showbiz institution that could be sullied. "These names are b------- words!" Seinfeld told Carter, insisting Carson took the classic show with him when he retired. "How do you not get that the whole thing is phony?" Given how it all ended — with O'Brien at TBS and Leno relaxing with his young rival out of network TV — he probably does now.
TiVo or Ti-NO?
Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew debuts at 10 p.m. Wednesday on VH1: The problem with Dr. Drew Pinsky's Celebrity Rehab series is that it combines television's most exploitive form — the so-called reality TV genre — with a form of medical treatment requiring complete honesty and openness. That's why every season of this show feels more manipulative than the last. The borderline "celebrities" in treatment for this year's fourth cycle include: Eric Roberts; Janice Dickinson; Leif Garrett; Jeremy London; R&B singer Keyshia Cole's mom, Frankie Lons; a rich heir no one knows, Jason Davis; a reality TV guy, Jason Wahler; and the "party planner" best known for consorting with Tiger Woods, Rachel Uchitel.
Uchitel establishes early on she won't talk about Tiger on camera (perhaps a settlement prevents it?), Davis acts out immediately in a too-obvious bid for camera time, and Tom Sizemore makes a cameo as a surprising success story. It's an uneasy mix of voyeurism and literal rehabbing of celebrities' images (London counters rumors spread by his family that his recent kidnapping was a hoax) that leaves this viewer feeling icky after 10 minutes. Ti-NO.