No thanks to publishers Viking Press, I finally got a copy of Bill Carter’s new book, “The War For Late Night.” And I’ll be honest, I did what everyone does but never admits: I just opened right to the part about me, which was about my interview with Jay Leno last year, at the time the first one he did since moving to 10 p.m.
To jog your memory, it was the one in which he basically said he would take 11:35 back if it was offered to him. At the time the interview got a ton of press, and both Conan’s camp and NBC would tell me later that interview is what started things going downhill.
But Carter notes in the book Jay and NBC both later “complained about the interview,” that I “hounded” Leno until he “reluctantly answered.” I need to take issue with that (not with Carter, with that assertion made by those parties).
I don’t blame NBC PR, they had to stick by their guy. But for Leno to say that is disingenuous, and to me seems like nothing more than after-the-fact damage control. I have no idea how I could have made Leno say anything he didn’t want to.
The fact is Jay graciously granted my interview request to speak for the first time about how 10 p.m. was going. We sat in his green room, along with three NBC public relations people, if memory serves. And throughout a long conversation that was never remotely heated, I absolutely came back to the question of his interest in 11:35 multiple times. But no water boarding or any other torture techniques were involved.
So when Leno casually said what he did, it was not the product of any “hounding.” If you know me, I am hardly the hounding type. And if you know Jay (and I don’t know him well whatsoever), he hardly seems the type to get rattled. I did tell him to his face I didn’t believe him when he said he didn’t care either way about going back to 11:35, and then he said…well, here is the back and forth, straight from my story.
If someone [from new ownership] comes in tomorrow and puts you back at 11:35, are you thrilled?
Oh, I don’t know. Are you married? Whatever you want, honey.
You know I don’t believe a word you are saying, right?
I’m not having a bad time at 10 o’clock now. I look at this as a job, and now I’m faced with a challenge, and it’s a challenge I find difficult but interesting. I find that when I go to Vegas, whereas before I might not sell out, all of a sudden it’s sold out. I seem to be doing better in terms of public appearances. I am reaching a wider audience. Whether that translates to television just yet, I don’t know. But I see a difference.Now why is that, because I’m in the paper every day? I don’t know. Because I’m on earlier? I’m actually doing well; this is almost the best year for personal appearances since I started. So there is no negativity there.
Do you want to go back to 11:35?
If it were offered to me, would I take it? If that’s what they wanted to do, sure. That would be fine if they wanted to.
Would you rather do that than this?
I don’t know….Would I take it? I guess. But it’s not my decision to make; it’s really not. I don’t know. Something makes me think we might be OK here for a while. It depends how long you’re here; by that time I could be 61-62, I don’t know. Personally, I think Conan is doing fine. He’s beating Dave in the demo, maybe not in the popular one right now because Dave has a lot of other things going that have people watching for whatever reason, so I think that’s not really a fair thing. It’s a little too early to tell.
Again, to say he said what he did because I “hounded” him is disingenuous and in my opinion a misrepresentation of how the events played out. And how do you hound someone into giving a specific answer anyway? If you ask me four times in an hour if I hate New Yorkers, am I suddenly on the fourth time just going to say it even though I don’t mean it?
It also should be noted - and was both in Carter’s book and told to me by Conan’s camp - that Leno never reached out to Conan right after the national media took my interview and ran with it. Seems to me that would have been a natural move had Jay regretted what he said, or truly felt hounded into making a verbal mistake.
I don’t mean to make this story about me, but after reading that portion of Carter’s book, I felt it necessary to offer my side of what really happened that morning at NBC. And I thank the stand-up Carter for calling me during the writing of his book to ask me about the conversation.
Anyway, looking forward to reading the rest of the book now, as the well-connected Carter definitely has proven he knows how to tell the story of a battle over the “Late Shift.”