There’s nothing quite like tuning into your favorite late night host after a long day of work. Back in the day, you had one choice. The Tonight Show, and once Johnny Carson came along he would sit on that throne for 30 years. Eventually, others would join the late night arena, but Carson managed to dominate it until he went off the air in 1992. Once that happened, and other hosts came out to play and eventually added their own tastes and style to the format, there was no longer the universal talk show host. It became “Who is your talk show host? Who is the host that you would pick over all the others on any given night?” Even now as the internet and streaming has taken the world by storm, late night is still alive and kicking with showing no signs of stopping.
Bill Carter witnessed firsthand just what it takes to make a late night show (and host) work. Back in the early 90s, there was speculation if Jay Leno or David Letterman would inherit The Tonight Show. As the NY Times TV Critic, Bill Carter had a front row seat for it. Carter wrote The Late Shift which chronicled everything behind closed doors as the decision was made to whom would be Carson’s successor. Carter later returned to the subject when Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien duked it out for that royal throne. That begat the book The War For Late Night. Once again Carter finds himself talking about all things late night.
CNN is currently broadcasting an expansive docu-series on all things late night. The Story of Late Night takes viewers on a journey of just how embedded the late night show has become in the American zeitgeist. Quickly moving from a time filler primetime to the phenomenon that we now know it today. Carter served as executive producer on the series and hosts Behind The Desk: The Story of Late Night podcast which dives further behind the scenes. The documentary style of the show features themes that include the hosts, the format, the writers, the comics, and the politics.
We spoke with Bill Carter about all things late night and why people are still fascinated with it, the new docu-series and accompanying podcast, when things started to turn political, the importance of the writers, how he got Johnny Carson to call him, the surprising evolution of Conan O’Brien, why Amber Ruffin is a host you should watch out for, how he became a screenwriter with The Late Shift movie, and his take on the quarantined shows.
Is it surreal that people are still this fascinated with Late Night, after all these years and 27 years after you wrote The Late Shift?
It’s crazy, but not actually surprising. Because what I learned from writing the books I wrote about late night and then doing publicity for them is there’s a real deep and biding fascination with this American institution. I think it’s an American institution. And people who follow it follow it intensely. And they become very connected to the people that they watch. I mean, that phenomenon – which started probably with Steve Allen but really was intense with Paar and Carson – just continues.
I mean, people who watched Letterman in college, that was like the center of their lives. They were so into it. And I just think it continues. There’s something about the person that comes on – especially those who do multiple shows a week – they’re coming into your homes at a time when you’re heading to bed, you might be in bed. There’s an intimate connection. They reveal themselves in interesting ways. If they have these shows over time you find out all you can possibly know about the person. Because what are they gonna do? They’re on the air constantly. And so I really think they form bonds. They get very, very invested. So it doesn’t surprise me that there’s still a deep fascination with it.
There’s something universal about Late Night. It’s not at all generation. It’s something that everyone can connect to in one way or another.
It is. It becomes kind of personal. And I always attribute it to this intimate idea. People do identify with other shows – the host of the Today Show or whatever – in some ways, but I don’t think it’s the same as a late night person. I just don’t think so. Very often people watch late night by themselves. They always have. One person stayed up late or whatever. And it just feels different. And I do think the format opens up to that. It makes people laugh, they comment on the news, you’re following things on a daily basis. There’s a whole lot of reasons why the DNA of it is essential.
Absolutely. And one thing I had no idea about until I watched this documentary is the first late night host was actually a woman named Faye Emerson.
That was a clearly historical oddity. She was on a matter of weeks, actually. I think someone on the show says months, but I think that includes her being on local. So she was an oddity. And it was not what we would recognize as a late night show where she did a monologue or comedy or something. But given the complete lack of women for so many years after, it is kind of remarkable that some woman was on late at night in the early days of television. I didn’t know about her. It was a discovery for me. I didn’t know about her.
And how long has the series been in the works? Because I’ve known about it for a few years.
A long time. What basically happened was a very good friend of mine named Jennifer Harkness was working for this Canadian production company named Cream. And she was just thinking of ideas. And she thought “Has somebody done a history of late night?” And she knew me well enough to say “If we do this, would you be interested?” And I said “Yeah, I guess, if you tell me how it’s going to be or whatever.”
That evolved into me sort of writing an outline of what I thought it would be and then we went around to various companies pitching the idea. And there was quite a bit of interest. And I thought “Okay. This could be done as long as I get some of the people to cooperate.” And I asked a lot of people in advance before I went around to make these pitches “Would you sit and talk with us if we get this going?” And I got a lot of people say “Yes.” And Johnny Carson’s nephew agreed and he would help us with the clips. That was really important. We were able to get very good deals to buy the clips, because they’re very expensive if you just use their regular formula.
So it came together that way. And I should point out that was like three years ago. And we had this show basically close to ready to go last spring. But last spring, nothing was going to happen. So it got shoved back. And interestingly, that gave us an opportunity. Because over the past 5-6 months, we’ve been able to add the newer people that have come on the air like Desus and Mero and Amber Ruffin. And we were able to deal with the whole Trump phenomenon in late night, which was very important I think in demonstrating that there’s a political bent much more in late night now.
I was going to ask about that. The whole landscape seems incredibly different, with the heightened political component.
I think what really started the change was Jon Stewart takes over The Daily Show from Craig Kilborn. And Craig Kilborn was doing basically a mock newscast with silly stories. But Jon Stewart, when he’s hired to do it, he wants to bring kind of more focus and a sharp edge to it. And he brings point of view. You know what his point of view is. And that really changed the game. Because Carson, who was constantly commenting on the news, was not exposing his point of view. He was walking the middle. But Jon did that. And then Stephen Colbert comes on afterwards and he’s doing a really opinionated show, but backwards. Like reverse image. Where his point of view is a fake point of view, and his real point of view is the opposite.
And I think that started to change the way people would react. In the day where there were just two network shows – and certainly when there was just one -, you didn’t want to alienate 30-40% of the public by showing a point of view. Now, Jon Stewart can say “I’m not getting that kind of audience. But the audience I’m getting is very enthused about this show. So I’m going to take a chance and show my point of view. And then Trump entered the picture, and then I think even the guys that were reluctant to show their point of view – I don’t think Kimmel was particular a point of view performer before Trump -, you just couldn’t stop. You just had to comment on what was going on. And some of it was alarming.
So their point of view came out. Seth Meyers had done his own faux newscast on Weekend Update, so he was a natural doing it. And obviously Fallon got into an issue because he didn’t show enough intense scrutiny on Trump. And then he started to add that to his repertoire, too. So it became absolutely kind of an essential part of late night. To comment not just on the news but on the views in the news.
It’s a big shift from being praised for not sharing your view to facing backlash for not sharing it. And jumping around a bit, is there a current host that you think people should look out for right now and pay more attention to?
That’s an interesting question. We have the one day a week people, and then we have the multiple nights a week people, and then we have the streaming people. (Laughs). I will say, over the past 3 to 4 to 5 months, doing both the accompanying podcast and adding interviews for the documentary series, I was really impressed with Amber Ruffin. I’ve been constantly thinking “We’ve got to find a woman who can anchor one of these shows for a long period of time.” And I think she’s terrific. She’s on Peacock right now, but I just think she has a fantastic future.
I first interviewed her because one of the podcasts we were doing was on late night writers. Late night writers are always fascinating to me because it is a job where you have to show up every day and be funny, no matter what else is going on in your life. You could have the flu, your life could leave you, whatever. Come into work and be funny. I just find that crazy to have that as a job. So I wanted to do a whole show about writers. And somebody said to me “You should talk to Amber Ruffin, who writes for Seth Meyers.” And she was wonderful. She was incredibly funny and sharp. She had started this thing, Jokes Seth Can’t Tell. So I could see that she could perform. And in that period of time, NBC decided to give her a show. And I’m thinking “I’m pretty sure I’m on target about this person emerging as a star of the future.”
Absolutely. And didn’t NBC also move the show to the network on occasion?
I think they did it two nights a week briefly, for a while replacing Seth who was on vacation or something. They’re giving it some exposure. Clearly they’re thinking about this. And by the way, another interesting thing is since Letterman, there’s the idea of “Who’s the next guy?”. The successor has to be sort of thought of or identifies as these shows go forward. And they’re always now thinking about that move. “Who’s the next talent?” And I think Amber has really established herself as that. And I love it. We haven’t had [a lot of] people of color and we haven’t had a woman. Arsenio Hall was big for a few years.
And Trevor Noah has done it, too. Let’s give him full credit. Everyone thought he had a big challenge replacing Jon Stewart. And it took him a little while, which is logical. But I think he’s now established very, very well.
Absolutely. It takes a while for him to find his footing. Just look at what happened in the 90’s with Conan O’Brien. It was sort of that same thing where nobody really was sure how he was going to evolve into what he has.
That’s a really good point to make. Somebody like Conan starts, and he’s obviously not polished and ready for it, but he’s likable. He’s tremendously likable. And the audience that starts with him, they’re like “This is my guy! This is the guy I want to follow.” And they follow him and he gets better and he becomes a star. And they’re crazy about him. He’s their guy. And it was certainly true of Letterman. Letterman was the guy for college guys in the 1980’s. Like “Wow! You’ve got to watch Letterman.” And then Conan did that. And I think when Trevor Noah started, it was like “Well, he’s not Jon Stewart.” But the people that started to give him a chance, they want to grow with him. So the show gets better and better and they’re like “Okay, now I’ve got my guy. This is my guy. This is a guy I want to pay attention to and see get better.”
And nobody’s great when they start this, really. Nobody is great when they start out at this. Some people struggle more than others. And Conan had a really hard time. But they don’t come out of the box with the voice that they’re going to have later on. They have to establish it, find their own way, find their own footing, and get rid of the little quirks that don’t work and smooth themselves out. And the ones that last have all done that. They’ve all found a way to smooth it out and become a polished guy or hopefully girl you want to see every night.
And speaking of Conan, in the time since you chronicled his leaving The Tonight Show in The War For Late Night in 2010, how do you think he’s fared or evolved in the last 10 years?
Well, he’s a hugely appealing guy and funny guy and talented guy. So his work has been consistently great. His first – I don’t know how many years – on TBS, he was still Conan. He was doing the same kind of show he did on The Tonight Show. And he’s more effected I think than other people by the changes in the way people watch TV. TBS is not NBC. Even as NBC is today, TBS is not NBC. And him going to TBS always meant that he was not going to be absolutely challenging to be like the most watched guy. That didn’t make his work any less good. His work was still good and funny and he still was very creative and hugely respected in the comedy community. So all of that has been great.
I mean look, was it a career setback to lose The Tonight Show? You have to say yes. And he would say yes, I think. That was his dream and he didn’t really get a full chance at making it work. Obviously again, even though he had done the other show for all those years, The Tonight Show was different. It took Leno two or three years before he found success with The Tonight Show. It takes time. And he didn’t get time. And I think that’s always going to be a wound for him. And I feel bad for him because I think he’s a terrific guy and I like him enormously.
Absolutely. And now, until he leaves his TBS show soon, he is currently the elder statesman.
It’s remarkable. One of the things I said in the podcast was I was talking about Kimmel. And I was about to write in my script that Kimmel is now the longest host. And I said “Wait. No, no. Conan.” It really is astonishing. And he’s going to drop the late night show I guess in June or something. He’s gravitating over to do a variety show or something. But that’s an insanely, great, fantastic long run. And you can only do that if you’re completely committed to it, and have a bottomless depth of talent. Because it’s a grind to do these shows. But it’s also something they absolutely love. Most of these people love this job. And that’s why it’s hard for them to leave it.
But Conan’s beginning was so rugged. So tough. I was with him writing about it in those days. And I would hear from NBC saying “Who is this guy? He doesn’t know what he’s doing. And who is that fat guy on the couch with him?” It was really rough. The joke is he was getting 13 week renewals, but it was really week by week at one point. They’re talking to people behind his back. It’s really an amazing testament to how hard he worked and how he found his talent. He just found it and packed it with comedy and gave himself a distinct voice. Enough people liked it, and then he’s a hit.
And let’s jump even further back, to The Late Shift book. As you’re working on that book, is there a eureka discovery moment where you felt like the story of what happened was really starting to take shape?
That’s a very interesting question for this reason. When I proposed writing this book, my agent was like “Yeah, that’s great.” Because she went to a couple publishers who said “How can there be more story to this? It’s been covered everywhere in the press.” But I had spoken to several people behind the scenes at Letterman and several people behind the scenes at Leno who told me “Oh no, no, no. This story has NOT been told. People have no idea what happened here.” So I knew going in that was what people were promising, and I had to just get it out of them. And fortunately, because the shows were so competitive, there was a back and forth and I could sort of go to one and go “I just heard from the Letterman show that X happened.” And they’d say “No, that’s not what happened. This is what happened.” So I’d get versions of it. And I could pick through it and find out what really happened.
But there were so many revelations to me. I didn’t know that Jay Leno had an absolute confirmed contract before Carson stepped down. There was no chance that Letterman was getting it. This contract with Jay he already been signed I think 9 days before Johnny stepped down. That was not written in any newspaper at all. And at the end, when they were playing with Letterman that maybe they’d get rid of Jay and give Dave the show anyway, that was not written at all. And certainly not that Dave was going to take the deal anyway until he called up Carson himself and Carson told him not to do it. There were so many things. One after the other. When you’re writing a non-fiction book, you sometimes hope to yourself “Gee, I wish I could say this happened.” Well in the case of The Late Shift, I didn’t have to wish for it. It did. I was like “Oh, I could just write this now. This crazy thing that happened.”
And I have to say, one of the interesting things is, people have continued to come up to me about that book. Every week or something on Twitter, someone says “Oh, I love that book.” And it had never been out as a digital book. It was in the 90’s and we didn’t do those. So my agent and I talked and we got the rights to that and it’s now a digital book. So people who were not able to read it before and it’s hard to find copies now I guess, it’s available digitally. And a lot of people have started to read it that way. And it’s very gratifying.
I can imagine it is. The book’s legacy sort of lives on, all these years later. And because there are so many revelations that happened behind closed doors, was there any reluctant to open up to you about it?
You know, that’s really interesting. For The Late Shift, I don’t think I had anyone… Well, the initial reluctance, the person who was initially reluctant was Michael Ovitz. He was the super agent back in those days. And he represented Dave. He wanted to control… He didn’t want me getting a lot of information about this. And he gave me an interview in his office in L.A., this famous office that was very zen and he had this sliced fruit. It was so caricature of this agent guy. And he wouldn’t let me tape him. He was the only person who refused to let me tape the interview. And I thought “Well this guy’s going to want to go back and say ‘I didn’t say that.’” That’s what I thought. So I was only able to take notes. And he didn’t really tell me a hell of a whole lot. But I got him and I thought “Okay, I interviewed him.” And then we time went on, he started to hear of all the things I had. All of the other material I had. And he calls me up and says “Listen, I can give you more.” And he wants to get more into the book. And he’s offering me the contracts to look at. (Laughs). So it turned quite a bit. He was initially reluctant, but he came around.
And Johnny Carson was very, very reluctant at first, because he didn’t want to get into the middle of Jay and Dave. And he was very friendly with Bob Wright, who was running NBC. And he did not want to look like he was taking sides. So he was very reluctant. And I talked to his then-lawyer, Ed Hookstratten. And Hookstratten was saying “You know, Johnny, he may do it, he may not do it.” He was going back and forth with me. And I finally said “Look, what if I write up ten questions that I could really use him on.” Would he maybe just give me typed up answers? And he said “Well, that’s a good idea. Let me run that by him.”
And I had heard from Dave that his previous lawyer whom he hated – Henry Bushkin – had at one point come to Dave totally out of the blue and said “Carson Productions wants to sign you to a contract to succeed Johnny. We want you under contract to succeed Johnny. So we’re going to keep control of the show and you’ll get the show.” And Dave was like “Does Johnny know about this?” And Bushkin was like “Not yet. We’re going to get you locked up first.” And of course, Dave does not want to look like he’s throwing dirt on Johnny’s grave. That’s the last thing that he wanted to do. So he ran away from that. And he said “Don’t let that guy in my office ever again. I don’t want to talk to him.” And by the time I’m looking for Johnny – Johnny now hates Bushkin and thinks he’s stolen money from him and all that -, one of my questions was “Did you know about the approach he made to David Letterman to sign him up to succeed you?” And I thought “Maybe that will get him interested in answering if he wants to talk about that.” And out of the blue the next day, my phone rings. And it’s Johnny Carson calling me personally at home. And he says “You gotta tell me about this Bushkin thing.” So that’s how I got him to talk to me.
Helen Kushnick [Jay Leno’s controversial manager who was fired 6 months into his Tonight Show] was obviously the one people thought was reluctant to talk. But she was very cooperative, actually. She wanted to dance around anything that put her on the record sort of. But I went out to dinner with her a couple times. And then after Jay fired her, she called me every week for a while, to talk about what was going on with the shows. So she was not reluctant at all. She wanted to have her spin in there.
And the last thing I wanna bring up about The Late Shift is that this year is the 25th anniversary of the film.
Yes. It came out in February. I remember this well because HBO had a big premiere party in New York. And it was like one degree outside. It was unbelievably cold. But that was one of the great events of my life. They threw a fantastic party and they let me invite every person I had ever known in my life. So it was really a fantastic night for me.
Also, I was not supposed to be the screenwriter, but they hired Ivan Reitman to be the executive producer, which I loved. Who could be better? And Ivan wanted to have a writer/director. And I thought “That sounds great to me. He’ll pick somebody great.” And to me, the whole thing was if you sell the rights to a book like that – it’s a nice rights fee – but you only get that on the first day of production. So if the movie doesn’t get produced, you get only the option fee, which is ten percent of the rights fee. So I had gotten ten percent of the rights fee, but all I wanted was for them to start production, because then I would get a very nice fee. And I remember telling my wife “I don’t know who this guy is they hired, but I don’t really care how good or bad he writes the script. As long as they start the movie.” (Laughs).
So HBO was using me as a consultant. Like “We want to make sure things are right,” or whatever. So we’ll show you the script. And they sent me the script that this guy wrote. And it was incredibly bad. It was so off-tone. And it was like “How could you read the book and get these things wrong?” Including things like having Letterman and Leno get drunk in bars. And neither guy drank at all! I was like “You can’t have a scene doing that! They could sue you! You can’t do that!” So I was really appalled and I didn’t know what to HBO. I want them to make the movie and they make reject it now. So it was a Friday when the script came and I was supposed to talk to them on Monday. So I sat down and thought “Maybe I could just fix the first scene.” And I started to try to write something. And I didn’t have the software to write a script at all. I had never done that. So I just used the Word format and fooled around with the margins. But I pounded out like 40 pages in a day. And when they called me and asked me what I thought of the script, I said “I think it’s terrible.” And they said “So do we. We don’t know what we’re going to do.” And I said “If you hire somebody else, I have an idea of how they can start it that might work better.” And I sent it to them and they said “This is great. You’ve gotta write this.” So that’s how that happened.
Let’s talk about the podcast, Behind The Desk. When you were starting the venture, did you ever have a thought of “Is there anything left to uncover?”.
Yes, I did. What really happened was the podcast was supposed to be quite modest. Like maybe I’d interview Kimmel for 40 minutes and then I’d interview the producer of The Daily Show. And it’d just be an interview show like many podcasts are. But then CNN wanted more. And I said “Well, okay.” And I sort of came up with this plan to do separate themes.
What are the elements of late night? Well, the hosts. So I did a show about hosts and what it takes to be a host. But not just interviewing them. Talking about sort of where they came from, what they have to do, how it changes their lives. And then I did one on the format, because I thought “There’s something really enduring about this format. Why? Why does it work like this?” So I asked people questions about that. And then I wanted to do writers, because I think writers are amazingly unusual. I thought “No one’s done this. No one’s sat down and talked about writing one of these shows.” And they are essential. When Steve Allen started, he had four writers for an hour and 45 minutes. Now they’ve got like 20 people writing these shows. But it’s interesting. There’s people that write just monologue jokes, there’s people that write just sketches. And then I did a whole one about comics getting their first break, which I thought was just a unique thing and I knew they were great stories and I wanted to do that. And then I did one about the way politics have changed. So I came up with much more of a documentary approach that required me to talk to several people that I probably wouldn’t have talked to otherwise.
I love how you formatted the podcast. For a late night fan like myself, I can’t get enough of it. And the final thing I wanna talk to you about is the quarantine shows. It was something that was so unique and original, and incredible that they pulled it off. What did you make of those shows?
I think people underestimate this: They were performing without an audience! There was nobody there. There was nobody laughing. When they first started to do this, I was like “How are they going to do this if you don’t have people laughing at what you’re saying?” Your rhythm is totally different. You can’t follow up a joke with something else. You can’t play off the energy of the audience. It’s so different! So I thought it was an enormous challenge for these people. They had them shooting it in their own homes, doing this Zoom thing with the guests. I thought it was a very big challenge. Admittedly, I don’t think somebody said “You know, I want to change this entirely and do something completely different.” But that made me realize you can’t do that. If you do that, first of all, you have no audience. You have no clue whether this is working or not. It would be a complete leap in the dark. And I think what they did was mostly remarkable. Because can you imagine going to a stand-up club and a guy comes out and he tells his routines and there’s not one human being laughing? He couldn’t get through it. He’d be humiliated. So I really admired them for being able to do that. I really did.
They could’ve done maybe more with video, but the staff was limited, too. Nobody could leave their house. It was a completely unique challenge. The fact that these shows got up and running at all flabbergasted me. I’m impressed. Jimmy Fallon’s wife is shooting the show, his kids are running around. And it was pretty entertaining. These guys are really talented and I think they held up pretty well.
I feel like creativity is born out of these environments.
There’s no question. And I think we will see carryover. I’m sure we’ll see carryover in certain ways. Somebody’s going to say at some point “Why do we have the big band here? There was no band on those shows. Why do we keep paying money for a big band?” And those other shows have always had costumes and props and stuff that they use. And frankly that’s going to go out too, I think. The shows aren’t making any money at all. They’re not making anything near what they used to make. So they’re going to look for cost cutting. And if some guests won’t fly into New York or wherever, they’ll still do interviews remotely because they can. And I do believe that they’ll go back to having guests on the show because it’s better and it’s more intimate, but you don’t always have to do that. It won’t be awkward when they do. They used to occasionally have that, and it’d be awkward. But it won’t be awkward anymore. So I can see them scaling down. I can see that. But I do think they want to have an audience. I think that’s something they all need. It pays off. I do think the shows are funnier with an audience, because frankly it encourages you to laugh when other people are laughing.
The Story of Late Night airs Sunday nights on CNN. Behind The Desk: The Story of Late Night can be found wherever you get your podcasts.