Monday, May 17, 2010

"The Late Shaft": Bill Zehme on Jay vs. Coco

As usual, TV critic Aaron Barnhart had it right: he recently Twittered, "Start with p. 3 of the Bill Zehme-Conan-Jay slugfest story. That's where it becomes a pleasure rather than a chore." Of course, I felt obliged to read every word of Zehme's piece, which will appear in the June issue of Playboy (yes, the one with the 3D centerfold). It does take a bit of time to get going, as Zehme (who ghosted Jay Leno's autobiography Leading With My Chin) goes overboard with wordy flights-of-fancy: "You did hear about all that, I’m sure: the Cuckoo Coup upon Coco’s Stillborn Empire? The Great Toadying Chin-Surrection and Double-Cross Grab-Back in Burbank? The Giddy Dance of the Hoosier King’s Spite Demons on Broadway?"

Finally, Zehme stops rehashing the conflict and gets to the good stuff, delving deep into the twisted world of late night rivalries. Leno is portrayed as a man who is able to compartmentalize his setbacks to such a degree that he convinces himself they never existed; not surprisingly, he's already denying that he ever had a prime time show. "That never happened!" he exclaimed to guest Chelsea Handler when she referred to "The Jay Leno Show" during an appearance on "Tonight," a few days after Leno had reclaimed his 11:35 PM throne.

Zehme reveals that Conan was invited to participate in David Letterman's famous Super Bowl ad, along with Oprah and Jay. "Word circulated, accurately, that Conan had also been asked to appear in the promo but declined out of fealty to his reported $40ish million exit settlement with NBC. But according to one close Coco colleague, that wasn’t exactly the case; instead, when the premise was described to him—the whole everybody-on-a-couch-with-Leno thing—his pale face went much paler. And his verbal response was thus: 'No fucking way will I ever do that!'"

Looming far above it all, like a one-man Mount Rushmore in a world of pipsqueaks, is Johnny Carson, who told Zehme as "The Late Shift" movie was about to air: "'Can you believe that awful shit?' he said woefully. 'It’s just ridiculous. I mean, give me a break!'" Zehme, who spoke with Carson after he stepped down from "Tonight," confidently declares that Johnny "would have led all applause for Conan’s gutsy stand" and spills details about O'Brien's phone conversations with the all-time king of late night: "[I]n their last chat shortly after Conan had been named Leno’s eventual successor, Carson cracked, 'It sure is a long engagement before the wedding, kiddo.'"

Zehme's piece will give further ammunition to Leno-haters and produce satisfied nods of recognition from Team Coco -- with an extra bonus for Andy Richter fans; don't miss the anecdote on page 4, about the sidekick's run-in with the Chin.


  1. Keonyn said...

    It's good to get this kind of thing from someone who is inside the industry but not really attached to any of the major players.

    I also read the whole thing from page 1, and agree that there really wasn't much content until at least the last paragraph of page 2.