What <i>Really</i> Went Down During the Conan vs. Leno Brawl: Juiciest Quotes From 'The War for Late Night'

The juiciest tidbits from Bill Carter's "The War for Late Night."

November 8, 2010, 2:45 AM

Nov. 8, 2010 &#151; -- We all saw it play out during the dawn of 2010: Conan O'Brien vs. Jay Leno, the no-holds-barred, on-air battle royal that turned the realm of late-night TV into something more like a WWE wrestling ring.

But you don't know the half of it.

Bill Carter's new book, "The War for Late Night," reveals what happened behind the scenes, the expletives that were hurled during closed-door discussions, the roller coaster that O'Brien, Leno, and their cohorts rode during that tumultuous time. Carter, the television reporter for The New York Times, also drops little-known tidbits about late-night TV's stars (Leno wears Payless shoes? David Letterman's staff thinks he needs mental help?) and uncovers who these men are when they're not slinging the jokes that put Americans to bed at night.

Of course, the war's only just begun. Today's release of Carter's book coincides with the debut of O'Brien's new late-night show on TBS, a potential battering ram to the other network's post-11:00 p.m. offerings.

Below, check out 15 juicy excerpts from "The War for Late Night:"

On O'Brien's reaction when NBC executives asked him to start "The Tonight Show" at 12:05 a.m. so Leno could do a half-hour-long show before him: Conan did have something he really wanted to say, something that had been almost burning a hole in his chest. "What does Jay have on you?" Conan asked, his voice still low, his tone still even. "What does this guy have on you people? What the hell is it about Jay?" Neither of the NBC executives has an answer. They cast their heads down. Conan thought they were working at looking sympathetic, following some lesson that had been taught at corporate school.

On Jeff Zucker's (NBC's then president and CEO) exchange with Richard Rosen (O'Brien's agent) about O'Brien not jumping at the midnight deal: "Let me explain something to you," Zucker said. "I want a f***ing answer from you. If you think you are going to play me in the press, you've got the wrong guy. You're a representative of Conan O'Brien, aren't you?" ... "I want an answer from Conan and I want an answer quickly. You know I have the ability to pay him or play him, and I could ice him for two years."

"Well, Jeff," Rosen said, "we're going to give you an answer when we have thought about it. If you want an emotional answer, I'll give you an answer now. If you want the answer after we've thought about it and we've analyzed it, you'll get that answer."

Zucker remained hot. "Just let me tell you something -- you are not going to f***ing play me."

On O'Brien's decision to release his "People of Earth" public statement and bow out of the "Tonight Show" job: "Let's all be aware of this -- we're about to blow this f***er up, Ross [Jeff Ross, O'Brien's executive producer] said, full of portent. "This is going to blow this f***ing thing up." There was only one reaction that mattered, only one pair of eyes for Ross to check out. Conan stood outlined by the doorway of the conference room, his swoop of copper hair almost touching the fame. He looked directly at Ross, unblinking. "Blow it up," he said.

On how O'Brien felt in the wake of "Team Coco" and his massive online following: The outpouring of support made Conan feel as if he was starring in his own version of the movie "It's a Wonderful Life," both because he was allowed to see a "Tonight Show" where he never existed and because the support made him realize he really was "the richest man in town."

On Leno's vision for the 10 p.m. "Jay Leno Show:" "Even though it's ten o'clock," Jay said in outlining his plans for "The Jay Leno Show" of 2009, "we're going to pretend it's 11:30."

Leno, Letterman and O'Brien's Quirks

On Leno's penchant for Payless shoes: He was a creature of habit so ingrained that he was rarely seen offstage in anything but the same denim work shirt, faded jeans, and $14.99 pair of black Payless SafeTStep work shoes. These, Jay explained, he bought "by the crate" because they were "impervious to oil and gas" -- a feature important to him because of all the time he spent working on the fleet of vehicles in his automotive shop in a converted hangar at the Burbank airport.

On Leno's foray into comedy: This was a guy who in fourth grade had been hit on the head with a hammer by a kid who thought anyone with a head that big must surely have a skull made of granite. Bleeding, Leno assured the class he was fine -- though it hurt like hell. He got a big laugh, which made the pain pass more quickly.

On Letterman's anger issues: Letterman directed most of his anger and disgust at himself. In the old days the staff would often hear him in his office battering his stereo equipment with a baseball bat, all of them wondering, "Is he mad at me? Did he not like my joke, or my segment?" But when one of the producers would work up the nerve to walk in and ask him if everything was all right, Dave would say, "I hate myself. I'm the biggest asshole in the world. Look how I messed this up."

On how Letterman worked up the energy to go on stage: After drinking enough cups of strong coffee to stimulate the economy and before going downstairs to perform, Letterman would sit at his desk surrounded by a pile of Hershey bars. Carefully unwrapping each one, Dave would break four or five of them into their separate little squares and then pile them on top of one another into a little chocolate tower. He would proceed to eat all of the squares as he went over the upcoming show with the producers. By the time the sugar rush kicked into his system, he would be backstage and ready to go on the air.

On Letterman's psychological issues: Many of those closest to Dave urged him to seek some help, get counseling of some kind, maybe visit a psychiatrist. But that idea always unsettled him. One member of his inner circle said, "Every time I brought up over the years that he ought to see a shrink, he always had the same reaction: 'I wouldn't be as funny.' There was probably no question that he was right." For the same reason Dave resisted recommendations that some kind of medication might help.

On how O'Brien dealt with his ill-received "Late Night" debut in the 1990s: O'Brien, the man who could fly high on comic inspiration, was also capable of the deepest of lows when he spiraled all the way down. He walked into his office, passed his assistant and closed the inner door behind him. He made his way behind the desk, stood there for a second, then bent, went to his knees, and crawled down under it.

Leno and O'Brien, Post-War

On Leno's work ethic: Jay intended to settle back in and stay busy doing shows for the foreseeable future, but he swore he was open to considering a true end date now, though one he could pick at his own discretion -- not NBC's. He cited what he called the Midwestern model: put 20 or more years into a job, get to 63, 65, or so, and that's retirement time. ... He even volunteered to try on a plan he had always opposed: opening up some nights to allow guest hosts to replace him -- a way for NBC to identify potential new host prospects. This kind of talk was totally new for Jay, who more often talked of working until the lights went out -- literally. As in: "I'm Scottish; we die in the mine."

On how the whole mess haunted O'Brien months after the dust settled: But still, sometimes, in the middle of the night, when the house was quiet and the bed was warm, Conan would lie awake, sleep impossible, the replay machine running in his mind, generating scenes wilder and more stunning than anything his always blazing imagination could ever have conjured. Liza [O'Brien's wife] would wake and watch him for a while, just lying there, staring blankly. And then Conan O'Brien would softly say: "What the f*** happened?"

On what O'Brien wants to say to Leno: "I know you think you've won, but you have no idea what you've lost."

On the task ahead of O'Brien now: "Can Conan kill Jon Stewart?" one of Conan's old NBC associates asked. "With intent -- I mean, can he stand over the body? because, you know, that's what he has to do now. And we know Jon can definitely kill Conan."

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