Carter gives the last words, or almost the last, of his book on the Leno-O’Brien wars to Jerry Seinfeld. To Seinfeld, O’Brien’s letter to the People of Earth promising never to desecrate the “Tonight” legacy suggested a man who was indeed lost in space. “There is no tradition!” Seinfeld says. “This is what I didn’t get. Conan has been on television for sixteen years. At that point you should get it: There are no shows! It’s all made up!” O’Brien gave up a time slot on network television in the name of a fiction. And what are the stakes, anyway? Seventeen and a half million people, Carson’s nightly average back in the late seventies, is more than twice the number who now watch “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and “The Late Show with David Letterman” combined. Measured in constant 1972 persons, “Tonight” is watched by a smaller audience than “The Dick Cavett Show” was when it was cut back to one week a month. The late-night talk-show potatoes have got very small. But today the original networks are like gigantic and benign marine creatures, relics of an earlier time on earth, swimming in a sea filled with more nimble and opportunistic predators, all competing for the chance to alarm, to titillate, and—if such a thing is still possible—to offend.
more from Louis Menand at The New Yorker here.