A&E’s “Battle for Late Night” revisits past TV clashes much more than current Leno-Conan

If you thought it was rather fast for a two-hour documentary on the late-night machinations from NBC this January and February, then, well, perhaps you're right.

"The Battle for Late Night" — debuts tonight on A&E and repeats early Wednesday morning and also Saturday, May 1 — features no exclusive interviews with Conan O'Brien or Jay Leno (nor even David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel). But the special, produced by New Wave Entertainment, does mine archival footage for choice moments of Conan, Leno and Letterman from the late-night wars of 1993, and includes new 2010 interviews with the New York Times reporter Bill Carter (who wrote the book on the 1993 late-night shuffle and is hard at work on the 2010 sequel), TMZ.com's Harvey Levin (whose sympathy for Leno may suggest where he was getting his exclusive leaks?) and other observers.

And if you wanted to know what Craig Kilborn is up to, you're in luck, too. Kilborn speaks candidly about both of his late-night adventures, first at The Daily Show on Comedy Central, and then The Late Late Show on CBS. "I have no regrets," Kilborn says now. You'll also learn more about Pat Sajak's brief tenure in late-night for CBS than you might have expected, as well as more than you may have wished for from Bill Maher, as he and his producers take you through his journey from Comedy Central to ABC and finally HBO.

All of which means this special isn't so much about what's going on right now between Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien (although they do cover it in the final segment, with a screen-grab of the news announcing Conan's move to TBS appearing as a reporter suggests FOX would be crazy not to hire Conan!). It's really more about how all of the TV politicking that came before this makes what's happening now seem slightly less crazy. But just slightly. Hearing Leno joke back in January 1993 that NBC stands for "Never Believe your Contract" raised my eyebrows, knowing that he went back to that well a couple of months ago, despite the fact that he has remained under contract with the Peacock Network all of this time. By taking a historical look-back at late-night, you also get to see how Dick Cavett and Joan Rivers felt about being the first people to take on Johnny Carson — Rivers discloses just how heartbreaking the experience was for her. The documentary does a fairly good job of remembering those who came before, not just with Cavett and Rivers and Sajak, but also Arsenio Hall, Steve Allen and Jack Paar. There's mention of how Chevy Chase's short-lived bomb impacted the landscape in 1993, but no mention whatsoever of some of the other entries (no Magic Johnson, no Keenan Ivory Wayans, no Alan Thicke, no Dennis Miller and while Jon Stewart gets talked about for his Comedy Central gig, there's nary a mention of his earlier effort on MTV). But then again, this special did come together fairly quickly. If you really want to know what went down this winter at NBC, you're just going to have to wait for the dust to actually settle.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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