My favorite story to tell at parties is about the time Conan O’Brien hugged me. The embrace came during Conan’s Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour in 2010. Conan, the recently exiled host of NBC’s The Tonight Show, noticed my hair as he danced through the crowd — I wore a puffy comb over like his. The connection was clear.

This moment (maybe not the hug, but O’Brien’s tour) represents a high water mark in the Late-Night Wars—a two-decade clash of television comedians battling it out for ratings, advertising dollars, and a desk on The Tonight Show. Beginning with Jay Leno and David Letterman in the early 90s, the Late-Night Wars smoldered until they caught fire again at end of Conan’s stint at NBC in 2010. When news hit that Leno might take back The Tonight Show (kicking Conan off the carousel) television went crazy. Years of passive aggression bubbled to the surface. Those were dark times in the 30 Rock kingdom.

As strange as it may seem, the key to the culture wars just might be the key to the Late-Night Wars: mutual, loving respect coupled with collaborative competitiveness. Essentially, recognizing the humanity and value to others each person holds is the only way to break through the lust to disparage our opponents.Now, five years later, the ashes of conflict are all but extinguished—with Stephen Colbert’s ascension to The Late Show on September 8 representing the fall of network comedy’s Berlin Wall. The Late-Night Wars are over and we can all begin the long march home.

The late night landscape has changed in recent years. Leno and Letterman are gone. Even Conan, the seemingly only innocent party in the debacle, is consigned to cable. Where pride and resentment once ruled, now flies a completely different banner. The decades of bitterness between the old guard has been replaced by the mutual respect, dare I say collaboration, of Fallon, Colbert, and Kimmel.

This journey from peace to war to peace again is as convoluted as it is a micro-expression of the grander nature of conflict overall. When two groups compete for the same resources, the outcome can shift in one of two directions. In this way, understanding the history of the Late-Night Wars, and its myriad of players, can also give us a better idea of how conflict influences our own world—namely, America’s highly charged political climate.

In essence, the Late-Night Wars just might hold the key to the culture wars.

Appearing on the comedy scene in California during the 1970s, Leno and Letterman began their relationship as friends. Letterman went on to host Late Night on NBC, and Leno soon became his most frequent guest. “We were always friends before this all happened,” Lettermen said of his squabble with Leno. “’And I will say—and I’m happy to say—that I think he is the funniest guy I’ve ever known. Just flat out, if you go to see him do his nightclub act, just the funniest, the smartest, a wonderful observationist and very appealing as a comic.” Each individual had a profound impact on the other. Letterman learned to be a better stand up comedian from Leno; Leno learned how to be a better TV personality from Letterman.

Their cordial friendship ended in 1992 when NBC chose Leno to replace the retiring Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show—the program preceding Letterman’s Late Night. The decision was messy, and one Carson didn’t support; he’d been grooming Letterman as his heir. The situation hit its most bizarre when Leno hid in a closet to eavesdrop on a conversation that would influence his fate at the network. The one left standing when the music ended, Letterman felt betrayed by Leno and NBC, and quickly abandoned ship to start his own rival program, The Late Show, on CBS.

The network Cold War had begun.

Leno and Letterman entered into a perpetual relationship of passive-aggression that still lingers to this day. There are 2,781 miles between Burbank, California (Leno’s Tonight Show headquarters) and the Ed Sullivan Theatre in New York (Letterman’s studio), but during the 90s and 00s, the distance seemed far greater.

NBC soon replaced Letterman with Conan O’Brien and, after years of mediocrity, Late Night again took off in the early 00s. Coming from obscurity, Conan now garnered the attention of executives at both Fox and ABC. Fearing Conan’s exit for another network would steal viewers from The Tonight Show, NBC executives offered Conan Leno’s job if he waited five years. Rather than run the risk of losing their lanky comic, NBC felt it was a better decision to force Leno into retirement, despite The Tonight Show still being number one in the ratings. Conan was elated; Leno felt “blindsided”.

When the switch came in 2009, Leno expressed his reluctance to leave the air. To keep him from defecting to another network, NBC gave Leno a new hour slot before The Tonight Show. The lineup was now Leno’s new variety program at 10pm EST, local news at 11:00pm, Conan at 11:35pm, and newcomer, Jimmy Fallon, at 12:35am.

If it all sounds confusing, that’s because it was. The whole system fell apart. Leno failed to bring viewers to his new time, Conan’s viewership fizzled after a few months (blaming the bad lead-in lineup), and ratings fell. First the first time in almost 15 years, Letterman was beating The Tonight Show.

As NBC heads racked their brains to find a way to bump ratings, mud started flying.

“Hosting The Tonight Show has been the fulfillment of a life-long dream for me. And I just want to say to the kids out there watching, you can do anything you want in life. Unless Jay Leno wants to do it, too.” – Conan O’Brien

“Sure you heard these rumors that NBC is talking about canceling our show. You know what that means? I didn’t sleep with any of my staff for nothing.” –Jay Leno (a reference to Letterman’s 2009 sex scandal)

David Letterman dedicated a monologue to taking down his rival and NBC. Jimmy Kimmel even performed an entire episode of his show as Jay Leno.

While the feud made for a very funny few weeks, the dust eventually settled and late-night television became the biggest casualty. NBC moved Leno back to The Tonight Show, paid $45 million to break Conan’s contract (requiring him to be off of television for eight months), and washed their hands of the entire matter. Conan’s comedy was obviously affected (even at his new home, TBS). Leno retook The Tonight Show, but failed to innovate. And Letterman. Well, he just became more cynical.

The ordeal dealt a blow to an already declining television genre.

Near the end of the 2014 film, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Magneto and Professor X are facing what they believe to be the end of their life. Enemies for decades, each gaze at the person they once believed to be their greatest foe.

“All of those years wasted fighting each other, Charles.” Magneto laments to the professor. “To have a precious few of them back.”

Leno and Letterman are the Professor X and Magneto of comedy, and the Late-Night Wars—Jay and Dave’s relationship included—can be best summed up as a missed opportunity. Over two decades of resentment and bitterness not only left its mark on the artists involved, but on late-night in general. Can you imagine if Leno and Letterman had been friends during their competitive run? Sure, they probably wouldn’t have started a comedy troupe called L2, but late-night television could have been something special these last twenty years. We’ll never know. Both stars even turned down invitations to be on the final episodes of each other’s shows.

All of those years wasted fighting each other.

Now, over two decades after the Late-Night Wars began, spring has finally come. And if the current crop of hosts make due on their previous cordiality, we could be headed for a golden age of late-night television.

Fallon, Colbert, and Kimmel are the antitype of Leno and Letterman. They make laugh, not war. They wish each other good luck — something L2 would have never done. They also appear on each others’ programs from time to time. In preparing for his new show, Colbert met Fallon for drinks. “I’m not competing with Jimmy Kimmel!” Colbert said in an interview with Howard Stern. “CBS is competing with NBC, and ABC, and TBS, or whoever it is. Conan and Jimmy 1 and Jimmy 2, as I call them—we’re friends.”

Their competitive collaboration is telling. Late-night television is the best it’s ever been. Much like when Letterman first began on Late Night in the 80s, creativity is blossoming in ways it hasn’t in years.

In a stark contrast to the Leno/Letterman years, late-night comedy currently exists within an atmosphere of creation, rather than retention. These relationships provide an intuitive pattern of the potential good that results from opposing forces operating in a respectful, collaborative community. Fallon, Kimmel, and Colbert aren’t any less competitive (they all still want to do well in the ratings), but, in nature, their rivalry is civil and communal (elevating the art of comedy overall) rather than individualistic (elevating only themselves).

It’s when these positive and negative poles converge that the Late-Night Wars began to take on new meaning. Rather than characterizing a self-contained struggle between comedians and their network overloads, they serve as a beacon, if you will, an intimate look at the nearly universal battle for power and recognition—especially in our current political atmosphere.

Yes, the Late-Night Wars have something to say about the culture wars.

The right and left political ideologies each desire to stake their claim in both an audience and a powerful desk (this one in the Oval office). Religion plays a large part in this struggle as well. And, like the Leno/Letterman years, much of the recent political dialogue has ventured into demonization, resentment, and stubbornness. Finding opponents who are willing to work together for the greater good is difficult, if not impossible. You’d be hard pressed to locate opponents encouraging one another or sitting down for a friendly, public chat. In this landscape, even hugging the President is a sign of weakness for those on opposing sides of the aisle.

Our personal conversations often mirror this ideology. How difficult is it to find a place to rationally and politely discuss political issues with those who don’t agree with us? We often block out, ignore, and caricaturize our opponents. Maybe our conservative friends are Leno-types: laid back family men and women who err on the side of maintaining the status quo. In contrast, our liberal acquaintances are a Lettermen of sorts—hipper and more sarcastic, more morally expansive.

As strange as it may seem, the key to the culture wars just might be the key to the Late-Night Wars: mutual, loving respect coupled with collaborative competitiveness. Essentially, recognizing the humanity and value to others each person holds is the only way to break through the lust to disparage our opponents. A commitment to these attributes won’t necessarily dispel values and ambition—we each still desire victory for our political and moral beliefs—but they can produce a readier environment for justice and equality to thrive.

Numerous groups, many of which operate within Christians circles, have strived to create avenues of open dialogue with those who are seemingly at odds with their ideology. These gestures are not always met with extended arms, but they make much needed inroads in treating our opponents as partners in the task of creating a better community and nation. When we empathetically listen to those who disagree with us, we create more opportunities for politics to produce national good. To put it plainly, we have a better chance at accomplishing shared interests together rather than we do apart.

As the Late-Night Wars teach us, maybe sitting down to talk and toast—like Fallon and Colbert—is an important component to our faith changing the world. Maybe, elevating communal needs instead of our individual desires, will create an atmosphere of innovation instead of demonization. Maybe, being willing to hug our opponents is the first step to sharing the love that Jesus talked about.

Speaking of hugs, have I told you about the time Conan O’Brien embraced me?

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