February 28, 1994 12:00 PM

by Bill Carter

Comedy may not be pretty, but the campaign waged by Jay Leno and David Letterman for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show throne should at least be good for a few yuks. After all, since the two first met in 1975 as unknown stand-ups, each had, by 1991, ascended into the seven-figure salary bracket on the strength of his wit.

Yet rather than explore how these professional pals dealt with their game of high-stakes musical chairs, Carter, a New York Times reporter, concentrates on executive-suite machinations. Once Leno wins the job—thanks largely to Helen Kushnick, his Machiavellian pit bull of a manager—CBS chief Howard Stringer begins wooing Letterman with gifts. (The most irritating: a video in which CBS newscaster Connie Chung coos, “Whenever Maury [Povich] and I make love, I promise to say, ‘Dave! Oh, Dave!’ “) NBC’s brass, faced with losing their Late Night star, order up endless viewer surveys before making a weaselly last-ditch offer.

Though well reported, this is pretty soporific stuff, not helped by the author’s tin ear for prose (“The Tonight Show became the one altar at which everyone in show business worshipped at”). Worse, Carter portrays Leno, 43, as an unrefleclive Rain Man of one-liners and Letterman, 46, as a churlish lone wolf in need of constant petting. Warts-and-all journalism has its place, but surely these guys can’t be all warts. (Hyperion, $24.95)

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