By John Baggett
PSDC Pop Culture Guru
Project Shanks Monday Night Movie: The Late Shift (1996)
Rating: **** (out of 5)
Every now and then I look back at some of the films that shaped my adolescence and realize I’m not normal. Case in point, one of my favorite films from my mid-teenage years was an HBO TV movie about the war between David Letterman and Jay Leno for The Tonight Show, which is something that impressed all the ladies, let me tell you. And since we are now entering a Letterman and Leno free late night TV era, let’s jump in the way back machine and take a look at the 1996 film, The Late Shift.
The film opens with David Letterman (John Michael Higgins) giving a press conference as he signed on to do The Late Show on CBS. We then flash back to 1990, back when Letterman and Jay Leno (Daniel Roebuck), the permanent guest host for The Tonight Show, were still on friendly terms. Leno’s agent, the ruthless Helen Kushnick (Kathy Bates) stirs up drama about Johnny Carson (Rich Little) retiring. The NBC brass denies that they are trying to force Johnny out, but at a 1991 affiliate’s dinner, Carson announces his retirement.
Letterman and Leno both put in for the show, but NBC gives the show to Leno, keeping Letterman as his follow up. Letterman is heartbroken, but as Kushnick’s antics piss off potential guests (she even bans some from the show) and NBC becomes unsatisfied with Leno’s performance, the possibility of Letterman taking over is still there. But, Leno is crafty, even going so far as to listen in on a executives meeting, to help keep his job. He even fires Kushnick as his agent and has her banned from the NBC lot.
In the end, Letterman is bound to NBC, with a contract forcing him to stay and not pursue other offers, but thanks to a loophole, he is able to listen to what other networks say. And with The Tonight Show remaining just a pipe dream for him, Letterman moves to CBS and makes comedy history.
The film is based on the book by Bill Carter, who wrote a follow up book, The War for Late Night, in 2010, which chronicled the incredibly bizarre Leno/Conan era of The Tonight Show. It was directed by Betty Thomas, who directed one of my other media related biopics, Private Parts. The book generated a lot of controversy and so did the book. While Leno took the movie in good stride, and even invited Roebuck on the show to promote it, Letterman was angry and until his final episode never invited Higgins to appear on the show.
Why I love the film is that it took me into the world of late night television, and let me peek behind the scenes at the men (Carson included) that I would stay up late on Friday nights to watch. These were my kings of late night, and the film humanized them for me. I understand Letterman getting upset, but you can’t help but feel bad for him. And he probably should have gotten The Tonight Show, but then again, CBS let him do whatever he wanted and he came out just fine.
The performances are good. Higgins and Roebuck give fine performances as Letterman and Leno, and the majority of the cast, whom we have all seen in countless films and TV shows over the years, all have memorable moments. But, the real star of the show is Bates, who gave a menacing yet humanized performance as Kushnick. Kushnick’s antics were legendary, but in a pre-Ari Emmanuel (or Ari Gold) world, she was the one who would stop at nothing to do what she thought was best for her client, she just let it go to her head.
Yes, this film is heavily dramatized and yes, it is a TV movie, but it still has the HBO stamp of quality that we have come to expect of the years. Check this movie out if you haven’t seen it. It’s the kind of dialogue heavy behind the scenes drama that Aaron Sorkin should have written, but I like what we got in the end.
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