This chronicle of the machinations behind the high-profile battle for control of "The Tonight Show" puts heavy emphasis on the wheeling and dealing behind the scenes of late-night television. The movie premiered on HBO in February of 1996, and was later released to home video.
Late night programming is a $70 million profit machine for the NBC television network. Johnny Carson (Rich Little) is the host of "The Tonight Show" and the undisputed king of the late shift. Jay Leno (Daniel Roebuck), the popular "permanent guest host" of Carson's show, and David Letterman (John
Michael Higgins), a self-contained institution in the hour after Carson, both stand as heirs presumptive to Johnny's throne. When Carson announces his retirement, NBC executives, who've been bullied by Leno's acerbic manager Helen Kushnick (Kathy Bates), make the strategic decision to maintain the
status quo, and name Kushnick's client as Carson's replacement. In response to this, Letterman signs with powerful Hollywood uber-agent Mike Ovitz (Treat Williams) and seeks release from his "indentured servitude" to NBC.
With Kushnick installed as "The Tonight Show"'s executive producer, the outset of Leno's stint as host is a stormy affair. Kushnick delights in playing a zero-sum game of hardball with guests, their managers, NBC colleagues, and her bosses. Eventually, fed-up NBC executives fire her, and make it
clear to Leno that if he walks off the show out of loyalty, they'll replace him with Letterman. Meanwhile, Ovitz has engineered a bidding war for his client's services, and the NBC brass start second guessing their choice. Desperate to keep Letterman, they finally offer him "The Tonight Show."
After seeking counsel from Carson, his Yoda, Letterman decides the job he covets is now damaged goods, and he defects to rival network CBS.
THE LATE SHIFT is spiritual kin to another made-for-HBO movie, 1993's BARBARIANS AT THE GATE, wherein the behind-the-scenes chronicle of a corporate takeover became a pointed satire of '80s greed culture. THE LATE SHIFT makes its point in the scene where NBC President Warren Littlefield (played by
Bob Balaban) takes a phone call, while on the toilet, from Leno. Littlefield is caught, literally, with his pants down as Leno reveals his knowledge of the merciless remarks made about him by NBC execs at a (supposedly) secret meeting. This tone--"Look at how stupid these NBC bigwigs are!"--is the
movie's major flaw.
Adapted from Bill Carter's book, which was published in 1994, THE LATE SHIFT reflects the conventional wisdom of that time: NBC made a big mistake choosing Leno and letting Letterman get away. Then, it appeared CBS and Letterman had scored a resounding victory with the new "Late Show," as Leno
continued to struggle. As fortunes have since turned, that attitude appears misguided and the movie feels dated. (Imagine, a two-year-old period piece.)
Given the public's current, seemingly insatiable appetite for entertainment "news," THE LATE SHIFT's premiere generated immense media attention. It received acclaim primarily for the performances of Williams and Bates. Helen Kushnick, who died in the fall of 1996, sued over how she was portrayed.
Leno generally avoided commenting on the movie or its unflattering portrait of him. Letterman offered hilarious parodies on his show and, perhaps, the best assessment of THE LATE SHIFT as much ado about "a job interview." (Extreme profanity.)
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- Released: 1996
- Rating: R
- Review: This chronicle of the machinations behind the high-profile battle for control of "The Tonight Show" puts heavy emphasis on the wheeling and dealing behind the scenes of late-night television. The movie premiered on HBO in February of 1996, and was later re… (more)