Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Late Shift (1996)

Starring John Michael Higgins, Daniel Roebuck, Kathy Bates, et al
Rated R, 95 minutes

There have been few stories in the world of entertainment that were as crazy and gripping as the late night battle of the early 90s; the struggle for supremacy between David Letterman and Jay Leno over who would succeed Johnny Carson as host of “The Tonight Show.” What we have here is the 1996 HBO TV movie adaptation of Bill Carter’s wonderful book on the subject, directed by Betty Thomas.

The tale is filled with a lot of Hollywood backstab and deceit, lots of false promises, money flying around, all that good stuff. To summarize, Jay Leno was the permanent fill-in host for Johnny since 1987. Everybody also seemed to know without anything definitive being said that David Letterman had his eye on the seat. Jay’s longtime and famously hard-nosed, angry, lying manager Helen Kushnick greased the wheels to set an official deal in motion. By the time Johnny had announced his retirement, a contract had long been signed leaving Dave in the dust.

I’m a Dave fan through and through, and I don’t want my bias to shine through in the review. At the same time, the book and movie both portray Jay as a bit of a weasel despite his manager being the one doing all the cheating. Maybe that’s why I like it, who knows.

The movie does a wonderful job of condensing the detail-heavy, but still awesome book into an enjoyable and funny movie. There was a part of the book where Dave is offered “Tonight” but had to wait more than a year to get it while Jay still hosted, and even then it wasn’t a lock. With some great acting, camerawork and scoring, they were able to tell the story of how excited Dave got and convey that it was a high energy moment, yet also show how shoddy the deal truly was without saying it.


With such defined personalities as Leno and Letterman, it would be hard to expect perfect characterizations. I was able to accept John Michael Higgins as Dave despite watching him all my life. I even laughed when he delivered some classic Letterman lines. Kathy Bates as Helen Kushnick was sensational. Bob Balaban played NBC exec Warren Littlefield, more or less reprising the role he was doing on “Seinfeld.” Rich Little did his Carson impression to play the master himself. You should read the book if you can get your hands on it, but this movie is more than fine in telling the story of the late night war.

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