Then The Late Shift is the film for you!
Though it pales when compared to the subsequent battle between Leno and Conan O’Brien, the competition between Letterman and Leno to succeed Johnny Carson as host of The Tonight Show riveted America in the early 90s. Most media critics (and, reportedly, Carson himself) felt that Letterman had not only earned the right to host The Tonight Show but that he represented the future of late night comedy. The NBC network execs, however, preferred Leno, who had served for years as Carson’s permanent guest host and who was viewed as being more of a team player than Letterman. The end result, of course, was that Leno got The Tonight Show, Letterman switched networks, and for years the country was separated into Leno people and Letterman people. (Letterman got the critical acclaim but Leno got the ratings.)
The Late Shift opens with the unexpected retirement of Johnny Carson (played, as an enigma, by Rich Little) and then follows Letterman (John Michael Higgins) and Leno (Daniel Roebuck) as they maneuver their way to become his successor. Unfortunately, neither Higgins nor Roebuck are particularly believable in their roles, though Roebuck does get to wear a truly impressive fake chin. Far more impressive are Kathy Bates as Leno’s manager and Treat Williams as Mike Ovitz. Bates rips through her scenes, destroying anyone standing in the way of Jay Leno while Williams is cool, calm, and menacing as the agent who was, at the time the film was made, the most powerful man in Hollywood.
The main problem with The Late Shift is that, when it went into production, Letterman was ahead in the ratings and the film is clearly sympathetic to him. Leno comes across as a weasel while Letterman is portrayed as being neurotic but brilliant. But, shortly before the film made its debut on HBO, Leno landed the first interview with Hugh Grant after the latter’s arrest with a prostitute. Leno not only won that night in the ratings but he won every subsequent night and soon, Letterman was the one who was forever stuck in second place. A title card was added to the end of The Late Shift, admitting that Leno was now winning the war for the late night. Since every minute of the film was designed to make Letterman appear to the winner, it’s hard not to be let down by the ending.
Despite the disappointing ending, The Late Shift is an entertaining look at network politics. (Seinfeld fans will note that, after playing a version of Warren Littlefield during the show’s 4th season, Bob Balaban was cast as the real thing in The Late Shift.) After watching the movie, be sure to read the Bill Carter book on which it’s based.