The Late Shift (1996)

the late shift

“You’re such a nice guy, Jay Leno. Worrying about your friend Dave. You wanna know the real difference between you and Letterman? You had me.”

The Scoop: 1996 unrated, directed by Betty Thomas and starring Kathy Bates, John Michael Higgins and Daniel Roebuck

Tagline: Two heads fighting for the late night crown – One head’s gotta roll.

Summary Capsule: The Gap vs. the Chin. The rebel vs. the nice guy. The battle for 11:35 is about to begin.

Drew’s rating: Greg the Bunny for Tonight Show host in 2011!

Drew’s review: Unless you dabbled in Amish last winter, no doubt you heard about NBC’s controversial decision to oust Conan O’Brien after only seven months hosting The Tonight Show in order to bring back Jay Leno. It was a big deal in the way pop culture events tend to be when there are no elections or massive oil spills going on — all the late night hosts got some mileage out of it (Kimmel’s Civil War sketch was the funniest), there was speculation Conan would move to Fox, that somehow changed to TBS(?), and eventually it all died down. Now we sit in limbo, wondering exactly what Conan is going to do surrounded by 23 solid hours of The Office and Family Guy reruns.

But back in January as his stint was winding down, Conan joked that when The Late Shift 2 inevitably comes out, he’d like Tilda Swinton to play him. She graciously accepted and I will SEE THAT MOVIE if and when it gets made, but it also got me thinking about the original late night war. Conan wasn’t the first person to get screwed out of the coveted gig, and fortunately someone wrote a book about it that became a made-for-TV movie with actors who don’t even slightly resemble their characters. Lucky us!

Let me cop to my bias in advance: I’m a Letterman guy. Jay Leno seems perfectly nice and I’m certainly no fan of Dave’s infidelities; but at the end of the day, I’m not tuning in for morality lessons, I’m there to be entertained. And the fact is, Letterman is still sometimes funny; Leno isn’t. Simple as that. Yes, your grandparents think that Jay is a real knee-slapper, but they also think calling an African-American man “well spoken” is really progressive, so I wouldn’t use them as a barometer. Nonetheless, I’ll attempt to stay neutral while summarizing the plot.

It’s 1991 and CBS is eager to replace the floundering Pat Sajak with a hot new late night host. The contenders? Longtime Late Night host David Letterman, and permanent Tonight Show guest host Jay Leno. The men couldn’t be more dissimilar — Dave relentlessly self-critical, innovative, acerbic, and unwilling to play politics; Jay affable, meticulous, homespun, and arguably bland. CBS would be thrilled to nab either, but there’s a problem: Johnny Carson is getting on in years, and both men want nothing more than to succeed the king of late night. When Carson finally announces his retirement, NBC executives are forced to choose between Letterman or Leno, knowing that whoever loses is going to be supremely unhappy. NBC wants to keep both, CBS yearns to steal one, and what just might tip the scales is Jay’s domineering pit bull of a manager, Helen Kushnick. You know who won the war, but now find out how it was fought and who the casualties were.

I’ll admit it, this film impressed me more than I was expecting from a made-for-TV movie. The acting is pretty good and in some cases excellent, notably Kathy Bates, who seems to really enjoy getting to cut loose and release the inner rhymes-with-witch. But what most impressed me is how much The Late Shift subverted my expectations. I went in assuming it would chronicle a lengthy battle between two formerly friendly rivals, culminating with one of them finally getting the prize. Far from it- 20 minutes in, Jay’s already signed the contract. No, the bulk of the movie concerns the aftermath, Dave’s decision whether to change networks and the early days of Jay’s reign. This is where the film really shines; we all know how the battle turned out, but I don’t think most of us realized how very close Jay came to being ousted in his first year, when his ratings were down and Dave hadn’t yet jumped ship. It turns out the late night war was far more complex than most would have suspected, and in some parallel world right now, you and your family are discussing how Dave’s getting a little long in the tooth, and maybe it’s time to step aside and let that Conan kid take a crack at Tonight.

What I also appreciated is that, like the book it’s based on, The Late Shift doesn’t fall into the trap of oversimplifying things, emphasizing the variety of factors that ultimately sank Dave’s hopes. Yes, it was Jay’s pushy (albeit successful) manager, but it was also Dave’s unwillingness to campaign, his unveiled distaste for NBC executives, and the fact that he was locked into a two-year contract with NBC and they were terrified of losing Jay to CBS. It doesn’t go into as much detail as the book regarding why many people who worked with both men considered Dave the better pick (Jay was an expert stand-up comedian, great at crafting and telling jokes, but was weaker at interviewing and concept humor, whereas Dave excelled in all areas), but time is limited. Most importantly, like any book written by a credible journalist (even a TV adaptation of such), it makes clear that none of the involved parties were totally innocent or totally guilty. Even Helen Kushnick, the closest thing to a flat-out villain, has some tragedies in her past that might lend her just a tad more sympathy in your eyes. And nobody gets a completely happy ending: Dave auditions for ten years only to be passed over, and while he gains a great venue for his show and increased appreciation, he’s forced to give up his one and only dream. Jay gets the show, but has to live with the knowledge that many of his bosses thought they’d made a mistake and tried to give Tonight away out from under him. It may not be a feel-good ending, but it makes the story seem far more real.

So what have we learned, other than that The Late Shift is an enjoyable film that it’d be worth your time to watch? Well, like David Letterman, we’ve learned that hard work and merit alone are not enough; they are important, but they have to be combined with cultivating the right relationships and pushing for what you want. (A prospect I find as distasteful as many of you, but trust me: it’s true.) And most of all, we’ve learned that “business decisions” rarely equate with what’s right, NBC executives are as ruthless and easily swayed now as they were 20 years ago, and gee whiz image be damned, don’t get in Jay Leno’s way. Even unintentionally, Coco.


  • The Late Shift is based on a book of the same name by journalist Bill Carter. I highly recommend it, it gives even more behind-the-scenes information than the movie is capable of providing. Carter has confirmed that he is currently working on a sequel titled “The War for Late Night,” centering around the Conan/Leno fiasco.
  • Ironically, Jay Leno owes his TV career to David Letterman. Leno did one successful appearance on The Tonight Show in the ’70s followed by three increasingly weaker spots, the last of which was so poorly received that he was not asked back for another eight years. But in the early ’80s, Late Night was consciously looking for different guests than what Tonight was booking. Jay was asked on, and he and Dave had such good rapport that he appeared many more times, raising his profile to the extent that he was asked to guest host Tonight and… well, you know the rest. Jay has always been forthcoming in expressing his gratitude to Dave for this exposure.
  • The book goes into more detail about why Dave was so low-key in pursuing the Tonight Show gig, other than pure respect for Johnny- Carson was notoriously territorial and was known to freeze out anyone who openly coveted the throne. He also discouraged competition: prior to Leno, the permanent Tonight Show guest host was Joan Rivers, a close friend of Carson’s. However, she erred badly by signing a deal with Fox for her own late night talk show without consulting the king first. When she eventually called Carson to tell him, he hung up on her and never spoke to her again. What’s more, it was made known that any celebrity who appeared on Rivers’ show would no longer be welcome on The Tonight Show. Goodbye, The Joan Rivers Show.
  • That said, Letterman was widely considered the heir apparent to Carson, including by the man himself. Johnny appeared on Late Night immediately after announcing his retirement, carrying an Ed McMahon-style giant check and telling Dave, “Oddly enough, it seems you are the million-dollar winner.” (Oops, since the show had already been promised to Jay at that point.) Years earlier, when a monologue was bombing Carson had said, “Why don’t I just go on home and we can bring Letterman in right now?” Carson was never asked for advice about his successor by NBC, but staff members who were close to Johnny say that while he never had a bad word to say about Jay, it was clear he supported Dave. It’s telling that Dave was invited to be one of the guests on Johnny’s final week of The Tonight Show, while Jay was not. It’s also telling that after his retirement, Carson appeared on Dave’s new show on CBS (and apparently occasionally sent Dave jokes), but he never appeared on Leno’s Tonight Show. Conspicuously, Carson made no mention of his successor on his final episode; and in turn on Leno’s first night as host, he did not thank or acknowledge his predecessor (at the insistence of Kushnick, who was angry about Carson’s slight).
  • For a brief time in the ’70s, Helen Kushnick actually represented David Letterman; he severed ties with her after a year due to her volatile temperament. After the release of “The Late Shift” in 1994, Kushnick sued Bill Carter for libel over his allegation that she planted a story with the New York Post that NBC was thinking of dumping Carson for Leno. They eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. Kushnick died of breast cancer in 1996.

Groovy Quotes

Kushnick: I wanna know when Carson’s gonna get the [bleep]in’ message and quit. I want Jay signed.

Carson: You know, Jay Leno, who is now the guest host on our show, he is driving me nuts backstage. “How you feeling? Your thyroid okay?” You know, I like Jay, and he is very concerned about my health. In fact, he suggested I take a run through Central Park about midnight tonight.

Kushnick: You’re such a nice guy, Jay Leno. Worrying about your friend Dave. You wanna know the real difference between you and Letterman? You had me.

Littlefield: Dave, you know why we’re here. The network has been analyzing the late night situation, and for the last several years we’ve watched Jay grow into the role of host. Now, now obviously we have every reason to be proud of what you’ve accomplished, but a choice had to be made, and so tomorrow NBC will announce that Jay Leno has been named the new host of The Tonight Show.
Letterman: …uh, and I’m sure that Jay will do a fine job. Uh, but I must tell you that we have done this show for ten years, and uh, we know how to do this show. Now, the best thing would have been for all of us here to have gone on and done The Tonight Show. That’s what we’ve always wanted to do, and it’s a real disappointment that we’re not. But, if it is your final decision, then you can contact my lawyer. Gentlemen, this is completely unacceptable. I want you to release me from my contract.

Lassally: You can’t follow Jay Leno for the rest of your life, you’ll hate yourself.

Leno: You lied to me?
Kushnick: We’ve always played the same game. You never want to know what I’m doing for you so you can be Mr. Nice Guy. “Booking war, what do I know? Helen handles that, I do the jokes.” You just want me to keep serving you the steaks, you never want to know how I’m slaughtering the cow.

Leno: Once again, Jay and Dave are in competition with one other, you know, now… New York likes Dave so much they don’t want to let him go. Jimmy, *I* like Dave. He’s my friend. I love this show, I’m not asking them to not like Dave… why does it have to be either/or? These network guys, you know they can’t make up their mind. They think they can just flip a coin. Dave or Jay, Jay or Dave, it doesn’t matter to them. […] If I’m the one going down, I’m going down swingin’.

Letterman: What would you do if you were in this situation, Johnny?
Carson: I’d probably walk. I’m not telling you to do that, David. But if you’re asking me what I’d do if I had been treated like that, I would probably walk.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Barbarians at the Gate
  • Pirates of Silicon Valley
  • The Prestige

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s