With all of the controversy surrounding Jay Leno & Conan O’Brien, I thought this would be the perfect time to look back at an HBO original movie called The Late Shift, which came out in 1996. This film stars John Michael Higgins, Daniel Roebuck, Kathy Bates, Rich Little, & Treat Williams. Also, this dramatic film is directed by Betty Thomas & it takes place during the time when Johnny Carson decided to step down as host of The Tonight Show on NBC, which was in May 1992.
During the year of 1992, after hosting The Tonight Show for nearly thirty years, Johnny Carson (played by Rich Little) decided to call it quits. As a result, this left the door open for two viable candidates: David Letterman (played by John Michael Higgins) & Jay Leno (played by Daniel Roebuck), the ultimate opportunity to secure the highest honor in late night television. This film takes a look at behind-the-scenes at the politicking, which occurred during that time. Apparently, Johnny Carson wanted David Letterman to succeed him. However, Jay Leno got the spot because of his tough manager, Helen Kushnick (played by Kathy Bates). As a result, a distraught & devastated David Letterman brings in super agent Mike Ovitz (played by Treat Williams), who convinces him to move over to CBS. At first, the move to CBS was great for Dave as he was beating Jay in the ratings. It wasn’t until Jay had Hugh Grant on as a guest; which turned things around & made Jay #1 in late night. Jay never lost to Dave anymore during his tenure as host.
One aspect of the filmmaking, which I thought was great, was the direction they decided to take this film. For example, we get to see what happens behind-the-scenes, when the cameras are not rolling. We also get to see how Jay Leno basically politicked his way to get that spot via his manager. Finally, we get to see how David Letterman felt betrayed & bitter, which is why he decided to move to CBS. He felt that Johnny Carson left the spot open for him, not Leno. Fast-forward to today & Conan O’Brien finds himself in a similar situation as Letterman. Also, just like with David Letterman, Conan O’Brien finds himself losing out on The Tonight Show to Jay Leno.
The other aspect of the filmmaking which I thought was pretty good was the acting, in particular, the acting from Kathy Bates, Treat Williams, & John Michael Higgins. I thought Kathy Bates as excellent as a no-nonsense, loudmouth manager, who basically played hardball, stepped on other people, & bullied her way to get Jay Leno the spot. I liked the acting from Treat Williams as David Letterman brought him in to even out the odds. Finally, I liked the acting performance of John Michael Higgins as I had sympathy for him when he realized that he wasn’t getting The Tonight Show.
My overall reaction to this film is that while it didn’t blow me away, it was a pleasant film to watch. Kathy Bates definitely steals the show. HBO definitely needs to make a sequel, this time with Jay Leno & Conan O’Brien. Last time David Letterman got screwed, this time, Conan O’Brien is the one who is getting screwed. I would give this film ** ½ out of ****.