In 1992, an epic battle raged between House NBC and House CBS. The era of Johnny Carson was coming to an end — whether Carson wanted it to or not.
Before the age of the safely played late night scene dominated by the Dueling Jimmys: Fallon and Kimmel, late night was a multimillion dollar industry. Careers were made and broken in the context of interviews. Thanks to DVR and the advent of YouTube, viewers can catch the best segments the next day — no need to stay up late and soak in the comedy.
The Nineties were a different time.
The Late Shift is a briskly paced biopic with an excellent soundtrack that reeks of old-school network audio stingers. Based upon the bestselling book of the same name, Bill Carter of The New York Times paints a particularly non-partisan look at the behind-the-scenes drama that ensued between the entertainment giants.
Leno and Letterman wanted to inherit the legacy that Carson held with The Tonight Show. Both men wanted the torch to carry for themselves. It’s impossible to paint Jay as the villain at this juncture. He was a young person hungry for fame, just like any comedian at this stage in their career. In comparison, Letterman was deeply depressed and highly cynical. Arguably, he held Carson’s legacy closer to his heart.
Helen Kushnick was the wizard behind Leno’s curtain. Expertly portrayed by Kathy Bates, she’s easily the film’s best actor. (In fact, she won five awards for the role.) Kushnick had a strange relationship with Leno, baiting him with rewards and holding him to deathbed promises. The Late Shift’s Leno is clearly incapable of thinking for himself and haplessly goes along with Kushnick’s lust for success and power. Following some insane blackmail practices by Kushnick, NBC would later give Leno an impossible ultimatum: fire Kushnick, or lose his Tonight Show seat to Letterman. It’s Shakespearian in its level of tragedy.
It’s easy to sympathize with Letterman as well, a man who’d rather have the prestige of The Tonight Show than a $12.5 million annual deal with CBS. Then comes the revelation: a deal had been signed in favor of Leno before Carson had even announced his retirement from late night. It’s an insane moment in history that’s played dramatically, not unlike The Larry Sanders Show. Even though the tone of The Late Shift is comedic and not quite as heavy as it could be, it works.
Letterman comes out as the figure anyone would sympathize with over Leno, due to the shady techniques that secured Leno’s future with late night. Despite an early ratings lead for Letterman following the publicized debacle, Leno would secure the ratings lead (following actor Hugh Grant’s admission of paying women for sex, according to the film itself).After the events detailed in the movie, fresh-faced, Irish comedian Conan O’Brien would slip into the role at NBC vacated by Letterman — The Late Show.
Letterman, with his own Late Show at CBS, invited John Michael Higgins (the actor who played Letterman in The Late Shift) to the show following the film’s release. Higgins declined, only to be booked in 2009 — over a decade later. Letterman, in an act that’d be considered “trolling” in the modern lexicon, teased an interview with Higgins up until the final minute, later saying he had “ran out of time.”
The first battle for the sanctity of The Tonight Show was lost on me; I wasn’t alive to witness it. I experienced it secondhand through a similar battle that followed in 2010 between Leno and Conan O’Brien. O’Brien was poised to take the wheel. Even though Leno was “retiring” from The Tonight Show, NBC granted Leno a primetime nightly show at 9 pm, leading into Conan’s Tonight Show… after the local news slot. Due to Leno’s failing attempt to succeed on primetime, NBC planned to move Leno back to 11:30 pm. Conan was offered the ability to keep the Tonight Show moniker — but at 12:00 pm. Conan’s argument? “It’s called The Tonight Show, not The Tomorrow Show.” The same tenacity that Letterman once had for the legacy of The Tonight Show was present in O’Brien; it was a 60 year-old institution precious to him — and one he didn’t want to lose.
History will remember that Leno succeeded himself; any reference to Conan’s tenure at the late night desk was scrubbed from official sources. Conan lost access to his intellectual property he created at NBC, including that on The Late Show With Conan O’Brien. If not for TBS capturing Conan at the “second” height of his popularity, he may have slipped away into obscurity. Conan’s final Tonight Show episode would feature a rousing rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird”, featuring Will Ferrell, Beck, Billy Gibbons, Ben Harper, and O’Brien himself. It’s worth watching… if you can find it. It’s a lovely punctuation mark on his short-lived, seven month stint as host.
Jimmy Fallon was in the right place at the right time. Succeeding O’Brien’s Late Show, he gathered a lot of the same viewers. The viewers than Kushnick once craved for Leno: the young people. Fallon would carry those young people to his version of The Tonight Show following Leno’s two-year return tenure.
Now, Letterman has since retired, leaving what he created in the care of Stephen Colbert. Leno keeps out of the spotlight, except to make guest appearances alongside Fallon and show off his massive garage of vintage cars and motorcycles. Bill Carter would write a “sequel” to The Late Shift titled The War For Late Night outlining the conflict between Leno and Conan in similar fashion. Renowned director, Quentin Tarantino, joked on Conan’s last week of shows, claiming that he could direct the sequel to The Late Shift in Kill Bill fashion. O’Brien still airs on TBS with his own show (aptly titled Conan).
The Tonight Show remains a stage for its star. It’s a character in this saga — as much as Leno and Letterman were before. Critically viewing Fallon’s tenure, one could say it’s bizarre. His interview skills are much like Leno’s were in their infancy: awkward, Chris Farley-like fare. Fallon’s interview last year with then presidential candidate Donald Trump was outrageously tame and did much work to humanize him as a “regular guy.” Mere months later, Fallon is cracking jokes at Trump’s expense. Carson, Letterman, or Leno in Fallon’s place would’ve used such an opportunity to challenge a guest and comfort the audience through comedy. It begs the question: are people watching today for the interviews?
It’s truly amazing how little we rely on network television for news and entertainment. Socio-political commentary by YouTube users is preferred over anything that seems stuffy or old. In fact, YouTube is where a lot of late night stars find their biggest draws. O’Brien has “Clueless Gamer”, a segment dedicated to his inability to play video games. Fallon has “Lip-Sync Battles”. James Corden has “Carpool Karaoke”. Kimmel himself also has his fair share of viral segments.
Because of the internet, the conventional “late shift” is something that may one day come to an end. Like soap operas, it’s on its last legs and close to ringing the death knell. However, the titans that once battled for its honor and the stories it bore will remain. Lots of people have dreamed of hosting The Tonight Show, but not everyone will have that opportunity. In Conan’s farewell speech, he remarks, “If you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen” — and amazing things have happened for all men involved.
Things You Might’ve Missed is a column dedicated to various topics, aiming to give insight into pieces of media seemingly forgotten by time or skimmed over because it was released in an unfortunate window.