The Late Shift (1996) – A Review


A review of the 1996 television film The Late Shift, starring John Michael Higgins, Daniel Roebuck, Kathy Bates and Rich Little, about the battle for hosting The Tonight Show between Jay Leno and David Letterman after Johnny Carson retires

The Late Shift 1996 movie Daniel Roebuck John Michael Higgins Jay Leno David Letterman

The undisputed ‘King of Late Night’, Johnny Carson is leaving the popular and lucrative NBC Tonight Show. It is 1992 and Carson has reigned supreme for the past thirty years. With an opening at the desk, The Tonight Show will not only become a stage for monologues and interviews, but the epicenter for a battle full of egos, backstabbing, shaky deals and million dollar contracts. The prize – who will get to sit in the NBC throne once Carson relinquishes it?

David Letterman (John Michael Higgins) or Jay Leno (Daniel Roebuck), which of these two television heavyweights will be victorious and how will the late night landscape change as a result?

Letterman has faithfully been doing his Late Night show following Carson for ten years. He’s Carson’s own personal choice to be his successor and he fully expects to be given the Tonight Show hosting job. But does that matter to the NBC brass who view Leno as a valuable and easier manageable commodity?

Daniel Roebuck Jay Leno Kathy Bates Helen Kushnick The Late Shift 1996Leno’s bombastic, power-hungry agent Helen Kushnick (Kathy Bates) goes all in to get her boy the slot. She will work any devious power play and unabashedly step on anyone’s toes to make it happen.

Meanwhile, Letterman readies himself for a fight for the job he’s dreamt of and feels he’s earned by hiring super agent Michael Ovitz (Treat Williams). Ovitiz must help Dave get out of his restrictive NBC contract and move elsewhere if he’s not given the prime 11:30 nightly spot.

The NBC suits have their hands full desperately trying to figure out a plan for making both television stars happy, attempt to keep both at the network and somehow survive this tumultuous “Late Shift”.

I was very excited for this movie when it premiered. I had read Bill Carter’s 1994 book The Late Shift and the film follows all the drama, craziness and pettiness that Carter described pretty closely. Not much is missed and I always found it an endlessly fascinating behind-the-scenes circus of characters and events. The movie provides an entertaining rundown of just how that whole late night mess went down.

For those late night fans who were around at the time, they surely remember what a big story it was. First, the huge deal it was that Carson was signing off The Tonight Show and then the ongoing battle of who would be stepping in to replace him.

The Late Shift 1996 John Michael Higgins Steven Gilborn David Letterman Peter LassallyI always imagined it as a real life Looney Tunes cartoon fight scene. We see a bunch of characters start to trade blows, they whiz across the screen in a big dizzying cloud of dust. There are lots of goofy sound effects, we see an arm here and a face there in this melee. We all were waiting to see once the dust settled where everyone would be at.

The film successfully captures that kind of madness. Some of the behavior and decisions look like they did really get inspired by a cartoon. However, no matter how outrageous or juvenile they might all appear, from everything I’ve read it’s all pretty accurate or at least very close to how the story really went down.

You have to wonder if these are the type of big powerful people in charge of network television and this how they handle things, it’s amazing anything gets on the air.

I always thought Roebuck and Higgins both did a pretty darn good job as Leno and Letterman. Throughout the movie they made me forget about their real life counterparts. They do just enough to convey both of their unique characteristics and looks, but avoid getting roped into playing exaggerated imitations.

Late-Shift-1996-TV-movie-David-Letterman-Johnny-Carson-Jay-Leno-John-Michael-Higgins-Rich-Little-Daniel-RoebuckHiggins I thought was particularly effective. It might not be that flattering a portrayal of Dave. His Letterman is a real crank, but I think it still works for the story and is probably pretty close to the real Letterman. Although, I never understood why they gave him reddish hair.

Roebuck’s makeup had gotten a lot of flak right from the premiere, but I never thought it looked that bad. Maybe it’s a bit distracting when you first see it and you know Roebuck’s face, but it didn’t take me long to get used to it.

The cast is made up of a roster of character actors dutifully filling their parts quite well. They each get introduced into the story with text describing who these characters are.

It’s mainly a lot of NBC brass and competing network big shots. They’re the ones who are sitting at the big tables and are either in the NBC camp of being in the no-win situation of trying to keep their two prized performers happy or are the completion trying to steal them away.

The Late Shift 1996 HBO TV movie castBob Balaban, Ed Begley, Jr., Steven Gilborn, John Getz, Reni Santoni, John Kapelos, and on and on. You might not recognize all these actors names, but you’ll be sure to recognize them and be saying, “Oh I know that guy!”

The two real standouts among the supporting players are Balaban, who is quite funny as the put upon Littlefield and Williams as the ultra-cool, unflappable Ovitz. Both of those characters would be fun to watch on their own.

Kathy Bates’ Helen Kushnick gets as much screen time as Higgins and Roebuck. In fact, she’s just as much of a key presence in the story as Leno and Letterman. It is her maneuvering that ignites and fuels this firestorm. Bates is a tornado in this. She’s bullying, tossing off obscenities, making threats and more than ready to follow through on them. She won a golden Globe for her performance.

She and Leno share the only real personal relationship in the story. With Letterman he might have his pals and confidantes, the ‘suits’ are most concerned with their bottom lines, but with Kushnick and Leno there’s a strange bond between them that has occurred that just can’t be broken.

I’ve read from some of the real life participants after having seen the film they felt it actually goes easy on Kushnick’s portrayal. That in real life she was much worse than how Bates plays her here. Leno’s loyalty to her is made crystal clear, but it also says something about him that he’s so willing to let her abhorrent behavior slide while still struggling to defend her.

The Late Shift movie 1996 Tonight Show docudrama

One interesting scene is after another instance of Kushnick’s crazed behavior, NBC President Warren Littlefield has something of an ‘intervention’ with Leno about her. The hope is that Leno will see Kushnick as a major problem for him and The Tonight Show he has been given. It’s essential he cut ties with her.

However, Leno is reluctant, wants to maintain his loyalty to her and rationalizes, “Helen got me the Tonight Show” to which Littlefield replies, “And she might lose it for you too.”

The majority of the movie takes place in offices and board room. It’s a literal ‘behind-the-scenes’ story. We get a few glimpses of some of the tv show sets, and quite frankly, they’re pretty cheap looking.

They don’t give the vibe of the popularity or value of The Tonight Show. It might not bother casual viewers, but being so familiar with the Tonight Show those scenes always stood out to me as being quite shabby and truly look like what I envision a cheap TV movie would manage. The few shots we get of Leno performing in front of the Tonight Show audience makes it look like it’s some elementary school talent contest.

Carson’s surprise announcement of his retirement took place at Carnegie Hall and the recreation is on a much smaller scale than reality. It’s sort of a simple plain stage. These scenes get the basic idea across, but they’re not the movies strongest moments. The recreation of the Late Night set is pretty good.

John Michael Higgins as David Letterman The Late Shift 1996

Fortunately, those less than impressive re-enactments are fleeting moments and really the juiciest stuff is away from the television audiences and cameras.

Director Betty Thomas follows things behind the curtain, films a lot of it handheld giving it a documentary-type of vibe, giving the feeling we’re peeking in on this chaos. The heated confrontations and frantic phone calls don’t need a lavish setting or higher budget to ignite the drama. Just let these actors fly.

Really, the bland settings of car rides and claustrophobic office meetings work quite well compared to the glitz of the television stages. That’s where the real focus of the film lies and all the drama unfolds. It’s a real contrast to see Leno hiding in a small dark closet eavesdropping on the NBC bigwigs compared to ‘the television Jay’ doing his monologue.

The Late Shift Movie 1996 Rich Little as Johnny Carson
Rich Little as Johnny Carson

One big misstep I think the movie made was the casting of Rich Little as Carson. Yeah, he might bring the voice and the mannerisms, but he looks nothing like Johnny. They probably would have been better off to have had used old footage of him or kept him a blurry figure in the background with Little providing his voice.

I was always team Dave. Once my friend and I got to sit in the audience of Dave’s Late Night Show and was so jazzed getting to see him. My friends and I even scored tickets to his anniversary show at Radio City Music Hall! I was always a Letterman fan.

However, there was one thing that Dave did that I thought was pretty harsh.

I recall Letterman had booked Higgins on his show around the time The Late Shift premiered. I tuned in to see what they would talk about, but unfortunately Letterman bumped Higgins saying they ran out of time for him. Yeah, right.

The-Late-Shift-1996-TV-movie-Talk-show-drama-David-Letterman-Jay-Leno-John-Michael-Higgins-Daniel-RoebuckI always thought that was a petty and tacky move on Dave’s part. If he held some resentment towards Higgins for playing him in this film than don’t invite the guy onto your show. I always liked Dave, but I thought that was a pretty crappy thing to have done and I’ve never forgotten it.

On the other hand, Roebuck has said Leno was always quite nice to him and never showed any animosity towards him playing him in this. Jay, always the nice guy.

After all this turmoil with the changing of the guard of the Tonight Show, everyone thought NBC would never let something like this happen again! WRONG! Carter did a follow-up book in 2010 detailing the next crazed conflict that took place in late night television, The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy. It seems they never learn.

I would love to see a followup film made dramatizing that next chapter of late night. Have Roebuck return, cast a Conan O’Brien and continue this real life tale of melodramatic television. It would certainly be much more interesting and entertaining than what actual late night television programming has become.

A trailer I edited for The Late Shift



Hey, you’re in luck! Someone was kind enough to post the entire film! Check it out before it disappears.

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