Monday, June 15, 2009

The Late Shift

Conan's ascension to the Tonight Show and what that move subsequently means for a generation of geeks who demand more from their comedy than tired monologues and obsequious interviews has rekindled a love in T.V. as a whole for me, at least outside of my usual practice of waiting for the DVD: while a talk show has no real bearing on scripted fictional programming, it validated people who liked something a bit outside of the mainstream (though Conan isn't half as weird as some claim). The geek had inherited the Earth.

Then Jay Leno had to ruin it all. His decision to not go quietly into that good night threw a monkey wrench into Conan's promotion before he even switched shows. Not only did it display the network's lack of faith in Conan, but it undermined the notion that T.V. might step it up a bit, as the news that Jay would move to a primetime slot suggested that, in the future, narrative programs might not make it to air in favor of not only exploitative, generic "reality" programming but talk shows as well. People drew parallels to the infamous Leno/Letterman face off of the early '90s over succeeding Johnny Carson, a story I've heard in passing without any concrete details (read: juicy bits). I heard of a film called The Late Shift, which chronicled Leno's upstaging of Dave, and put it in my Netflix queue before bothering to learn it was actually based on an acclaimed book. "Never mind," I figured, "I can just watch this while I hunt down a copy."

I wish I'd waited. The Late Shift barely scratches the surface of what went wrong, and that's coming from someone who watched this solely because I have no clue what happened. I'm barely more educated now. While the scheming of the executives works well in places, at other times the film just treads water.

It certainly doesn't help that both John Michael Higgins' Letterman and Daniel Roebuck's Leno are some of the most laughably bad impersonations you've seen outside of an amateur video. Both are less concerned about getting into these characters as they are with looking the part (they don't) and sounding the part (oh Lord, you don't even wanna know). If the entire movie is supposed to be about how Leno pulled the wool over Letterman's head, and how Letterman rebelled in outrage, shouldn't we get in their heads a little bit?

However, the terrible leads do not automatically ensure the film's failure, as The Late Shift focuses more on the executives who so idly cast aside the man who'd been with them for a decade and managed to take an ambitious and wildly audacious program and turn it into a success. Seriously, while people my age might not look at the current Letterman and see someone that much better than Jay (though he really, really is, even at his laziest), we owe him for making what Conan refers to as "the anti-talk show." His Late Night more or less gave young viewers something to care about -- as great as Carson was, his guests tended to be more familial and the show was based on the old form of comedy. Dave paved the way for Arsenio, Conan, Craig Kilborn, Craig Ferguson, even The Daily Show. I really wanted to see how that man, that legend, could be so utterly crushed.

At times, I get my wish. We see Warren Littlefield and John Agoglia look at Leno's ratings when he fills in for a vacationing Johnny to Letterman's, as if it's fair to compare the ratings of two different time slots, especially so late at night. They move to lock in Leno as they already have Dave secured for two more years. But we don't see Carson being pressured over the infighting to the point of resigning, nor do we see Dave's on-air bashing of NBC bosses which turned them against him. According to the descriptions of the book -- which is seriously the only place I can find any information regarding the snafu at all -- these executives behaved more like a high school clique than businessmen, but we are very much presented with cold, calculating sharks.

The lone bright spot in all of this is Kathy Bates as Leno's tyrannical agent Helen Kushnick, who discovered him on the stand-up circuit and launched his career. She's the one who convinces the executives to undercut Dave, and when they start on the Tonight Show, she oversteps every boundary of authority: she cancels guests for having the audacity to appear on other talk shows and even sends an audience home when live coverage of the Republican National Convention runs long. There's a hint of tragedy to her relationship with Jay, as she lost her son when he contracted AIDS from an infected transfusion, and lost her husband shortly thereafter. Leno promised the husband to look after her, and now the suits, understandably outraged by her antics, want her gone. It could have been an interesting thread if it got more than three minutes total of screen time.

So, while parts of it were interesting, The Late Shift fails to shed much light on the feud, and it's poorly acted to boot. Sadly, the book seems to be out of print, so it might take me a while to get a copy, so I'll remain in the dark as to many of the figures and anecdotes concerning the events. If you're a kid like me who wants to know what went down 16 years ago, you might want to give it a shot. But fair warning: don't expect to leave knowing much more than you did when you started.

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