This evening, Conan O’Brien starts his new job as host of “The Tonight Show”. The late night host enters the 11:30 arena with much fanfare and only a tad bit of drama. His predecessor, Jay Leno, will now be his lead-in at 10:00 this fall; his critics don’t believe his brand of humor is accessible to the middle of the country, and on top of that he has the weight of one of the most revered jobs in television resting on his shoulders.
But whatever struggles he may be having, whatever growing pains may be occurring in the late night landscape, it cannot be compared to the mess that occured the last time there was a transition in this space almost tow decades ago. That affair is best illustrated in the 1996 HBO Original Movie The Late Shift.
Directed by the actress Betty Thomas, The Late Shift is many things all at once. It is a backstage opera, a comedy about comedy, a biopic and a winding espionage-tinged drama. The two leads, Daniel Roebuck as Jay Leno and John Michael Higgins as David Letterman, embrace their roles with only a hint of impersonation, fulfilling the recognizable look and feel of the nationally recognized artists while connecting to the emotional roots of each. It is burlesque, it is revealing, and it is damn funny stuff.
The story centers around Johnny Carson’s moving on to greener pastures without ever naming a replacement for his most sought after job in television. What took place in the aftermath was a whirlwind of negotiations and heartbreak between the network, Leno, Letterman and seemingly anyone close to either party. Mr. Leno had proven himself a worthy stand-in for the aging Carson on air, while Mr. Letterman had given over a decade of his life to NBC, not a small price to pay in hopes of one day sitting in the same chair as Steve Allen, Jack Paar and of course, Johnny. But the intrigue and backstabbing of the film is not what interests us here. No, it is the almighty power of television that makes the story so compelling.
In the film, television is something worth fighting for. Both a barometer and a compass for American social mores, television helps bring the nation together under one flag, under one host it seems. And so now we find ourselves in the waning days of the medium. With the growing juggernaut that is internet-based content, the idea that nearly any flat surface can instantly be updated with original programming, television is fighting for it’s life. This has happened before with the advent of VHS, the rental model, DVR and the like, but the one constant has always been the daily commentary provided by shows like “The Tonight Show”. It has weathered storms before now Conan will have to lead it through the muck to come.
If you haven’t seen The Late Shift you really should give it a spin. It will make you miss the 1990s and wonder what the world would be like with Letterman on NBC every night. For my money the world would be a whole lot funnier, but that’s just me. Maybe in a few years, we’ll see the battle that went on to get Conan to the top. For now, The Late Shift is a great watch at this major juncture in television history.