All this week, Uproxx‘s Late Night Week will take a look at late-night past, present, and future, from talk shows to late-night comedy, and beyond. Here’s a look back at a memorable, oft-aired HBO movie that retold the battle between Jay Leno and David Letterman using a compelling mix of drama and cheese.
When I was growing up in the early ’90s, I was obsessed with a lot of things that now seem a little silly: grunge, NFL passing statistics, Elle MacPherson, Total Recall. But by far the silliest, and hardest to fathom, was my intense interest in the late-night wars waged by David Letterman and Jay Leno over The Tonight Show.
How this inside-baseball story spilled over into the tabloids and Bill Carter’s 1994 bestseller The Late Shift — and even spawned a sequel decades later starring Conan O’Brien — stills boggles the mind. Looking back, what should’ve been obvious all along now can’t be denied: This was an argument by millionaire entertainers over a time slot. A time slot! Remember time slots? That was when you had to tune in to a specific over-the-air channel at a specific time of the day in order to watch a show, or else you wouldn’t be able to see it, like, ever again. Can you imagine the indignity?
Nevertheless, at the time I found the palace intrigue so fascinating that I didn’t question why, in 1996, The Late Shift was turned into a TV movie that subsequently aired on HBO and basic cable approximately one billion times for the next 20 years. Instead, I proceeded to watch The Late Shift one billion times.
On paper, The Late Shift doesn’t seem remotely cinematic, even on a small screen — how do you visualize a story in which white men in suits talk about scheduling for 90 minutes? This is an inherently unsexy story, in which the hottest cameo comes courtesy of Ken Kragen, personal manager to outlaw country Muppet Travis Tritt, a marginally famous insider who was among the Hollywood elite spurned by Leno’s infamous executive producer, Helen Kushnick, over (you guessed it!) the scheduling of talk show guests. In the ’90s, when you messed with someone’s schedule, that was grounds for war! In those terms, The Late Shift is like the Saving Private Ryan of scheduling.