Hey Guys, Great News! Since recent events have made the film somewhat scarce, I’ve worked my Catholic magic to make the entire film watchable here! Excelsior!
As I type this, it’s the early hours of January 23rd, 2010. A sad night for fans of late night comedy as, on the fifth anniversary of Johnny Carson’s death, Conan O’Brien stepped down as the host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show.” A 60 year tradition, the crown jewel of after hours television has been treasured since the medium reached popularity. Now, a midst a tidal wave of controversy, one of the small screen’s most endearing figures said goodbye to a dream and played guitar into the sunset. With genuine emotion and class, Conan’s farewell was reminiscent of Johnny’s big goodbye back in 1992.
Also reminiscent was the public feuding over “The Tonight Show’s” hosting gig that’s been saturating the media over the past two weeks. From the humiliated executives to the personal digs over the airwaves, the Late Night Wars of 2010 seems like more of a franchise reboot than a sequel. Being a 23-year-old, I didn’t begin following the late show circuit until my parents’ separation meant I only got to see my Father on Wednesday and Friday nights, right around the time “The Late Show with David Letterman” debuted in the fall of ’93* and got to stay up to spend more time with him. I was seven and here was this gleeful grouch in a suit who was unlike anyone on the Fox Kids network lighting up my picture-tube. I became a loyal viewer, so imagine my surprise when I was home sick in the fifth grade and witnessed the war this man survived.
The Late Shift was HBO’s 1996 made-for-premium-cable dramatization of Bill Carter’s book of the same name. Directed by Betty Thomas (Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel) it’s been both celebrated for Kathy Bates’ Golden Globe winning performance as Leno’s cutthroat agent Helen Kushnick as well as ridiculed by David Letterman himself for actor John Michael Higgins’ (Blade: Trinity and the voice of Mentok the Mindtaker on “Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law”) exaggerated mannerisms. Newer “Late Show” fans might not realize that Letterman’s “Hee hee hee” originated from mocking Higgins’ portrayal. Having re-watched the film over the new Taco Bell five layer burrito** two hours before Conan’s final show, I’m happy to report that the best parts are better than I remember and the not-so-best parts are…well…”Hee hee hee!”
The most common criticism of the film is that it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a comedy or drama. While lines aren’t particularly drawn for the first half of the film, that’s exactly why it works. The dramatization isn’t that dramatic, and the comedy isn’t “played for laughs.” Instead, Thomas lets the bizarre chain of events play out as they happened, as the truth is far more absurd than any fiction they could have created. Where the film goes wrong is when it loses faith in its subject matter and throws subtlety out the fake backdrop’s window. The exact moment this happens is when, during an argument with his manager, Leno (Daniel Roebuck, “Lost”) smashes a framed picture of her on his desk and the SINGLE CORNIEST CASIO CHORD IN THE HISTORY OF CINEMA SOUNDS OFF THE DRAMA***! After that, the score becomes TRULY ATROCIOUS. Awful. Suddenly every minor lowlight of the film becomes an inferno of failure, including the nightmare casting of impressionist comedian**** Rich Little as Johnny Carson. While his imitation may work on stage, it’s almost insulting hearing him buried beneath a quarter ton of “Goosebumps” Insta-Tan Silly Putty mutter through his mediocrity before being returned to his Lazarus Chamber sarcophagus to irritate us another day*****.
Still, it’s worth watching as a quick refresher on how bizarre the television industry can be. It’s engaging, has a handful of laughs, and Kathy Bates’ performance is not to be missed. Watching it in 2010, it’s frustrating that the powers-that-be let such an enormous clusterfudge happen again. It’s a shame that Letterman never got “The Tonight Show,” but at least Conan got it for seven months. We can only hope whoever has it after Leno has it even longer.
We give The Late Shift a Three out of Five.
**Which is one layer for every star that I give it. $1.39, put it in your mouth and lose weight or something.
***And by “DRAMA” I mean “DRAAAAAAAAAAMMMMMMMAAAAAAAA!”
****In the same way miniature golf is still “golf.”
*****Quick story, remember in 2006 when Stephen Colbert gave a SCATHING roast of President Bush during the White House correspondence dinner? Well, the next year the White House wanted to avoid a similar incident so they propped Rich Little up to do his “impressions” to the delight of people who don’t know how comedy works. Before the big night, the 70+ and out-of-touch Little was asked who his favorite young comedians were, and he answered “Robin Williams – that guy is off the wall!” Yes, Rich Little’s favorite young comedian was then 58-year-old Robin Williams. Awful.
AND NOW, OUR FEATURE PRESENTATION:
“Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism. For the record, it’s my least favorite quality. It doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, amazing things will happen.” – Conan O’Brien
Until next time…Let’s Agree to Agree!