The battle over the host's succession of the Tonight Show (after Johnny Carson's departure) is chronicled in HBO's humorous, well-written 1996 made-for-cable movie, The Late Shift.
With Kathy Bates as Helen Kushnick, Daniel Roebuck as Jay Leno's long-time agent and John Michael Higgins in the role of David Letterman, the movie displays the endeavors of executives at NBC trying to to decide on a new host for the Tonight Show, while other networks compete for both of these top comedians.
Though the outcome is known from the beginning, this film is amusing as well as informative. It concentrates on personal situations in both Letterman and Leno's lives. When CBS executives tell him that they are firing Kushnick(producer of the Tonight Show), he must either separate from her or leave. Leno recalls when Kushnick helped him and another time when, as Kushnick's husband was dying, Leno promised that he would take care of her. Higgins's portrayal of Letterman is very convincing; he appears complete with a gap between his front teeth and the eternal cigar. The characteristic laugh and phrases cannot be mistaken.
Daniel Roebuck is not as strong in his role. He did not succeed in affecting Leno's distinctive accent.
Bill Carter, who wrote the book is being sued by Helen Kushnick for his portrayal of her. In the movie, Kushnick uses constant profanity, lies, creates false press, and refuses to accept anything against her own will.
Despite its few weak points, The Late Shift is a well-written, well-produced, and well-acted dramatization of the "late night wars." .
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.