The Late Shift

The Late Shift by Bill Carter

The Late Shift is the story of David Letterman, Jay Leno and the insanity surrounding The Tonight Show following Johnny Carson’s exit in 1992.

Before I picked this up, I had read the author’s follow-up book, “The War for Late Night” which discussed at length the controversy surrounding Conan O’Brien’s boot from The Tonight Show in 2010.  In that book, Carter laid the blame at the bumbling executives at NBC and after reading The Late Shift, it’s clear that NBC learned nothing the first time around.

Way back in 1992, under pressure from Jay Leno’s tyrannical agent Helen Kushnick, NBC appointed him the de facto replacement whenever Carson decided to exit The Tonight Show.  The problem?  NBC completely snubbed David Letterman, a man who had put in a solid decade working the hour that followed Johnny.  Letterman had been a ratings dynamo by pulling in that coveted 18-49 crowd studio execs lust after – why not give him a shot at 11:30?

NBC believed Leno was the safest choice and judging by his performance guest hosting “Tonight” for Carson, he was the logical pick.  It’s not like NBC went outside the box either.  The consensus among critics was that Leno was the heir to the throne.  Although he had rarely, if ever, alluded to the fact that he wanted The Tonight Show, Letterman was not even approached by the suits at 30 Rockefeller Centre about taking over hosting duties following Carson.  Letterman would find out through a third party only after Leno had been selected that he would not be moving his show an hour up.

Where do we go from here?  Well, Letterman felt that at 42, he had outgrown the late shift.  In order to advance his career, Letterman needed to move up to 11:30 and the thought of following Leno never appealed to him.  Letterman didn’t want to leave NBC and NBC didn’t want to lose Letterman to a competitor like FOX, ABC or CBS.

As Mick Jagger says, “You can’t always get what you want.”

It still baffles me that Letterman and his agent Michael Ovitz were nearly able to get Leno thrown off The Tonight Show based on a hypothetical scenario in which Letterman would trounce Leno in the ratings game.  Sure, there was a lot more to it than that, but Leno was already pulling in solid numbers and the two had never gone head-to-head before.  You truly have to be a master manipulator to succeed in Hollywood.

In the end, NBC should have just let Letterman go from the very beginning if they had already wrapped up Leno, but they couldn’t help themselves.  In the end, they seemingly made the right call, but they were very lucky.  Although Letterman destroyed Jay the first two years they went head-to-head, Leno would eventually recover, pull ahead of Letterman, and never look back.

Like The War for Late Night, The Late Shift was a gripping read.  Bill Carter, who had spent years covering television for The New York Times, heavily researched all the behind-the-scenes drama and crafted a thrilling narrative.  The book is filled with several colorful characters as well as a truly despicable villain in Helen Kushnick.  You could argue that she was just “doing her job”, but the way in which she is said to have spoken to colleagues, management and even Jay himself had taken me aback on multiple occasions.  I’m looking forward to catching the HBO doc featuring Kathy Bates in the role of Helen that won her an Emmy.
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