Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Late Shift: Leno vs. Letterman




Late night TV has been in the news recently. Leno is out, Fallon is in, and Seth Meyers has taken over Jimmy's old time slot. Plus, a book about Johnny Carson was released recently by his former lawyer/manager, Henry Bushkin. Viewers of Johnny's Tonight Show may remember him mentioning his manager, "Bombastic Bushkin".

In 1996, an HBO made-for-TV movie was released about the Letterman/Leno fiasco in the wake of Carson leaving his show. Leno was played by Daniel Roebuck in a fake prosthetic chin. John Michael Higgins played Letterman, complete with double-breasted suits paired with tennis shoes and chomping on a cigar. Letterman made fun of the movie on his show since the guy who played him had red hair. Dave also was puzzled by a scene that had the character in his backyard throwing baseballs at an archery target. Rich Little played Johnny Carson in the film. Little does a good Carson impression, but something seemed off about his performance. For one thing, Little has a different body type than Carson. But, with any film based on real people, comparisons will be made. Kathy Bates seemed to be right on the money with her portrayal of Leno's caustic manager, Helen Kushnick. This film also starred Ed Begley Jr. and Bob Balaban as network executives and Treat Williams as Letterman's powerful agent Michael Ovitz.

Putting aside the questionable acting by some of the participants, this is a good film to check out if you have an interest in the behind-the-scenes aspects of wheeling and dealing in the television industry. It was based on a book by late night TV expert Bill Carter. According to the movie, a prime reason behind Leno taking over for Carson had to do with the hardball tactics by Leno's obnoxious manager, Helen Kushnick. The film showed Letterman as a tortured soul who beat himself up after the shows by viewing tapes and criticizing his performance. By 1990, NBC was looking to replace Carson and Kushnick planted an article in the New York Post saying that NBC wants Carson out and Leno would be his replacement. Letterman really wanted to be Johnny's successor but when it appeared it was not going to happen, he considered deals with ABC, Fox and CBS. ABC would not give him an 11:35 pm show since they were committed to airing Nightline at that time. Fox was just a new network in the early 1990s and it was unknown if they would have a future. For an 11:35 pm show on a major network, CBS was the best bet. CBS had courted Leno, giving him a motorcycle. NBC head of programming Bob Wright really wanted NBC to keep Letterman, whether he had the 11:35 pm show or not. When Leno took over Johnny's show in 1992, Kushnick was his executive producer. She refused to let Jay acknowledge Johnny Carson on his first episode. Helen's brash attitude and underhanded tactics became a problem and NBC told Leno that if she was not fired, he would lose The Tonight Show and Letterman would take over. Leno felt an allegiance to Helen since she had helped him build his career for years, but he needed to keep his job. She ended up leaving show business and suing the publisher of the book The Late Shift. Carson was contacted by Dave for advice on what to do. Johnny said that in light of NBC's treatment of him, he said he would walk away and work elsewhere. That's what Dave did, going to CBS where he had an 11:35 pm show that was successful, although he usually lost to Leno in the ratings. CBS pays Dave well, plus his company, Worldwide Pants, owns the shows.

One thing that was not addressed by the movie is whether or not Johnny had a say in who he thought should replace him. You'd think that NBC would have that as a factor in making their decision, but maybe not.
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