The Late Shift
Bill Carter, George Armitage, and Betty Thomas, 1996

I rewatched this HBO movie back during the whole hullaballoo about Conan O'Brien getting booted from The Tonight Show. It's an adaptation of Bill Carter's book about the backstage maneuvering between Jay Leno's people and David Letterman's that ended up with Leno succeeding Johnny Carson at Tonight and Letterman moving across town to CBS.

Why watch something like this? Well, twenty years ago (which is when this movie opens) I was a fan of both those guys. Nowadays Jay Leno is widely viewed as a corporate drone delivering bland punchlines to help old people get to sleep, but back in the '80s he was one of those ranting comedians, sort of like Lewis Black with less spittle. A while back I was watching Youtube clips of Leno on Letterman's show back in the day and I was struck by the way Leno had pretty much staked out the same territory that would later come to be identified with people like Dennis Miller and Denis Leary. At one point he went off on the circus coming to L.A., describing it as a "traveling syphilitic sideshow" with "diseased animals and hermaphrodite clowns throwing anthrax spores at the children," and Letterman was clearly wowed by his audacity. Even now a lot of Leno's basic schtick is exasperation at the stupidity of the world. Saturday morning I was clicking through the day's news and happened across a headline on asking, "Big quake question: Is nature out of control?" And my first thought was, "Yes, headline writer, the fact that we happen to have had a couple of big earthquakes recently means that THE EARTH IS GOING TO BLOW UP LIKE KRYPTON." It occurs to me that this is basically a Jay Leno joke.

I can't really see David Letterman making that joke. Or really any joke — when Letterman resorts to jokes, as in his monologue, the results tend to be pretty lame. Where Letterman and his writers made a mark was in pioneering "found comedy," the notion that if you find something sufficiently inane, you don't need to mock it — it mocks itself. Take Leno's first Tonight Show appearance back in 1977, in which he brought up a contemporary ad campaign for milk that suggested "some great new ideas for milk," such as pairing it with cookies or sandwiches. Leno's reply: "Honey, get the recipe book — this stuff is amazing! All these years I've been pouring milk over pizza and fish!" Now, I happen to think that's a great punchline. But Letterman would counter that the very existence of an ad campaign for something as basic as milk is sufficiently comedic that the funniest response is simply to repeat it back in a different context. That is, instead of using it as a voiceover in a commercial, put something similar in the mouth of a deadpan comedian on a late-night talk show: "There's not a man, woman, or child alive who doesn't enjoy a lovely beverage." It's like putting a urinal in an art gallery — just as the change of context makes you actually stop to consider something that, in its natural habitat, you tend to simply accept, Letterman draws attention to the sea of smarmy patter we swim in. His response to the MSNBC headline would likely be to simply repeat "nature is out of control" every night for the next eight months.

So while Leno's comedy succeeds or fails with each individual joke, Letterman's is more about communicating an overarching worldview. Spend enough time watching Letterman and eventually you don't need him to recontextualize things for you — you're in the art gallery all the time. The problem is that while this wry view of the world can help you find humor in things without needing a comedian to supply the punchlines for you, it's also apparently pretty easy to cross the line into deciding that therefore everything is funny. Bill Simmons is a good example of this. His father falls asleep in front of the television set? Knee-slapping hilarity! A football player looks moderately chagrined after a loss? Uproarious laughter! A blue car? Comedy GOLD! Or take the shows that have attempted to follow Letterman's trail. One of Letterman's earliest bits of "found comedy" was when he found a very strange old man named Calvert DeForest, dubbed him Larry "Bud" Melman, and sent him out to do stuff like greet people coming off buses at the Port Authority. Jimmy Kimmel's response: hey, you know who's another Larry "Bud" Melman? My uncle! Why, he's almost as side-splitting as Simmons's dad! I always said they should do a show about my crazy family! Conan O'Brien is no better. O'Brien is a gifted comedy writer, but from what I saw on Hulu, he's still pretty much the same ill-at-ease, trying-too-hard joke-killer he was in 1993. I remember some of Letterman's old found-comedy pieces, such as when he worked the drive-thru at a McDonald's in New Jersey and bantered with the harried customers... "What's in the Happy Meal?" one asked, to which Letterman replied, "You have to prove to me that you're happy," before giving in: "The Happy Meal is a veal shank, and a German potato salad, and a side of lime Jell-O." One customer got impatient, growling, "Is it gonna be ready or what?"; Letterman replied, "The food's ready, sure. The food will always be ready. Are you ready?" In O'Brien's equivalent bits, he basically just giggles nervously and makes silly faces. The mere fact of being at FAO Schwartz or giving people van rides is considered comedy enough.

However, The Late Shift isn't really about any of this stuff. We barely see Leno and Letterman doing comedy at all. Instead, the movie takes up a theme that complements that of In the Company of Men, which, I argued in my review, is about "what happens when the skill a society selects for in distributing rewards is the ability to ascend dominance hierarchies." The Late Shift is about a couple of guys who lack this skill. Fortunately, the arts are different from the business world in that this isn't the only talent that matters, and they manage to rise to a certain level on the basis of their comedic gifts. But eventually they each hit a point at which their ambitions require more than talent to be fulfilled. What then?

Leno hits this point before Letterman does. As the Leno character explains in the movie, he'd had a long résumé playing strip clubs, bowling alleys, high school assemblies, and had yet to distinguish himself from the thousands of other comedians riding the same circuit. Then he signed on with agent Helen Kushnick and his career took off. How? This is the thing — Leno doesn't know. The answer is that Kushnick has basically been elbowing his competitors out of the way, going so far as to plant stories in the New York Post forcing Johnny Carson to retire early. When Leno eventually finds out, he's genuinely appalled — he is, after all, a nice guy who truly believes that he's achieved his success through a little bit of talent, a ton of hard work, and an eager-to-please attitude. But as the Kushnick character points out, there's a reason he's never actually asked how much he owes to her skullduggery: not asking affords him the luxury of believing all that, just as not asking where your sneakers and gasoline come from allows you the luxury of thinking your country is an unalloyed force for good in the world. If Chad from In the Company of Men is right, success is about "who's sporting the nastiest sack of venom and who is willing to use it." Leno has been able to succeed while keeping his hands clean by hiring someone to be Chad for him. The problem is that the sort of behavior that may work wonders for an agent doesn't necessarily translate to the executive producer role that Kushnick wins when Leno takes over Tonight. Being almost psychotically nasty, she turns the entire entertainment industry against her and endangers the show. So the big question of this half of the movie is whether Leno can find enough Chad within himself to pull a Helen Kushnick on Helen Kushnick.

The Letterman half of the movie also deals with the relationship between talent and corporate politics. Letterman didn't even have an agent when the battle for The Tonight Show got underway, for a couple of reasons. One, contempt for the sort of phony glad-handing that constitutes a fair amount of the job of an agent is a fundamental part of Letterman's worldview. Two, unlike Leno, Letterman didn't need high-powered representation to escape from the comedy clubs. He'd barely begun his career before being declared a genius and getting television work: guest-hosting for Carson, a short-lived morning program, and then the show that pretty much defined cool in the 1980s, Late Night with David Letterman. Ensconced in the 12:30 timeslot, he assumed himself to be the designated heir upon Carson's eventual retirement. So when he found himself outmaneuvered by Leno's camp, he had a choice to make: get a slick super-agent like Michael Ovitz and thereby become everything he'd ever hated, or disappear into a cycle of self-loathing. Now, this isn't really the world's most compelling dilemma. More interesting to me is what happens after Letterman hires Ovitz, who gets him a rich offer from CBS, only for NBC to jump in at the last minute and finally offer him The Tonight Show. It is, by all accounts, a worse deal: barely half the salary, a start date eighteen months in the future, no ownership of the show, and bad press for forcing Leno out. Every single one of his advisors says to take the CBS offer. Still, Letterman leans toward the NBC deal. He hadn't spent his entire career dreaming of hosting Late Show on CBS. Like Conan O'Brien after him, Letterman saw 11:30 on NBC as "sacred territory." Only when Carson tells him that if he were Letterman he would walk — thus allowing him to feel as though moving to CBS would still constitute following in Carson's footsteps — does Letterman make the jump.

This is a fascinating theme that I don't think I've seen taken up very often: how can you envision a career path for yourself in a world where the occupational landscape changes so rapidly? As the Peter Lassally character points out in the movie, Letterman is about to take the significantly worse offer because he imprinted on a television landscape in which The Tonight Show was the category killer. If you watched TV at 11:30, you watched Carson. But that landscape is gone. In 1994, Letterman wouldn't be taking over Carson's show; he'd be taking over Jay Leno's show, and that's... just a show. Similarly, Letterman imprinted on a television landscape with three channels, so the only counteroffers he's willing to listen to are from CBS and ABC. Fox, cable, and syndication might as well be the Sioux Falls Dinner Theater as far as he's concerned. But does the NBC logo carry any special prestige for anyone other than the people chasing these timeslots? I watch everything on my computer and usually don't even know what network a program originally aired on. The very idea of a "timeslot" also strikes me as quaint: I find it tough to care whether a show airs at 11:35 p.m. or 12:05 a.m. when I'm much more likely to be watching it at 5 a.m. before going to sleep or 2:30 p.m. before going to work. And while I may be slightly unrepresentative here, especially given that the median age of Tonight Show viewers is 55, I'm also not a crazy outlier and the trend is heading in my direction. I suspect that, as the television as a device distinct from computers and smartphones becomes obsolete, it won't be a whole lot longer before aspiring to Johnny Carson's chair will be like angling to inherit Nina Blackwood's spot in MTV's VJ lineup.

And this sort of thing is true for a lot of professions. There was a time when if you'd asked me what my dream job was, I would have said writing for Marvel Comics. I have a pretty good idea of what I'd do with most of their characters. But the closest I've ever come to actually pursuing a job there was submitting a script to the abortive Epic contest back in '02 — one of the best things I've written, incidentally. Why didn't I try harder? Because it's one thing to be reading a comic and think, "I know what should come next!" and another to come back twenty years later, to an audience twenty years older and one-tenth the size, and try to tell those stories when, in the interim, the characters have turned evil, gotten killed, been replaced by alternate-universe duplicates, married aliens, turned out to be shapeshifters, and appeared in fifteen books all of which were written by Brian Bendis. It's even less appealing knowing that I couldn't start any long subplots because most books get canceled in three months; that if my title weren't canceled, it'd get caught up in the next yearlong crossover is and I'd have plot points dictated to me; and of course that the sort of stuff I write would be spiked pretty much immediately. (Hell, my Fantastic Four arc might get me jailed.) Better to take those ideas and repurpose them so I could do them my way and, like, own them, right? And yet if I somehow received an offer from Marvel out of the blue it'd be tough to turn down!

One dream job I did pursue for a few months was being in a rock band. We'd audition drummers and sometimes they'd ask where, ideally, we saw the band going. At the time, the dream was pretty clear cut: get a record deal, make a video, get it on 120 Minutes, have it become a Buzz Clip, wonder why massive success doesn't ease the aching void inside. Now there is no 120 Minutes, there are no Buzz Clips, and the bands I listen to today sell about 0.1% as well as the ones I listened to in the '90s even though they play the same type of music. Of course, that makes the fact that I was able to discover them at all pretty remarkable, and you can argue that my band would have been better off had it launched, not half a dozen years earlier when our sound was hot, but half a dozen years later when we could have put our songs up on Myspace instead of pressing a bunch of CDs that went nowhere. But the prospect of getting a bunch of Myspace downloads might not have been enough to get me to move to Seattle. It wasn't part of my internal narrative.

Earlier, I had moved to Illinois and North Carolina for grad school with the idea that I'd eventually be a college professor. Now I'm hearing rumors that the humanities departments at all UCs other than Berkeley and UCLA are slated to be shut down, with students at the branch campuses relegated to taking humanities courses primarily through video. That may not be in the offing immediately, but it would seem to be the wave of the future, no? Why pay ten people to teach Shakespeare surveys to 200 students each when webcasts will let you pay one to teach 2000 all over the state?

So that's, what, television, comics, music, academia, all in flux... while you're at it, throw in newspapers — for the aforementioned Bill Simmons, for instance, the dream job was writing a sports column for the Boston Globe, which almost went out of business in 2009 — and a whole bunch of retail sectors. (The record stores and bookstores I frequented when I was a college student are now a t-shirt shop, a hole-in-the-wall electronics outlet, a Korean buffet, an office supply chain store, and a vacant shell.) Many of my acquaintances have been turning their professional sights to the world of video games, but again, it's kind of hard to feel like you're stepping into a grand tradition without having the rug pulled out from under you. I know a fair number of people who in the 1980s aspired to someday write text adventures... but the entire genre was defunct as a commercial enterprise before the decade was out. My college roommate back in the early '90s wanted to work on graphical adventure games; he wound up doing so, programming the penultimate Lucasarts adventure before that genre went defunct at the end of that decade. Meanwhile, other folks I know are finding success generating content for devices that didn't even exist until last week. Which is cool and all, but... I remember that when I was in preschool, back in 1978, we had an activity in which we were photographed mimicking what we wanted to do when we grew up. This was right around the time that Jay Leno and David Letterman were making their first Tonight Show appearances, and while I'd never heard of them, I thought I might like to be on television too. But the teacher informed me that "game show contestant" wasn't an occupation, so as a second choice I said I might like to write books. I wonder what the teacher would have said if I could beam in from 2010 and tell her that the most promising career choice for her roomful of polyester-clad four-year-olds was "smartphone app developer." She probably would have just stared at me blankly until I smiled and said, "Just kidding! It's 'lunar mining engineer'!" That would have been more reassuring. After all, somewhere up there pressed into the moondust are footprints to follow.

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