The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien will soon come to an abrupt end after being on the air for only seven months. This has lead to much outcry from fans that show their support by putting this picture as their Facebook default main photo in solidarity of their beloved ‘Coco.’ It has also led to much backlash against Jay Leno, with Conan O’Brien fans going as far as to hacking Jay Leno’s official Facebook page.
But why is Jay Leno so hated and why is Conan so sympathetic?
This is where The Late Shift comes in, a made-for-television movie produced by HBO in 1996 about the behind-the-scenes struggle between Jay Leno and David Letterman, both vying to host The Tonight Show after Johnny Carson’s retirement. Even though this movie was made 14 years ago about events that occurred 17 years ago, they could have made that movie today and it would have all been relevant. All they would really have to do is replace David Letterman with Conan O’Brien.
First things first, though. The movie itself suffers from horrendous acting and clichés that no real executives would say. For example, there is a scene where Jay Leno’s agent is yelling at an NBC executive, and the executive actually says, “F— you, and the horse you rode in on,” devoid of any emotion whatsoever. The line is delivered so poorly that it elicits laughter during a very serious scene. The David Letterman character is a poor impersonation with red hair, which Letterman didn’t have. Letterman’s talent agent looks like a serial killer who never ceases to smile.
If one can ignore all of these pitfalls, The Late Shift succeeds in its historical context. David Letterman is passed up by NBC executives to get The Tonight Show and is doomed to forever follow Jay Leno (much like Conan was asked to do recently). NBC executives say they want to do whatever they can to keep him on the network, but he wants The Tonight Show which they cannot give him since they’ve promised it to Leno, so he walks (which is reminiscent of Conan’s letter). The most glaring similarity between Conan and Letterman, though, is when Letterman is thinking over his options, and one of the offers comes from Fox. They promise a younger demographic and a starting time at 11 p.m. so that Letterman can get the half-hour head start against Jay Leno. These are the current rumors of Conan’s next move.
All the while, Jay Leno, through hook or crook, gets The Tonight Show. Twice. Once in 1992, and again in 2010. And how does Jay Leno of 1992 compare to Leno of 2010? Well, the film shows Leno taking shots at NBC for not knowing what they are doing, which he legitimately seems to mean, but it is hard to take these jabs seriously when he wins in the end and gets the prestigious time slot. To make matters worse, the film contains him doing the same joke he recently did on The Jay Leno Show where he asks, “Do you know what NBC stands for? Never Believe Your Contract.”
The film goes out of its way to show the objectivity of it and show the human aspect of all the characters (albeit with atrocious acting), and Jay Leno comes off as somebody who is trying to be the nice guy and do the right thing, but he doesn’t realize that he’s won and has stepped over other people’s ambitions to do so. The fact that he won’t own up to it or accept it within himself seems to be the problem. He constantly mutters about how he’s afraid that others are mad at him, stating at one point that, “Dave’s my friend,” much like he did in a recent statement about Conan O’Brien.
The phoniness, even in an honest portrayal, comes out just the same back then as it does now. Maybe this is a small reason why Team Conan has hacked Jay Leno’s Facebook page.
It is hard to root for a movie with such corny dialogue, bad acting, and terrible impersonations, but the historical aspect more than makes up for it from a historical standpoint. Team Conan would especially enjoy this film.
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