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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

'Shift' Takes a Farcical Look at Those Who Would Be Johnny

February 23, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Dueling Daves? Not initially, anyway.

Although he apparently hasn't seen it, David Letterman had publicly ridiculed "The Late Shift," Saturday's breezy and amusing HBO movie purporting to detail his losing, behind-the-scenes struggle with Jay Leno to succeed Johnny Carson as host of NBC's "The Tonight Show." So you looked forward to Letterman and John Michael Higgins, who plays him in the movie, going Dave to Dave on the wee-hours CBS series that Letterman does host.

Billed as a guest on Tuesday's "Late Night With David Letterman," the relatively obscure Higgins was to follow two bigger names, actress Julia Roberts and soul singer James Brown. Letterman mocked the HBO movie several times and referred to Higgins in his opening monologue, joking that the actor was so convincing that "he's already been asked not to host next year's Academy Awards," a self-effacing reference to Letterman's noted flop as host of the 1995 Oscar telecast.

With Letterman dawdling facetiously, half of Tuesday's show had elapsed before he introduced Roberts, heavy on the interview circuit in promoting her new movie, "Mary Reilly." Only a few minutes of the hour remained when he introduced Brown and his band, almost none of it when Brown had rasped his last lyric. Then, almost as if to punish Higgins for being him in a movie he opposed, Dave bumped Dave.

"My apologies to John Michael Higgins, who plays me in 'Late Shift,' " Letterman said. "He'll be here at his next earliest convenience. Or he'll be in the lobby," he added with a grin on the crest of a big laugh from the studio audience, "if you people are really that disappointed about it."

Take that, HBO.

A spokesman for the Letterman show said Wednesday that Higgins would be rescheduled. So perhaps the slight of Higgins was intentional only in the eye of someone who had watched too many episodes of HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show," where such backstabbing intrigues are routine. If Higgins wasn't wanted, after all, why was he booked as a guest? Yet Letterman had that . . . gleam he sometimes gets, the one that makes you wonder about what he's up to.

In any case, it's a gleam that Higgins never captures in the glib HBO movie, which is a version of "The Late Shift," a very good book by New York Times reporter Bill Carter (the same Bill Carter who on Oct. 11 took that surprise, post-verdict call to the newsroom from O.J. Simpson).

TV's "The Late Shift" is docucomedy, the hybrid that HBO popularized in 1993 with "Barbarians at the Gate," its hilarious account of the leveraged buyout of not-so-hilarious corporate giant RJR Nabisco Inc. (whose products include Camel and Winston cigarettes), and "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom," which found dark levity in a real-life mother's homicidal scheme to gain her daughter a place on the pompom squad.

Leno-Letterman remains a story in progress that has no predictable resolution (with Jay having now overtaken Dave in the ratings). Yet its slice-of-show-biz genesis still makes for fruitful viewing on HBO, as both men compete for the throne that Carson announces he plans to abdicate on May 22, 1992. And the secret, cynical, often comical maneuverings depicted here--with NBC hoping to assuage and retain both of its Johnnys-in-waiting but ending up losing one of them to CBS--are a real kick.

Although many careers and millions of dollars are at stake, they're not our careers or millions. So relax and have a ball with it.

Just as Leno is shown at one point secretly eavesdropping on NBC executives discussing his fate vis-a-vis Letterman, so does "The Late Shift" seem to spy on some of TV's top programmers and power brokers. Although it's undoubtedly honest in a general sense, only industry moles and insiders can attest to the accuracy of some details in "The Late Shift." Letterman obviously has some problems with even its concept. As did Leno's former manager, Helen Kushnick, savaged in both the movie and book as an evil, gutter-talking Darth Vader.

As a comical primer on the business, "The Late Shift" is several rungs below "The Larry Sanders Show," a grand comedy series that eyes late-night TV through the fogged prisms of a host and his executive producer and sidekick. Undeniably, though, the movie's wedding of wheeler-dealer farce to TV's lofty crowd is great, stylish fun, thanks mostly to Kathy Bates' persuasiveness as a kick-butt Kushnick, a witty script by Carter and George Armitage and guidance by Betty Thomas (the former "Hill Street Blues" performer) that affirms her as a first-class comedy director. Credit Thomas for the movie's "Barbarians"-style pace and sly sight humor.

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