The Late Shift (1996)

TV Movie  |  R  |   |  Comedy, Drama, Talk-Show  |  24 February 1996 (USA)
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Ratings: 7.0/10 from 2,256 users  
Reviews: 28 user | 4 critic

A dramatization of the rivalry to be the successor of Johnny Carson as the host of "The Tonight Show."



(book), (teleplay), 1 more credit »
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Won 1 Golden Globe. Another 4 wins & 10 nominations. See more awards »
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Cast overview, first billed only:
Rod Perth
Howard Stringer
John Agoglia
Bob Wright
Sandra Bernhard
Alan Levine
Rick Ludwin


HBO movie about the behind-the-scenes network politics responsible for the changes in late-night talk-show hosts, after the retirement of Johnny Carson from the Tonight Show on NBC. Jay Leno and David Letterman were both vying for the position, but Leno's tough manager Helen Kushnick got him the spot. In the wake of her 'stepping on the toes' of powerful network executives and 'playing hardball' tactics with guest bookings, she found herself being pushed out of her job as Tonight Show Executive Producer and Jay's manager. Letterman, devastated by his being passed over, brought in superagent Mike Ovitz to negotiate on his behalf, resulting in his move to CBS. Written by Tad Dibbern <>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Letterman, Leno and the battle over the Tonight Show. See more »

Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)

Rated R for language | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:





Release Date:

24 February 1996 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Changement de décors  »

Box Office


$6,000,000 (estimated)

Company Credits

Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:


Aspect Ratio:

1.33 : 1
See  »

Did You Know?


Both David Letterman and Jay Leno were vocal in their disapproval of the film, with Letterman calling it "the single biggest waste of film since my wedding photos." In an interview he said his self-loathing tendencies were overplayed, in particular a scene where he throws baseballs at an archery target, and he also took issue with the orange/brown hair color given to the actor who played him, John Michael Higgins. See more »


An early scene takes place at the 1990 Emmy Awards, which were held in September of that year. The next scene is introduced as "Nine months later", which would make it June of 1991. A character looks at a Variety headline that reads May 1991. The next scene is set a week later and shows a character getting out of a cab in New York City. He and all the extras are wearing heavy winter coats indicating the scene is set in a cold month. See more »


David Letterman: Peter, take that stupid rug off your head. And Morty, straighten your tie. This isn't a tractor pull.
See more »


References A Different World (1987) See more »


Johnny's Theme
Written by Paul Anka and Johnny Carson
Chrysalis Standards, Inc. / Here's Johnny Music / Songs of Polygram Int'l
See more »

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User Reviews

Well done and good original movie dramatization that's funny and tense while taking a behind the scenes look at the late night TV wars of the early 90's.
31 May 2008 | by (Petersburg, Virginia) – See all my reviews

Over the years I've watched this movie many times from seeing it on "HBO" and I now own a copy on DVD. I must say it's very memorable and entertaining in the meantime it's interesting and educational too. As any TV fan can relate to the time of the early 90's when the time came up to replace Johhny Carson the TV living legend of "The Tonight Show" who's it gonna be Jay or Dave? This original film from HBO "The Late Shift" stays true to form and depicts the real events very well showing the behind the scenes battle between networks heads of NBC and CBS and even ABC they were all fighting for the services of Jay and Dave. The acting makes it seem real as very little actual TV footage is shown with real life people as the actors portraying Leno and Letterman make it seem so real. I haven't read the Bill Carter book so I don't know if it stayed true to the pages, but I have highly enjoyed this film over the years. From the moment when it starts showing CBS entertainment heads watching Leno sub for Johhny and they decide they want to get in on the late night game. Yet when Carson announces his unexpected retirement NBC wants to stay loyal with Leno yet conflict arrives when Letterman wants a crack at the slot at 11:30 too. It was fun to watch the wacky meeting with Michael Ovitz(Treat Williams)who makes all networks want to consider Letterman for a show. It was interesting to see the scene of Johhny telling Letterman by phone in a direct way to walk from NBC and consider CBS. And by the way Rich Little was terrific as Johhny Carson his portrayal couldn't be matched. And plenty of tense moments were provided by showing the bickering and firing of Leno's talent manager Helen which NBC heads pressured him to do. Overall great film that showed what TV is really like and it proves that networks are power and money hungry while showing that's it's a cutthroat business. Clearly there's no business like show business. Great work from HBO very memorable and a watch anytime it showed the true story of the late night wars.

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