While the Leno/Conan scuffle has been making headlines for the last month, it serves only as a reminder of NBC’s consistent inability to manage its late night talent. The well-known fight between Leno and Letterman for The Tonight Show inspired similar headlines, a book by New York Times reporter Bill Carter, and an HBO film based on the book. The film is basically in exercise in the failure to have your cake and eat it too.
The problem stemmed from NBC’s selfish business sense to not let go of Jay Leno, a very popular young comic at the time. He has huge popularity as the guest host of The Tonight Show and as a regular guest on Late Night with David Letterman. In their infinite wisdom and through the coercion of Leno’s manager, Helen Kushnick (more on her in a minute), NBC signed a behind closed doors deal to give Leno The Tonight Show. They just happened to never tell Johnny Carson or Letterman that until it was too late. When the news is finally announced, Letterman is heartbroken but keeps his eye singularly on somehow getting his dream job back. Months go by and his management gets him out of his contract and into a new spot at CBS and the rest is history.
While the film is in theory about Leno and Letterman I would argue is is just as much about Helen Kushnick (Bates) as well. While the idea of pushing Letterman out of spot he truly earned is pretty low, the tenacity of Kushnick in an industry where the majority of power players are men is admirable. For a woman who had just managed comedians for most of her career to come in and bully the NBC executives into giving her client the number one property in late night television is an amazing accomplishment. She was given executive producer-ship and her downfall came in threatening guests that if they appeared on any other talk shows they would be banned from hers.
Early on there is a scene where Helen is telling off someone over the phone whom is unwilling to attend an AIDS benefit she is organizing. Her tongue lashing on the man (Kushnick was famous for her profane mouth) is brutal, and later in the film it is mentioned that her son died from an AIDs-infected blood transfusion. This bit of backstory reveals how intensely Helen’s convictions informed her personality. Helen is eventually forced out by the NBC execs and Leno folds very easily when he realizes his place as host would be taken if he defends her.
The film is no directorial masterpiece. Betty Thomas is a Second City alum with some tv acting and directing experience who went on to direct theatrical films such as Dr. Doolite, 28 Days, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, and arguably her best work The Brady Bunch Movie. The cinematography is very much of the made-for-tv quality but the film makes for an interesting historical artifact and would probably spark an interest in reading Carter’s book.