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Ed Driscoll

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Meeting of the President’s Elite Palace Guard.

We’ll get to CBS’s decision to replace David Letterman with Stephen Colbert in a couple of minutes, but first, some backstory, as they say in Hollywood, for why this all has a feeling of deja vu about it.

After an article at Vulture.com last week on David Letterman’s retirement mentioned HBO’s 1996 TV movie The Late Shift, based on the best-selling book by the New York Times’ Bill Carter, I rented the movie from Netflix (on DVD, not streaming, alas.) As Matt Zoller Seitz of Vulture writes, “I know showbiz journalists and a good many regular viewers who can recite every twist in Carter’s narrative the way Greek children used to be able to recite the highlights of the Peloponnesian war. (Remember when Leno hid in a closet and eavesdropped on his bosses?)”

It’s a fascinating curio of a (made for TV) movie, once you get through the uncanny valley effect of the actors playing Letterman, Leno, and Johnny Carson. Physically, John Michael Higgins, who plays Letterman is actually pretty spot on, but you’re always aware it’s an actor in a Letterman toupee imitating Dave’s many tics and neuroses. Daniel Roebuck, playing Jay Leno is as stiff as plywood, and wears what looks like the prow of the Titanic as prosthetic fake chin covered in a layer of smeared-on make-up, phony looking even in the standard definition video I watched. And appearing at strategic times in the films, Rich Little plays Rich Little playing Johnny Carson. (Which must have been loads of fun for Little as payback: he was performer non gratis in the last years of the Carson Tonight Show for reasons never explained to him, despite his many appearances on the show in the ‘60s and ‘70s.)

But that’s the challenge when making any film about real-life celebrities known by millions. For the audience, if you can suspend disbelief and get past the waxworks leads, behind them are arguably the real stars of the film. These are the performers playing the behind the scenes chessboard manipulators, including Kathy Bates as Leno’s ball-breaking first manager, Helen Kushnick*, Bob Balaban as NBC executive Warren Littlefield, and Treat Williams as then-Hollywood power broker Mike Ovitz. (Who has since, as John Nolte of Big Hollywood writes, run afoul of what Ovitz called “the Gay Mafia,” in a very different cautionary tale than the main topic of our post.)

Of course, what ultimately makes The Late Shift work as a TV movie is the taut script, based on Bill Carter’s source material, which runs from a discussion between two CBS executives who want to steal Johnny Carson’s thunder by stealing away Jay Leno from the network, followed by Kushnick planting a “tip” in the New York Post that NBC was planning to replace Carson with Leno, followed by an aging, peeved Rich Little playing an aging, peeved Johnny choosing to retire at the top rather than face a bruising power struggle with NBC. NBC’s executives, Warren Littlefield, played by Balaban and Reni Santoni (“Poppy” the restaurant owner on Seinfeld) as his lieutenant, John Agoglia, both like Leno because he’s an easygoing team player, and not a petulant head case like Letterman. Once Letterman knows he won’t get the Tonight Show, he turns to Ovitz, who first helps him to break his contract with NBC, then lands him his deal with CBS, and a boxcar-sized payout.

What particularly makes The Late Shift such an interesting film is that when it was originally shot, it looked like CBS got the better of the deal, with Letterman dominating the ratings. As it turns out, according to the Internet Database:

Subsequent airings after the initial release have added an additional epilogue on how the Hugh Grant interview boosted Jay Leno’s ratings past David Letterman’s.

Thus Littlefield and Agoglia, despite being portrayed as Machiavellian manipulators on massive scale, end up looking like rather smart guys, in spite of themselves. Perhaps unintentionally, the film contrasts the difference between Letterman and Leno in the way they treat their production crews. Letterman, as big a neurotic backstage as in front of the cameras, barks at his staff after what he thinks was a bad show. An hour into the film later, when NBC decides to fire the bruising Kushnick as executive producer of the Tonight Show, Leno issues a “we’ll be OK gang, we’ll all get through this together” speech to console the troops.

As portrayed in The Late Shift, the young Leno appears fairly comfortable in his skin — offscreen, he’s a shier, more puppy dog like version of his stand-up comic persona. Letterman, as numerous critics wrote in the 1980s, is essentially an actor portraying a talk show host, trapped in the middle of the goofy whirling vortex of the first postmodern talk show that poked fun at all of the  gimmicks of Big Time Network TV at its hokiest polyester worst. Late Night picked up the baton from the recently-concluded original Lorne Michaels-era of Saturday Night Live (hence the appearance of Bill Murray on Letterman’s first show). It was new and fresh and plenty of fun at 12:30 at night in the mid-’80s, particularly as a contrast to the phone-it-in final years of the much more staid Carson-era Tonight Show.

But by the 21st century, Letterman appeared to be continually bitter at first George W. Bush, then Sarah Palin, then the Tea Party, then Mitt Romney. Concurrently, since 2008, Letterman has played supine Palace Guard to Barack Obama — a kindred spirit; another postmodern impressionist of a sort. As a result, Letterman’s shtick eventually became as freeze-dried as the talk shows of the ‘60s and ‘70s he used to parody. While Letterman was born in Indianapolis, in escaping flyover country for a career in New York and Los Angeles, the hungry young comedian turned surly old man lived out a variation of the warning voiced a decade ago by Christopher Caldwell of the Weekly Standard: “the laments of the small-town leftists get voiced with such intemperance and desperation. As if those who voice them are fighting off the nagging thought: If the Republicans aren’t particularly evil, then maybe I’m not particularly special.”

Leno, taking his cue from Johnny Carson, while very much a “Progressive” himself, is smart enough not alienate his core audience, and departed with enormous goodwill when he was pushed out by NBC this past February.

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Top Rated Comments   
A leftist's greatest fear is being excluded from the collective - more accurately, what they perceive to be the collective.

Decision-makers in LA and NY have remained in their bubble since the dawn of network TV and have served up decades of dross in what is apparently an ongoing experiment to see if the public's taste really can be underestimated.

Because people in NY and LA talk about the Comedy Central shows, they assume the rest of a vast nation does as well. The demographics they imagine they see come from a wildly narrow sample.

Audience research aside, this is what they perceive to be hip. But hipness, if it exists, ages quickly. Those who mock will soon be mocked themselves. It may generate chatter but is it really all that interesting? Actual entertainment will be a bridge too far with all the mugging for the camera.
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
Fine analysis. I disagree with Ace in that the 11:30 audience is quite different than the 12:30 one. Colbert, a cold fish, is the antithesis of what's required for the role and time slot. He'll be out within a year.
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (24)
All Comments   (24)
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Stephen Colbert has been giving me and people like me a stiff middle finger for the last ten years. Why would I want to watch him now, even if he does change his on-air persona? Half the country rightly despises this guy. Good luck with that, CBS.
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
Remember how petty Letterman was when he had the guy who played him in that movie on his show but ran out of time so the guy didn't get on? That happens from time to time but if you watched the show you could see the glee as Lettermen intentionally ran the clock out on him.

Also on his old show when he had Cosby on one time he kept extending Cosby's segment. Cosby was in full full-of-himself mode with the success of The Cosby Show. Dave who before Cosby brought NBC primetime back from the dead was the center of attention had his ego hurt because he was no longer the golden boy and wanted to showcase Cosby's inflated ego, of course, it showcased Lettermen's inflated ego just as much and his pettiness too.
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
Since there is no "diversity" in late night TV, I propose Colbert perform in black face and a dress. He may even want to get one of those synthetic vaginas that caught Reynolds' attention.
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'd love to see Dennis Miller have the Late Show. He would be great.
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
Hollywood would go full Mozilla freakout mode if that were even whispered...

personally, I nominate Duck Commander Phil Robertson, not because he'd be great ( could hardly be worse than that douche Letterman) but just for the sheer pleasure of watching the left's collective face turn 5 shades of purple..

The left wing controlled Hollywood hates, raging hates the 80% of America who reject progressives politics. Like the man said, how can they be special, if we aren't evil... so they convince themselves daily we're an enemy they can hate more easily than Al Qaeda, which they most of the time treat far more civilly than they do us.
L
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
For his last show, Letterman should get in a leather jacket, some board shorts and put on a pair of water skis to be filmed "jumping the shark" in the East River.

Frankly, it could be an apt metaphor for network television talk-shows.

In a similar vein, are we going to be flailed with ever-more-lame iterations of "Saturday Night Live" until the coming of the Apocalypse?

At this point, this is TV for Zombie undead.

For God's sake, put a bullet in it and shove its corpse into a ditch...
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
The point about it all is money, advertising money. If Colbert delivers the ratings, then no matter what, he's fine.
However, he was selected mainly to maintain the audience or demographic of Letterman. This was actually an incredibly cautious move by CBS. Colbert, regardless of his verbal nonsense, is a known quantity. I have no intention of watching him, but I am not the demographic that CBS is targeting.
A variety of similarly unattractive alternatives were suggested by people to replace Letterman, but Colbert was probably always the intended replacement. Craig Ferguson is more entertaining, but not the reliable ratings personality that Colbert is. People that read and comment at PJ Media probably don't want to be reminded of just how stupid and idealogically dense most people are.

I can actually remember a segment on Ferguson's show some years ago (2007?) when Sarah Palin appeared (remote) when she was still unknown as Governor of Alaska. Ferguson quipped she had the naughty librarian vibe about her. Couldn't happen these days. The network idea control is in full swing.
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
The comments about Colbert being plugged in to maintain a Dem-critique free zone are spot on. Add to this the ability to indulge in propaganda at will due to the nature of his persona and you can see why they want him in this slot.

We sadly are a nation where people well into the fifth decade of life go to evil idiots like Colbert and Stewart for "news" and then tell themselves they are well informed, when all they get really is reinforcement of their crappy little leftist narrative and tacit permission to view anyone from the center/right of the political spectrum as untermensch only worthy of disenfranchisement and being wiped out.

Yes, most of the audiences of those shows really do believe that. If you believe otherwise you are a terrible fool.

Colbert is a Dem propagandist who has been carefully selected to (in the minds of the execs) be proof from criticism. Ostensibly Catholic, he is a fake one (liberation theology leftist "Catholics" aren't real Catholics, after all) but to the execs this gives the opportunity to put out as much anti-Catholic (and other forms of anti-Christian) bigotry as possible through Colbert's mouth and have plausible deniability.

Additionally, along with Jon Stewart, Colbert is the master of "clown nose on, clown nose off" condescending attacks on anyone who believes in limited government or a strict interpretation of the Constitution or any position that differs in the slightest from what his handlers in the Dem party have put forth as doctrine. Whenever the attack on authentic Christians or other uncool groups crosses the line, these guys pop on the clown nose and bray, "joke only, I'm doing comedy, not propaganda, m'kay?" Even if his ridiculous character from his excruciating current show is dropped, and he plays himself on the new show, it is unlikely in the extreme that he will abandon this approach.

How this will affect the success of his new spot is anyone's guess.
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
I don't think we'll see any of the disasters that happened at NBC during the Leno/Letterman war and and the even worse Leno/Conan disaster from a few years ago.
The fact that Colbert was announced the successor to Dave so quickly after he announced his retirement looks to me like they had this in the works for a while. They made a decision, they chose a new host, and now we wait to see what happens next year.
I doubt CBS will make the same mistakes NBC did.
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm actually more interested in seeing if any of the people who made this decision
still have their jobs in 2 years.
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Rich Little ... was performer non gratis in the last years of the Carson Tonight Show for reasons never explained to him, despite his many appearances on the show in the ‘60s and ‘70s.)

Might it have had something to do with mocking Carter?
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
Little was among the last of his kind, a comic who gave gentle slaps to BOTH sides, and managing to get everyone to laugh at themselves a bit..

Now the realm is entirely viciously nasty cheap shots at republicans conservatives, true centrists, only.. from gentle nudges to loosen up and not take themselves as seriously, we get "slutty stewardess, ... hope your daughter gets raped at 13" "jokes".......we get "she's a c**t" sneers..

yeah, high comedy if you and yours are not the targets of an insult smear "joke".. and are a progressive so filled with hate, you mock a mid sized red city that gets hit by a tornado and a school gets destroyed with kids inside. As did happen last year...

late night shows are nothing anymore but progressive circlejerks, each trying to put their hate for the heartland voters and leaders at the top of the pile.

Were I Todd Palin, I'd make sure to bump into Letter"man" in public just to verbally tear him a new one in front of everyone., then let them cry a river about him not having a good sense of humor about Letter"man" calling his wife a sl*t and joking about his teen daughter being raped on TV..

There is something seriously disturbed, bordering on mentally ill with theose "progressives"....

That they can hate capital h hate us, just for opting out of their utopian fantasyland.
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
I am sort of wondering if the era of late-night talk shows might just be finally over. How many potential viewers would rather play video games or surf the internet, than watch yet another Lindsay Lohan interview about pseudo-sobriety. It seems to me that it's been down-hill since Johnny's retirement, and I wonder how much popularity or weight ANY host will have in today's society. As Mr. Driscoll points out, 51% of the potential audience is not going to pay the slightest heed to ANY human perceived as being an Obama-prop or a liberal apologist.

In other words, I think "late night talk show host" might be one of those jobs which could be added to "hamburger flipper" or "Detroit union car assembler" which could very easily be replaced by a robot. Because I *would* pay attention - at least initially - if the networks could come up with a C3PO / R2D2 / Suri equivalent, which is programmed enough to have a conversation (or play chess) with a human guest, but is *not* pre-programmed with either liberal or conservative cant. It would be interesting to see what the vastness of the internet has to say about the human condition if it were given a voice.
24 weeks ago
24 weeks ago Link To Comment
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