Two new questions emerged from the NBC Late Night Terrible-Idea-A-Thon over the weekend:
1. Why is Jerry Seinfeld purposefully squandering all the comedy goodwill he garnered in Season 7 of Curb Your Enthusiasm by siding with Jay Leno & NBC? ("What did the network do to Conan?" You mean besides forcing him back to 12:05am, only 7 months after moving his entire staff to LA to host The Tonight Show, in a rather transparent attempt to get rid of Conan and give Leno back The Tonight Show? Besides that, Jerry?)
2. Why isn't HBO airing The Late Shift?
HBO has an old TV movie in their possession that is magically relevant again. How often does that happen? And unless another flamboyant Texas mom gets caught trying to solicit criminals to kill the mother of her daughter's cheerleading rival, or John Adams comes back to life and starts writing more letters to his wife, it probably won't happen again any time soon. Yet, this weekend HBO aired He's Just Not That Into You, a movie based on a catchphrase that was relevant for about a week in 2002, at least 700 times, while The Late Shift sat sadly unaired in the HBO vault gathering dust next to a wax and silk model of Elena, Dr. Michael Baden's favorite corpse.
Well, despite HBO's baffling cultural negligence, this weekend I managed to watch The Late Shift because I own that TV movie on DVD (I also own Indictment: The McMartin Trial, which should come in handy if/when people start accusing day care centers of ritual satanic abuse of children again). Watching the movie in light of the recent late night news, it was both fascinating and creepy in equal measure to see how little things had changed. Leno is still Leno—stubbornly holding on to his piece of late night with ruthless, mirthless glee. NBC is still NBC—adept at talking out of both sides of their mouth without actually saying anything; masters of the half-assed, no-one-wins compromise. Jokes about how terrible Pat Sajak's show was are still jokes about how terrible Pat Sajak's show was: hilarious. The only thing that's changed in 2010 is that the Letterman role is now being played by Conan—which is the only good role in the entire movie.
Letterman is the hero of The Late Shift—the guy who doesn't want to kiss asses in order to get The Tonight Show; the guy who, rather naively in retrospect, believes that his merit and hard work will eventually be rewarded; and the guy who, after being passed over by his network, stands up for himself and leaves to make his own, better version of The Tonight Show on another network. Leno, on the other hand, starts off in the movie as a kind of child, more than happy to be led down the path ruthlessly cleared for him by his cutthroat manager. But when Leno ditches his manager, he very quicky grows up and learns to ruthlessly fend for himself, listening in on secret conference calls, and chuckling out his own warnings to network executives. The movie's overall message is "there's no business like show business!" because they play that song no fewer than three times. But the movie's secondary message is: Leno may have won at NBC, but Letterman is the real winner.
Obviously, Conan should watch The Late Shift. Not only is it directly relevant to his current predicament, it is littered with nuggets of advice that have magically become useful for him:
"[The deal] is not right. It's shoddy. They're giving you damaged goods."
"If I was treated this way, I would walk." —Johnny Carson advising Letterman
"They're not giving you the Johnny Carson Tonight Show…they're giving you The Jay Leno Show."
"How can a television show be worth all this embarrassment?"
"Fox is…well, Fox is Fox. They're three-quarters of a network at best."
"You can't follow Jay Leno for the rest of your life, you'll hate yourself."