Perhaps inevitably, “The Battle for Late Night” winds up feeling more like “The History of Late Night,” especially with the frenzied rush of recent events, which called for last-minute editing and rendered some interviews a trifle outdated. (George Lopez, for example, appears to have weighed in before Conan O’Brien became his lead-in at TBS.) Still, the two hours enlist input from many of the right people and do yield their share of insights and memories — beginning with the giant shadow that Johnny Carson still casts over the business.
Although latenight’s recent chapters have largely been about Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, as producer-director John Murphy makes clear, the turmoil can be traced to Carson’s influence and Leno and David Letterman’s shared desire to replace him on “The Tonight Show” throne. In that regard, there’s a terrific picture of those hosts and Garry Shandling, all young and shiny, standing alongside a tuxedo-clad Carson.
The problem is that in trying to comprehensively document latenight’s history, many of the “battles” amount to at best minor skirmishes. Where a narrower focus would have helped, the program instead takes detours through the introduction of Jimmy Kimmel, Bill Maher’s firing off “Politically Incorrect” and the “It’s OK to laugh again” period following Sept. 11. Interesting stuff, but peripheral to the meat of the latenight story as it’s unfolded over the past six years or so.
That said, it’s interesting to hear Joan Rivers discuss how she left NBC for Fox after seeing a leaked memo that omitted her from a short list of potential Carson replacements — only to have Johnny hang up when she called to deliver the news. And despite living through those days, it’s easy to forget how the horridness of Fox’s “The Chevy Chase Show” actually helped O’Brien in a roundabout way by lowering the expectations bar.
Letterman’s early producer, Robert Morton, also recalls the freedom Letterman enjoyed when he launched “Late Night” on NBC, describing the attitude as “They’re giving us the keys to the studio every night. Let’s just fuck around.”
Murphy finds illuminating clips from various news conferences, including Letterman’s introduction at CBS, where he professes to harbor no bitterness about not getting “The Tonight Show.” The gap-toothed fellow doth protest too much.
“The Battle for Late Night” is an odd fit for A&E, hardly known anymore for this sort of relatively traditional pop-culture documentary, and the rust shows. Why schedule this two-hour effort at 10 p.m., after all, so that it runs up against the very programs it chronicles? That kind of sounds like a losing battle.