The upgrade in quality from Ron Howard’s directorial debut Grand Theft Auto to his sophomore effort Night Shift is pretty remarkable. Howard did direct a string of TV movies in the interim (Cotton Candy, Skyward, and Through the Magic Pyramid) and had directed a few shorts prior to Auto, so it wasn’t like Night Shift was only the second time he touched a camera. He was also doing this really weird thing called “acting” on occasion.
Regardless of where it falls, Night Shift is a surprisingly hilarious addition to Howard’s early canon. Auto relied heavily on Happy Days cast members and members of the Howard Family to round out the cast and crew, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but could be a bit distracting at times. Speaking of distracting, Auto also had a funk-bass-porno soundtrack that served to bolster the overall feel of the thing as hastily-made. And most importantly, the character motives in Auto just didn’t make a whole lot of sense across the board.
Night Shift stars Henry Winkler, but this ain’t Fonzie Henry Winkler. If anything this is Winkler doing Woody Allen, portraying a spineless but passionate cog in the overwhelmingly greater world around him. He’s hysterical, especially when pit against his co-star Michael Keaton. The pair meet during the night shift at the local morgue, where Winkler’s Chuck is discontent and lonely but nonetheless firmly stuck in his routine — he arrives, removes his floor plant from the locker, finishes the daytime chores that are dumped into his lap in increasingly rude fashion, and then settles down with a newspaper for the remainder of the night. Every now and then he goes to pick up a dead body, and that’s about as exciting as his life gets.
Then Keaton’s Bill Blazejowski arrives, new on the job. He’s manic, never stops talking, records invention ideas (like edible paper) into his handy tape recorder. It’s a long string of events and arguments with the timid Chuck that eventually leads to their scheme, but at length they team up: Chuck and Bill operate as pimps out of the morgue, chauffeuring prostitutes around to their clients and coaching them on the merits of love.
Unlike the plot of Grand Theft Auto (which amounted to “lovers run away, get chased”) the P.I.M.P. angle is instantly grabbing, made perfectly ironic by having the quiet Chuck be the guy who actually is a pretty efficient pimp. Happy Days is far from mind here, and even Howard’s regulars like his brother Clint pop up without being distracting at all. During a party at the morgue one night orchestrated by Bill, Chuck frets and cleans up after everyone. In an act of desperation, he yanks out one of the cadaver drawers to shock everyone into leaving — but Clint Howard and a naked prostitute poke their heads out like gophers instead. Everyone dies laughing, including Winkler. Additionally, the funk-bass-porno soundtrack from Auto is still here, but in Night Shift it actually fits.
Great as Winkler and Howard are, it’s Keaton who steals the show. Night Shift was one of his first roles, and certainly the one that shot him to fame. One of the most hilarious scenes is the first pimp-prostitute staff meeting, led by Keaton’s Bill with a chalkboard on which he scrawls PROSTITUTE. He breaks the word into chunks in order to explain everything properly (“TIT…I think we all know what that means”) and rambles fantastically until Chuck intervenes. It’s mile-a-minute stuff in the best possible way, especially when Winkler’s Chuck loosens up and sends it right back at him. “You drunk from last night?” asks Bill after Chuck’s fallen in love with one of the girls. “I’m drunk,” Chuck swoons, “but not from wine!” Keaton’s response is just flawless comedic timing: “…beer?”
Howard would cast Keaton again in Gung Ho and then once again in 1994’s The Paper, by which time both would have achieved no small level of superstardom — Howard with the likes of Cocoon and Backdraft, Keaton with Beetlejuice and Batman. Maybe it’s just the sexy soundtrack or the furry pimp hats, but it really doesn’t seem as if either of those later collaborations are as strong as the first (or as “virile” or “red-blooded”, but again that might be the pimp angle talking). Whether you approach it as a part of Howard’s directing canon or just as a feel-good early-’80s comedy flick, Night Shift is a riot.