Yesterday during the taping of his show, David Letterman stunned his audience by announcing his retirement. He’s been on late night television for thirty-two years, the last twenty-one of which have been behind the desk at The Late Show with David Letterman. He broke Johnny Carson’s record in 2013 to become the longest-running late night host, and he stuck around long enough to outlast his rival, Jay Leno, which I’m sure is not coincidental. From sitting in for Carson on The Tonight Show to the late night wars of the early 1990s, Letterman is a talk show titan, the last late night host personally mentored by Carson. His retirement marks the end of an era.
But it won’t be instantaneous. In his announcement Letterman said there isn’t a specific plan, but he intends to host his last show in 2015. That gives CBS a year to organize his departure. So who could take over his desk? Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert all have contracts that end in 2015, Jimmy Kimmel’s contract is up this year—Letterman is his “comedy hero” —and Chelsea Handler just announced her intention to leave E! at the end of this year. Arsenio Hall’s current show is syndicated through CBS, and there’s the guy on after Letterman, Craig Ferguson, who also happens to be mentored by him. And then there’s Jay Leno who was not quite ready to retire when NBC pushed him out (again).
Of those candidates, Handler and Ferguson are the least likely. I can’t see Chelsea Handler lasting long in a mainstream gig, and Ferguson, like Conan before him, really is best suited to the later time slot. He’d have to tone down too much of what makes him funny, which was precisely what happened to Conan. Arsenio is more widely appealing than those two, but he is also prone to the kind of jokes that require a little too much censoring in the earlier hour. And hiring Jay Leno would just be a kick in the teeth—I can’t imagine Letterman leaving his desk to Leno.
Stewart and Colbert have such sweet gigs on Comedy Central, plus, neither of them seem to really like the celebrity interviews which only comprises a small percentage of their current jobs. They both enjoy political guests more, but that’s exactly the element they’d have to neuter to work on a major network. Stewart, especially, would have to be practically defanged.
That leaves Kimmel and Conan. Conan’s already replaced Letterman once, when he left NBC’s Late Night for CBS in 1992, so there’s nice symmetry to having Conan take over Letterman’s “big” desk. But though his show isn’t as hot in the ratings, Conan’s TBS situation is cushy. And again, his sense of humor is a little sharper and more esoteric than generally plays well for the broader audiences in the post-news hour on a major network. Part of the reason Fallon is fitting in better on the Tonight Show is because he is inherently an inoffensive guy. His tendency is to go broad, which makes him widely likeable. I like Fallon and his Tonight Show is actually watchable, but it’s his lack of edge that makes him good for that job. Conan, like Stewart, is all edge.
Kimmel is probably the most natural fit. He’s experienced, he comes with an audience, and like Fallon he has broad appeal. But you know who I’d love to see get a shot at a late night desk? Aisha Tyler. She already has a relationship with CBS thanks to her job on The Talk, she’s funny, she’s a good interviewer, and late night could really use 1) more color and 2) less D. It would be nice if she at least got to be part of the conversation, but let’s be honest. We’re going to be talking about the same three white guys for the next eighteen months.
(Lainey: How about Neil Patrick Harris?!? He’s a CBS boy too. He’s a wonderful host. And it’s basically a crime to not like him…?)