It is now officially the most coveted job in television: successor to David Letterman. Let the maneuvering begin.
Within hours of Letterman’s announcement Thursday that he would end his long run at CBS next year, the names of potential candidates to replace him were flying like Frisbees across the television landscape. Some qualify as the usual suspects because they already have late-night jobs; others are outsiders who have demonstrated in other venues that they might have the talent to be funny four or five nights a week.
CBS’ choice is likely to boil down to several factors: Man or woman? New York or Los Angeles? Comic or broader performer?
If CBS wants to shake up the late-night format, it could install the first woman as a host of a traditional network late-night show since Joan Rivers gave it a go on Fox in 1986. If the network wants to match the fresh style that Jimmy Fallon has brought to NBC’s “The Tonight Show” and put more emphasis on song, dance and variety, it could look to Neil Patrick Harris, the sitcom star who has drawn critical praise as the host of awards shows for CBS.
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If the idea is to match the more contemporary approach to late night, relying on comedy pieces that play well on the Internet and draw heavily on social media — as Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel on ABC do — an obvious choice is Stephen Colbert, from Comedy Central.
Several late-night executives and staff members have ranked Colbert highest among the potential successors for several reasons: He wields an inventive brand of humor; he has a younger audience, which is highly important for late-night advertisers; and, perhaps most significantly, he is in the spot that historically promotes the next late-night star to the top level: second position.
On Comedy Central, Colbert is a star parked behind an even bigger star. Jon Stewart (who is still on some wild-guess lists as a potential Letterman successor but who is already as big a star as there is in late night) remains the network’s leading man. He is also Colbert’s patron, having given him his start on “The Daily Show.”
But late-night hosts locked into second position have a history of seeking to move up. Letterman, Kimmel and Conan O’Brien all followed that path. Craig Ferguson, who has been behind Letterman at CBS, hosting the show that follows him, is obviously in the same position — and if he does not get the job, he is likely to leave the network, opening up another slot for a potential late-night star.
Colbert has been aware of the coming change at CBS. His last few contracts at Comedy Central have been structured to match up with Letterman’s at CBS, according to a person with knowledge of the deals who said he was not authorized to speak publicly about them. His current contract runs out at the end of this year, which would free him to negotiate with CBS at just the right time.
One executive involved in past late-night negotiations at several networks, who declined to be identified, said Colbert has been on CBS’ short list for some time. Colbert is also about to turn 50, which means the time to make a career move is probably now.
If CBS decides this is the time to disturb the late-night universe and name a woman, the names include Ellen DeGeneres, considered unlikely to jump now that she has a daytime hit, and Chelsea Handler, who has a following for her E! Channel show and has signaled that she plans to leave that network by the end of the year. Whether Handler’s style appeals to a network like CBS is in question.
The home-run hire, many late-night executives said, would be Tina Fey. Her varied career continues to rise, but she could be a longshot to take on the all-consuming job of late-night host, which would limit her ability to work in films, write books or do other TV. Her awards-show co-star, Amy Poehler, might be finishing up her NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation” at the right time.
Amy Schumer is young and winning strong reviews for her Comedy Central show, but she may be too far out on the edge for a traditional network show.
Some fans might like to see art imitate art; Louis CK cast himself as Letterman’s successor in his FX comedy two years ago. Others might enjoy the karma of a network comeback by O’Brien, whose deal at TBS will be up at the end of this year. The odds would seem to be low on both those prospects.
In almost all these cases, “Late Show,” if it continues to be called that, would be likely to remain in New York. The vast majority of the high-profile candidates have ties to the city.