Whether your jaw dropped or you already had an office pool forecasting what day David Letterman would retire, his announcement roused predictable ripples of who would fill the prime NBC late night spot. Unlike Jay Leno‘s recent exit, which was his second in five years with the replacement host already chosen, Letterman’s declaration never hinted at anyone he or the network was considering, the stuff of which rumor mills are made.
Although it seems that talent and demeanor should be the most important factors in the choice, in a world that can’t help but try and “balance” everything so no one feels left out, cries of the need for diversity rang out. Why not replace the old white guy (Letterman’s words) with someone more diverse?
When the dust started to settle, logic crept into the debate. Lots of comics are great guests or terrific at stand-up but can they interview every type of celebrity from authors to rock stars? Can they take the rigors of producing five shows a week? And, on the drier, more practical side, who’s available AND willing to jump into the fray against relatively fresh faces on nighttime TV like Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel?
Letterman’s contract isn’t up until the end of 2015, so there’s no rush. In the meantime, the contenders who’ve risen to the top of the discussion are as diverse as Letterman’s Top 10 Lists.
Neil Patrick Harris
With How I Met Your Mother ending its run last week, Harris might have some free professional time on hand but he also has 4-year-old twins, the lead role in a 2014 Broadway production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which could potentially run for years, and assorted hosting and production duties for awards shows and magic-themed projects (his second love after acting). And while Harris is undeniably personable, would he really feel comfortable chatting with heads of state or foreign dignitaries?
The same week Letterman announced his retirement, Chelsea Handler revealed she was ending her 8 year affiliation with E! Network. Coincidence or not, admirers immediately nominated her for Letterman’s successor. If Letterman was the only game in town, Handler would likely be interested but rumor has it she has multiple offers on the table. Handler’s comedic talents are undeniable but her acerbic wit might be a bit much for more reserved guests.
A good part of Letterman’s appeal is his ability to come off as a well-read intellect in his monologue, come back after commercial with an absurd Top 10 List of nicknames for Putin, followed by a session handling weird wild animals, and ending the show debuting a new rap-metal band. Steven Colbert is a master of wit and innuendo but it’s questionable if he could pull off five shows a week with the universal appeal that Letterman perfected over the years.
From the news desk on Saturday Night Live to the role of down-home bureaucrat Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation to hosting the Golden Globe awards with Tina Fey, Amy Poehler has proven she’s multitalented in a variety of venues. With Parks and Rec always on the precipice of cancellation, she might jump at the chance of conquering yet another showbiz platform. Then again, after having to fight to keep Parks and Rec alive for the past few years, Poehler might be hesitant to take the helm of a ship known for its cruelty to newcomers, the late night talk show.
O’Brien has repeatedly been treated like the proverbial red-headed stepchild, literally pushed into a dark corner after 7 months as host of The Tonight Show, despite his success hosting his Late Night talk show from 1993 to 2009. He’s one of those personalities people usually love or hate – no in-between. However, his proven resilience is an asset, as is his ability to interview a variety of guest types. And his current contract with TBS ends in November 2015, which couldn’t be more perfect timing to step into the Letterman spot.
Tina Fey proved she was more than an SNL player and dead ringer for Sarah Palin in her roles on 30 Rock and various movies. She’s always an interesting guest on talk shows and seems like she could hold her own with any type of personality she might encounter as Letterman’s replacement. But she’s committed to a sitcom writing and producing project for a show scheduled to debut this fall on NBC. Not to say she couldn’t do both gigs but, again, would she even want to deal with a plate that full?
Fans of Craig Ferguson‘s very late night show (12:30 AM in most time zones) have heard him say repeatedly he’s too racy for an earlier time slot. Not only is his show replete with sexual innuendo and bleeped out curse words, his sidekick is a skeleton robot named Geoff Peterson and a “horse” named Secretariat powered by two men in a vaudeville-inspired costume is always standing by in an onstage stable. Considering how well-read and apparently intelligent Ferguson is, it seems doubtful his outspoken and edgy personality would be picked to replace the comparably demure Letterman.
With Ellen DeGeneres‘ daytime show on the fast track, it’s doubtful she’d abandon her loyal fans to replace Letterman but anything’s possible – don’t forget that even Oprah walked away eventually. Between her wide range of guests during the day to her successful gigs hosting the Oscars, DeGeneres has never been more comfortable in her own skin. She has proven she can be as serious and empathetic as she is silly, an attribute that heightens her qualifications to fill Letterman’s seat.
Always a delight, Wanda Sykes is a welcome guest on a variety of talk shows and proved her mettle as an actress on The New Adventures of Old Christine, sharing the spotlight with Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She and her wife have 5-year old twins but according to Sykes, her wife does the bulk of child-rearing, so she has time for a regular job. Taking Letterman’s spot would please those pleading for diversification on late night TV (female, black, lesbian, formerly straight…well, at least married to a man for 7 years).
After his megahit show ended, Jerry Seinfeld exiled himself from the limelight for several years. Now, with three kids ranging in age from 8 to 14 and his wife writing cookbooks and running her baby buggy company, Jerry has been popping up regularly over the past few years on talk shows, seemingly missing the showbiz world a bit. After so many years on a hit sitcom, a transition to talk show host may be difficult. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.