With David Letterman’s retirement and Stephen Colbert stepping in to replace him, we’re left with a potentially gaping hole in the 2015 late-night TV line-up. Colbert's 11:30pm time slot on Comedy Central was recently filled by Larry Wilmore, with his new "Minority Report." But The Late Late Show is currently in limbo, since historically it was always produced by Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants.
That leaves networks with many big decisions to make in the coming year. Comedy Central has already responded to recent criticisms on the current all-white-male late-night line-up; will CBS also respond by choosing a woman to replace Ferguson in late night programming? (Amy Schumer or Aisha Tyler could potentially change the late night game with their diverse comedic voices.) Could they steal another faux-news reporter from Comedy Central from The Daily Show? Or will they try something new at 11:30 – Key and Peele could certainly become fierce competitors among late-night viewers.
While executives at CBS will likely take their time filling in these slots over the next year, we can learn a thing or two in the meantime about how they’re thinking by taking a look at the personalities who have already been vetted – and didn’t get the gig.
5 Chelsea Handler
Rumors flew when the 39-year-old late night cable host posted a photo of herself holding a pile of papers – her thumb conveniently revealing a CBS logo – and captioned it “Business Meeting” in the midst of all the late night shake-ups.
Adding a woman to the late night network line-up seems like a long overdue move for the entertainment industry, and many involved in conversations surrounding the current shake up pointed out that Handler is the only female talk show host in the business who’s already proven herself capable of leading a late night vehicle.
Handler launched her 11pm cable talk show in 2006 and easily stole the coveted female 18-34 demographic. Her loud, in-your-face brand of humor quickly helped her make headlines and steal even more of the spotlight from her male late night counterparts, but it has also cost her some ratings and credibility in recent years.
After a monologue joke about Syria was extremely poorly received and even garnered some international tension between diplomats in 2011, she’s also recently started slamming her own mother network E! (which catapulted her to fame). She blames them for her low ratings due to weak lead-ins and recently told Howard Stern on the air, “They have no idea what they’re doing. Everything they do is just a failure.”
Despite all of this, rumors still swirled that CBS might take a chance on the feisty comedienne, in part because her own contract with E! is set to expire at the end of this year. However, as quickly as she sparked the flames, she dispelled the rumors. When pressed for answers by Ellen shortly after the photo was posted, she casually replied, "No. I would never do that to my fans or to myself or to the network."
4 Craig Ferguson
The development of the late-night follow-up to Letterman’s The Late Show has been called one of the most creative deals ever in television history.
In the early nineties, CBS was desperate to hold onto David Letterman as their late-night counterpart to NBC’s lineup. Worldwide Pants (Letterman’s production company) was able to create and produce “The Late Late Show” (then hosted by Tom Snyder) as part of their negotiations with CBS for a long-term contract with the legendary comedian.
The show went through several reincarnations and a variety of hosts through the years, with all negotiations being handled by WorldWide Pants – until now. With Letterman out of the picture, Ferguson was left to navigate the deal on his own. And according to reports, the Late Late Show host might be getting the boot.
While Ferguson’s stint on the show has received the highest ratings (and even a Peabody award) in its history, he’s often criticized by CBS for alienating viewers with his bizarre brand of comedy. Some running gags on the show include “Dear Aquaman,” “Crab Week,” and a closing segment called “What Did We Learn on the Show Tonight, Craig?” which starts with an animation of a kitten and ends with the host removing his tie, putting his feet up on the desk and recapping what happened on the show that night.
It was clear this particular type of humor is best suited for after midnight and wouldn't have been able to compete with other 11:30 network lineups. But now, without the support of Worldwide Pants behind him, it looks like CBS might be looking to give Ferguson the boot entirely. His contract is set to expire in 2015, and it’s unclear whether or not he’ll be invited to return.
However, we can’t feel too bad for the guy – sources say the current contract (negotiated by Worldwide Pants) includes a compensation clause for $10 million if he were passed over for Letterman’s 11:30 spot when the gap-toothed legend retired. And since Colbert’s spot was cemented almost immediately after Letterman’s announcement, it looks like Ferguson might just cash out and take it easy.
3 Jon Stewart
The Daily Show host has long been a comedy powerhouse at the center of network conversations like these. In fact, he’s been reported to have been in talks with CBS to take over the Late Show even in the midst of Letterman’s tenure as part of contract renegotiations in the past.
But as the driving force behind Comedy Central and producing the latest and greatest up-and-coming comedians, hosting a network late night show would have been a huge step down for Stewart. Plus, it seems like he’s more interested in grooming a replacement of his own in order to pursue a more serious career in film – most notably when he passed the torch to Jon Oliver over the summer to direct the upcoming drama Rosewater.
However, every time Stewart lines up a worthy replacement, he ends up launching a new legend of comedy instead. For example, almost immediately after his stint on The Daily Show, Jon Oliver accepted a position hosting his own weekly show on HBO.
In fact, Stewart’s show has turned into a fierce competitor for Saturday Night Live when it comes to breeding the biggest talents in comedy. Steve Carell, Ed Helms and the new Late Night host himself, Stephen Colbert, all catapulted into comedy history on The Daily Show.
2 Louis CK
After Letterman announced his retirement, fans of Louie couldn't help but draw some parallels between the news and a recent episode from last season, and wondered if the star had coyly tied in the storyline to mirror a real-life venture into Late Night.
The storyline? David Letterman was secretly retiring, and Louis CK had been chosen to take over his place at the helm of The Late Show. Despite being an underdog, Louis nailed it and was about to sign a deal with CBS – until it became obvious he had just been a pawn in order to renegotiate Letterman’s contract for another 20 years.
As we know, in reality David Letterman did announce his retirement, and it wouldn't really be too much of a stretch to picture Louis CK as a strong new fixture in late night. His self-produced show has risen in popularity and garnered widespread critical acclaim, his stand-up is beloved by many and his writing credits include stints on Letterman and Late Night With Conan O’Brien. We wouldn't count him out of the late-night shake-up just yet.
1 Neil Patrick Harris
NPH would definitely be a bigger gamble for a network spot since he hasn't ever hosted or produced his own show. However, his legendary character Barney Stinson made him a CBS darling – and with the series finale airing just a few weeks before Letterman’s announcement (leaving Harris available, save for his current turn on Broadway), the timing just seems right.
Plus, NPH is no stranger to making small talk with movie stars and entertaining on a live, high-stakes stage. He’s been a phenomenal recurring guest host on Live with Michael and Kelly and received widespread critical praise for his dynamic and energetic performances hosting The Tonys.
One more serendipitous factor that could tilt the late-night scale in Harris’s favor? Craig Thomas and Carter Bays – the wildly successful creators of How I Met Your Mother – first broke into writing on Letterman. With Worldwide Pants out of the picture, the gang could even get back together to produce a new show and inject the late-night line-up with the same energy they used to revolutionize primetime sitcom formats.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of diversity in this bunch. What do you think about the late-night shake-up, and who would you like to see step into the spotlight after Colbert?