On February 17, Jimmy Fallon will take over “The Tonight Show” chair that Jay Leno has held for two decades. Prior to that, Johnny Carson held the post for 30 years and set up the template for all who followed him. While 99% of my material on this blog has been focused on film, I have held a long fascination with the late night “TV wars” that has produced some serious high drama in the past.
When Johnny Carson announced his retirement in 1991, there was one question that leapt to the minds of TV watchers: Dave or Jay? That would be, of course, be David Letterman or Jay Leno. You see, Letterman had hosted the “Late Night” program that followed Johnny for nearly a decade when the King of Late Night announced he would be stepping down. Letterman grew up idolizing Johnny and many saw him as the heir apparent upon the King’s retirement. As much as Carson had set the example for all future hosts, Letterman would bring in his own ironic and self depreciating sense of humor that has been an undeniable influence on many others. For example, current ABC 11:30 host Jimmy Kimmel has made no secret of the fact that he worshipped Dave as a teen. And the influence of Letterman on Jon Stewart and Conan O’Brien is stronger than the influence of Johnny.
There was one thing preventing Letterman from obtaining the keys to the kingdom: Jay Leno. Both Letterman and Leno became known to the masses when they debuted their stand-up routines on Carson’s show in the 1970s. Leno would eventually become Johnny’s guest host when he was on vacation (which was frequently). And Leno’s time guest hosting went over well with audiences and with the NBC brass tasked with naming Carson’s successor. It should also be noted Leno was considered more of a “team player” than Letterman, who had a prickly relationship with network executives.
The decision was handed down that Jay Leno would become host of “The Tonight Show”. This did not sit well with Dave. Nor did it sit well with Johnny Carson, who did see Dave as his natural replacement. In May of 1992, Leno would taking over hosting duties while leaving Letterman to plot about his future. He would receive offers from ABC, CBS, Fox, and the syndicators but would ultimately choose CBS. In August of 1993, “The Late Show with David Letterman” premiered. He would defeat Leno soundly for two years until the summer of 1995 when Hugh Grant, fresh off a prostitution scandal, did Jay’s show. “The Tonight Show” would beat Letterman that night and for the next two decades. The Leno/Letterman feud was so well-publicized that a bestselling book by NY Times writer Bill Carter was released in addition to an HBO movie The Late Shift based on it.
Letterman’s departure created the need for NBC to fills its 12:30 slot. Lorne Michaels of “Saturday Night Live” fame was named executive producer of the program and he would turn to one of that show’s writers to host. Conan O’Brien was a complete unknown to the public when “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” was born. The show would debut to critical scorn and audience ambivalence. After a couple of years, Conan found his groove and the program became a hit.
As years went by, speculation mounted that Conan might jump at the opportunity for an earlier time slot on perhaps Fox or ABC. NBC didn’t want to let him go. In 2004, a deal was stuck with Leno where he would leave “The Tonight Show” five years later and O’Brien would become host. Jokes were made about the arrangement… five years later? That’s, like, forever! Then a funny thing happened. Leno continued his ratings lead over Letterman. NBC was making tons of money from the show with Jay at the helm. However, a deal (and the significant money involved) had already been signed. NBC would announce that Jay would host a nightly prime-time 10PM show that, well, was pretty much “The Tonight Show” an hour and a half earlier.
This would provide the background for one of the biggest television debacles of all time. Bill Carter would write another book about this whole fiasco. When Conan became the show’s host in May 2009, he would fall behind to Letterman (something Jay hadn’t experienced in 14 years). To add insult to injury, Jay at 10 o’clock was a ratings disaster and it couldn’t come close to competing with the network dramas that the other three networks were putting against it. Within months, Conan was out and Jay was back in. Questions abounded as to whether Leno would resume his lead over Dave. He did and it was almost as if the whole sordid Jay/Conan saga had never occurred.
The saga did, of course, create yet another opening for a “Late Night” host on NBC at 12:30 when Conan did leave to serve his ill-fated stint on “Tonight”. Once again Lorne Michaels would turn to an SNL alum and a much more famous one – Jimmy Fallon. He had served as a popular cast member on the show before leaving for an unsuccessful film career. By 2009, he was ready for his late night gig. After a shaky start, Jimmy found his groove too. And the same whisperings about Conan leaving for a better time slot that had caused Conan to take over were heard about Jimmy.
Last year, Leno would announce his retirement which cleared the path for Jimmy to become host next month. For the first time since the 1970s, “The Tonight Show” will be out of New York City (Carson started there before moving the program to L.A. and Jay and Conan would shoot from California).
February will begin to answer the following question: will David Letterman beat Fallon like he did Conan? It’s a legitimate question, but I would bet that Fallon will maintain the ratings lead that “The Tonight Show” had in Jay’s tenure. It could be a bit closer. Some of the older viewers who like Jay may go over to Dave… or may just go to bed. There’s also Jimmy Kimmel, who gets nice numbers over at ABC but is currently third and is likely to stay there.
There is also the very real competition that Comedy Central provides with its 11PM-midnight lineup that has Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” and Stephen Colbert on “The Colbert Report”. There is Arsenio Hall in syndication, who made a return to late night after 20 years away. There is Conan O’Brien at 11 on TBS, where he landed back on his feet with a show that gets decent numbers – though much smaller than anything he saw on a network. There’s Chelsea Handler with her followers on E! In other words, late night is a much more crowded marketplace than anything Mr. Carson ever experienced when basically the whole country feel asleep to his show and talked about his monologue at the water cooler the next morning.
Yet again – Fallon’s ascension to “Tonight” leaves another hole at 12:30 and this time Lorne Michaels has put another well-known SNL vet to take over: Seth Meyers. He has done Weekend Update on the program for years and was an obvious choice to get the gig.
We now move from history to the future and this is where my own speculation became rampant. The question must now be asked: how long will David Letterman stick around? In April, he will be 67 years old. He’s hosted a late night talk show for nearly 32 years now – longer, by the way, than Carson. Dave just recently signed a contract that takes him through 2015. He’ll be coming up on close to 70 at that time. And there is no obvious candidate to replace him. If he does leave when his contract expires, this allows this late night follower the opportunity to speculate away on who it could be. Here’s some theories and I’ll explain my feelings on their likelihood:
1) Craig Ferguson. Prognosis: Doubtful. Scotsman Ferguson has hosted “The Late Late Show” following Letterman for almost nine years. While the show does pretty well, it has been consistently defeated by both Conan and Jimmy Fallon and probably will be behind Seth as well. It’s hard to imagine CBS giving their prime real estate to him seems like a reach and he may have to be content with being the 12:30 guy.
2) Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. Prognosis: Shaky and Doubtful. As mentioned before, both guys host successful and critically acclaimed programs on Comedy Central. Also they’re both based out of New York (unlike Ferguson) and could slide right into the Ed Sullivan Theater. Though that might not be a plus as I’ll explain soon enough. Stewart was considered Dave’s natural successor before everyone realized Dave was going to stick around for quite a while. If Letterman had retired five years ago, I think the chances would’ve been excellent that Stewart would be hosting as we speak. Now, I’m not so sure. Stewart has gone into ventures recently including film directing. Plus – he’s got total creative freedom at Comedy Central on a groundbreaking show that wouldn’t fit the format of “The Late Show”. As time has marched on and Dave has stayed put, the chances of “The Late Show with Jon Stewart” have diminished in my view. As for Colbert, it seems even less likely. Main reason: Colbert plays a “character” on his program (mostly sending up news hosts like Bill O’Reilly) and that wouldn’t exactly translate to the CBS format either. If he were to take over, he’d probably have to be “himself” and not the brilliant creation he’s honed for years. I just don’t see it. Plus – if Stewart were to leave “The Daily Show” at any time – “Colbert Report” could move up to 11PM.
3) Conan O’Brien. Prognosis: Not gonna happen. There are some writers out there who’ve floated this possibility, but I would frankly be shocked if this went down. Conan couldn’t keep up with Letterman as “Tonight Show” host and I can’t see him beating Fallon or probably Kimmel either. He seems to be able to do whatever he wants at TBS and he’ll likely stay there until he hangs it up.
4) Seth Meyers. Prognosis: Hmmm – could happen. Seriously, this seems to be the most sensible scenario so far. Meyers will get at least nearly two years as “Late Night” host before Dave’s contract expires. If Meyers does a good job and posts solid ratings in his time slot, why wouldn’t CBS go after him once Letterman exits? For those who believes Seth’s loyalty to Lorne Michaels and NBC would keep him at 12:30 – the money CBS would offer and the earlier time slot could change that very quickly. Of course, if he fails on NBC at 12:30, it’s a moot point. However, I have a feeling he won’t.
5) Joel McHale. Prognosis: Could happen, too. McHale has hosted “The Soup” on E! for nearly a decade and made quite a name for himself. He looks the part of late-night host and has had plenty of experience in a somewhat similar format. Here’s another factor in his potential favor: when Jay Leno leaves, so does “Tonight” in California. As mentioned, Jimmy be live (not really) from New York. So will Seth. And so is Dave. That leaves only Jimmy Kimmel and Craig Ferguson (who I’ve said is unlikely to take over) on the West Coast. It would stand to reason that CBS might want their next “Late Show” host in L.A. and McHale is out there. I would put him on an even plane with Meyers and put them as the two frontrunners currently. One caveat: McHale stats on NBC’s sitcom “Community” and has said he may be more interested in being an actor. Again – the CBS contract offer could change those thespian aspirations.
6) Jay Leno. Prognosis: You never know! Think about it. Leno would be in his mid-60s if Letterman retires at the end of his contract. CBS could hold off on the big decision for a younger replacement by putting Jay in for three or four years. He’s been the #1 late night for nearly 20 years. And Jay is a notorious workaholic and made it clear that, once again, he really doesn’t want to retire. By the time of a Letterman departure, Jay may have already found himself another job but probably nothing could be more high-profile than this. Like I said, it’s not as crazy as it sounds.
7) And lastly – I’ll just throw a whole bunch of names out there that seem unlikely. If CBS decided to go the direction of staying in NYC and finding an older host to be more of a “caretaker” for a while before their found their ultimate replacement – perhaps Howard Stern or Jerry Seinfeld could surface. Of course, they’ll both be close to mid-60s and I have no idea whether they’d accept or not. What if CBS decided to break the mold and have a female compete against the Jimmy’s? It could provide interesting counter programming. If that were to occur, could names like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Ellen DeGeneres, or Chelsea Handler get in the mix? Again, no clue whether Fey or Poehler would have interest (I would think Handler would) and Ellen’s got a nice thing going with her daytime show. Finally, could CBS go with a total unknown like Conan was over two decades ago? Possible, but very doubtful. And there’s always the chance that Dave could just keep chugging along for years in which case I’ve just wasted over 2000 words of your time. I would say that Dave will leave at the end of 2015 or sign a one-year extension to get him the 2016 election cycle and retire.
All in all, the late night TV landscape over the past few decades has been an evolving and fascinating one and that will continue into the future.