Letterman’s ‘Late Show’ departure ignites comedy cold war

Lines form early at the Ed Sullivan Theater where the Late Show with David Letterman is filmed at 54th and Broadway. It is a neon-bright world on the street of theatres and stars. (BROADWAY KRT/ PHOTOGRAPH BY RALPH LAUER/FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM)

Lines form early at the Ed Sullivan Theater where the Late Show with David Letterman is filmed at 54th and Broadway. It is a neon-bright world on the street of theatres and stars. (Photo Courtesy of Ralph Lauer/Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

David Letterman, the host of the CBS nightly institution “Late Show with David Letterman,” is leaving the job he has claimed for more than 20 years and 4,000 episodes. While his contract to host the show is not ending any time soon, August 2015 to be exact, the media is waiting on pins and needles for CBS to name his replacement; an announcement that will likely not (officially) come any time soon.

Meanwhile, the Internet is buzzing over the opportunity CBS has to give hosting reins to a comedian who does not fit the white male mold that has dominated the genre since its inception in the 1940s. Notable exceptions of network late night hosts who were not white and male include Arsenio Hall and Joan Rivers, though her Fox show was very short lived.

This has led to massive speculation over who the next host might be, with every news and opinion outlet bursting from the seams with suggestions and rumors from dubious “insider” sources. Wish lists include hosts of late-night cable programs such as Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart and Conan O’Brien, as well as more far-fetched choices such as Lorne Michaels loyalist Tina Fey and the extremely talented but decidedly niche Julie Klausner.

 

 

From how it sounds in the trades, CBS does not have a succession plan in place and the “Late Show with David Letterman” could be hosted by just about anyone in a little more than a year. A deeper look into the situation suggests that could not be further from the truth. Suggestions to the contrary seem to be no more than clickbait, considering CBS already has a host waiting in the wings: Craig Ferguson.

Ferguson’s “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” has been a solid ratings performer since he took over for Craig Kilborn in 2005. His show is a co-production between CBS and David Letterman’s own production company, Worldwide Pants Inc. If that does not make him the apparent heir to the “Late Show with David Letterman,” then consider the terms of his contract, which gives him the first right of refusal for the job. Since CBS is unlikely to shake things up by buying him out of his contract or radically changing the terms when he renegotiates later this year, the only immediately foreseeable way Craig Ferguson does not end up hosting the “Late Show with David Letterman” is if he chooses not to.

This leaves Ferguson’s show on the table for a potential replacement, where several potential hosts seem to be posturing themselves for the job. Chelsea Handler, the host of “Chelsea Lately” on E!, who recently announced she was departing from her program, appears to be angling for the job. “The Price is Right” host Drew Carey, who recently guest hosted Ferguson’s show on April 1, also seems poised to take over. Many have been quick to also toss the names of CBS hosts Aisha Tyler and Wayne Brady into the mix.

After the very public battle over the heart and soul of NBC’s late-night lineup over the last several years, CBS is hoping to keep the competition quiet. That said, the winning hosts will become the comedy face of the network for decades to come. Do not expect them to give up easily.

Reach the reporter at zheltzel@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @zachheltzel