What About Dave? The Forgotten Late Night War

David Letterman BeardAbsent, or maybe just ignored, among all the words committed to The Tonight Show plan for succession has been a discussion about what will happen to The Late Show with David Letterman and its lead-out The Late Late Show. Like Jay Leno, Dave has been at this game a long, long time. Unlike Jay, Dave seems to not care about ratings (possibly because he knows he’s likely to lose), does not appear to be that concerned with being well-liked (which has worked to his advantage, and has paradoxically made him more revered) and is not in any imminent danger of being forced out by the network brass, basically been given carte blanche by CBS to stay as long as he wants and, essentially, to do what he wants. When one jump-starts a late night franchise from scratch, we guess he’s granted some amount of immunity. But, unlike Jay, Dave doesn’t have a younger, hipper, potential replacement nipping at his heels, which makes the future of The Late Show even murkier.

While Craig Ferguson has built up a small but very loyal, impassioned following, and has received rave reviews for years from critics, we don’t have the sense that he’s long for his job, or at least eying the 11:35pm slot. In that small studio (we’ve been there) in CBS Television City, without a house band or announcer, Ferguson can deliver long, meandering monologues (verging on soliloquies) straight to camera, as if the audience and the viewing public wasn’t there, and engage in extended, intimate irreverent conversations with a diverse pool of guests. The Late Late Show interviews occupy that space between the celebrity shilling meant for the masses that one can observe on most late night talk shows and the quiet, introspective, one-on-one interviews conducted without a studio audience on past programs like Tom Synder’s Late Late Show. Sometimes it feels like The Late Late Show is performed for the studio audience, and then broadcast to millions of homes as an afterthought. Which isn’t to say that Ferguson couldn’t do a more traditional, more accessible late night show if he were bumped up to the main slot, we’re just not sure he wants to. Signed through 2014, when Letterman’s current contract runs through, it feels in some ways like he’s only there as long as Dave is, his relaxed, low-key, mischievous Scottish wit a complement Dave’s acerbic bitterness. 

When Dave’s current contract expires next year, he’ll have surpassed Johnny Carson as the longest running late night host, making him the King of Late Night in at least one regard. If that was a goal of Dave’s, indeed if it was the goal, then it would be reasonable to assume that he might hang up the microphone at the end of the deal, when he’ll be sixty-seven years-old (turning the big sixty-six next week), especially considering he’s already three years Leno’s senior. Having been at the late night game for an almost unbroken thirty-two years, 2014 might be the time for Dave to say goodbye and spend more time with his family, with his son Harry about to enter his tween years. If he doesn’t call it quits next year, then chances are he’ll probably have to be carted off stage, or just buried under it.

So if Letterman does tie a ribbon on his illustrious career at the end of next year, and Ferguson is not the guy to step into his big shoes, then who? We speculated, perhaps wildly, after the great Late Night Wars of 2010 that Conan O’Brien, having been the only person to weather the same betrayal and heartache that Dave experienced at NBC, might be the one. He’d replace Letterman once again, draw the logical spiritual line from Johnny to Dave to Conan, assume his rightful place at 11:35pm, restore balance to the world of late night, and, finally, have the last laugh. However, Conan’s deal with TBS made that possibility very unlikely, and his recent renewal until November 2015 makes that scenario nearly impossible, definitely implausible. So Conan’s out.

How about Jon Stewart, long-rumored to be a network late night host in-waiting, who once had a deal with Letterman’s World Wide Pants and was Larry Sander’s fictional successor all the way back in 1998? Is this, nearly twenty-years later, when he finally gets his shot the big-time? however, while he seems like the obvious choice, he doesn’t have much to gain in moving from his current perch atop Comedy Central. He took over The Daily Show from Craig Kilborn in 1999 (when, ironically, Kilborn left to conquer the world as host of The Late Late Show, staying until 2004 before ceding to Ferguson), and under Stewart’s direction The Daily Show blossomed from a trifle, a fluffy bit of disposable Hollywood and news satire, into, legitimately,  the most important fake news show ever, a genuine and significant source of political insight, analysis and takedown. As host of The Daily Show, Stewart has become more important and revered than he ever would as a host of a network show. Perhaps, you could argue, the grind of being the great liberal hope, the bastion of critical thinking and justified outrage, the Grand Eviscerator, has taken its toll on Stewart, and he’s looking for something a little less serious, a little less unforgiving. Perhaps the crown of thorns has grown heavy. But, even if that’s the case, the fact that Stewart is taking this summer off to direct a film suggest that if does leave The Daily Show, it won’t be to cool his heels behind The Late Show interview desk, it’ll be to pursue other more challenging, more personal endeavors.

So then who else? Stewart’s tag-team partner Stephen Colbert? Would CBS want to take a chance on a host who performs entirely in the guise of a right-wing conservative blowhard? Alternatively, would they want to roll the dice on Stephen Colbert and not “Stephen Colbert,” possessing no real evidence that the real Colbert can be entertaining or engaging when out of character? Also, would Colbert jump ship to compete with his successor, especially when The Colbert Report already does so well with the key young demographics, and potentially go head-to-head with his (former) best friend Jimmy Fallon? Seems unlikely.

Who else then? Well, we happen to very much like Joel McHale,(okay, that’s very much an understatement) whose name we’ve seen mentioned as a possible replacement for Fallon. He’s got great on-camera experience as host of The Soup, and as Community has shown he has leading-man good looks. And with the latter show looking like it’s on its last legs, and with McHale having been with the former for almost nine years, it’s likely that he’ll be soon be looking for new opportunities. McHale has been building his acting resume for some time now – scoring roles in The Informant! and Spy Kids: All the Time in the World – but with his devilish charm and lanky frame, not to mention his ever-perfect haircut, a new hosting gig might be a more viable and appropriate choice. However, having little or no experience being on the other side of the interview couch and being based in LA,* where he’s married with young two sons, McHale seems like a safer, more logical bet for The Late Late Show (where he is already a frequent and favorite guest).

Well? Then what? Who does that leave? Well, we’d love to suggest a great solution here, but we really don’t have one, and that’s the point. While NBC has been drubbed – and validly so – for once again going through a prolonged, very public succession and relegating Jay Leno to lame duck status, they’ve done so in hopes of avoiding the drama and verbal bloodshed that was experienced following Johnny Carson’s departure in 1992. It hasn’t worked out for NBC, pretty much in any instance, but they’re making these moves in order to have a specific, clear plan in place. That doesn’t seem to be the case with CBS and The Late Show(s); or at least if they do have a strategy, they’re not sharing it. And that’s why were surprised that no one’s talking about it. Unlike in other years, the host possibilities seem limited, even uninspired, and there’s no obvious future after Dave departs. While the drama surrounding The Tonight Show has the sexiness and the sensationalism, it’s The Late Show that has the real mystery.

*We’d be surprised if the Ed Sullivan Theater remained vacant after Dave moves out, and we can’t see Ferguson moving east. Nor do we see the proud, storied theater becoming home for less prestigious The Late Late Show. 

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Filed under Analysis, Makes You Think, Man Plans, Mancrush, Talkies

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