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Thursday, March 24th, 2011

The Case For The Tonight Show with Ellen DeGeneres

Jimmy Fallon visited The Ellen DeGeneres show on Monday and, while he was there, the two hosts had an awfully interesting conversation. DeGeneres asked Fallon if he ever thinks about what he’d do “if The Tonight Show got offered to you? Would you take the time slot?” Fallon responded with a cute joke about how if he’s learned anything from Conan and Dave, it’s that doing Late Night means you’ll never do The Tonight Show before saying that he’d love to do it, but he loves his 12:30 time slot. Pretty standard banter, but here’s the thing: what if Ellen was asking for herself?

It’s not so far-fetched. Jay Leno will, eventually, retire for real. In Bill Carter’s excellent book The War for Late Night, sources say that Leno is seriously discussing retiring in his mid-sixties, just a few years from now. When that happens, he’s going to need a replacement and my money is on Ellen DeGeneres. Here’s why.

First and foremost, DeGeneres is a great host. She’s funny as hell – her monologues kill with her show’s audience and her jokes are far more consistently unexpected than Leno’s. DeGeneres’ humor is not, however, as enchanted by a post-Letterman sense of irony as Fallon and Conan O’Brien. Her jokes are smarter than Leno’s, but accessible enough that a grandmother watching in her Central Florida subdivision is as apt to laugh as a twentysomething dude in his Brooklyn apartment. Her two high-profile hosting gigs (the post 9/11 Emmys in 2001 and the Oscars in 2007) went off without a hitch.

DeGeneres’ daytime show also features more desk bits and sketches than any other daytime host. Monday’s episode included the very Tonight-y “‘What’s Wrong With This Photo?’ Photos,” wherein readers send in photos with something off, as well as a faux PSA where Ellen speaks out against overlong reality shows.

DeGeneres is also a skilled interviewer. She’s equally comfortable talking with other celebrities (see: the aforementioned Fallon interview) and politicians. DeGeneres’ sit down with John McCain in May 2008 justly got a ton of press when she calmly explained that “When someone says, 'You can have a contract, and you'll still have insurance, and you'll get all that,' it sounds to me like saying, 'Well, you can sit there, you just can't sit there,’” essentially forcing McCain to admit to her face that he doesn’t think she should be able to get married. DeGeneres’ interviews benefit tremendously from her friendly, non-confrontational style, allowing her both to surprise guests with disagreements (McCain clearly had no idea what was coming) and to get guests to open up. This could be a boon for The Tonight Show with Ellen DeGeneres, allowing her to hold her own against The Colbert Report.

DeGeneres’ talent and skills, however, aren’t even the top reason I’m convinced she’ll get The Tonight Show. To put it mildly, last time Leno “retired,” it didn’t go so well. When he gives the show up for real, NBC is going to have to control the narrative. Moving Fallon to 11:30 would set up some uncomfortable parallels: Leno says he’s retiring, the eccentric guy beloved by college kids gets The Tonight Show, but is he ready? We’ve all heard that story before. If DeGeneres got the job, however, the conversation becomes about the first female (and the first openly gay) host – a much more satisfying narrative.

Sure, DeGeneres has her liabilities as a potential Tonight Show host: as a daytime host, she’s obviously much more popular with women than men, and there’s always the gay thing. I’d argue, however, that her female audience is a function of her current form – daytime isn’t dude time. As for the homophobia issue, I don’t see it being a big deal outside of a fringe element that probably isn’t watching much late night to begin with. The Ellen DeGeneres show is one of the top programs on daytime television – it gets plenty of advertisers and the numbers are great.

Leno isn’t going anywhere for a few years and there’s no way of predicting how the television landscape will have shifted by then. I’m just going to leave this prognostication right here, just in case it gives me the ability to say a big, loud “I told you so” later this decade.

Leila Cohan-Miccio is a New York-based comedy writer. She blogs here, tweets here, and keeps her work here. She is totally into the idea of a Tonight Show replacement betting pool.

  • Brendan K. O'Grady

    Really interesting stuff, nice job. I have to say though, that my money is on Colbert. Carter has said in a couple of interviews doing press for his book that network executives know that Colbert is very ambitious and really sees himself as a household-name kind of talent. Comedy Central would obviously love to keep him, but I really think that either NBC or CBS will go over the top with an offer for Colbert instead of Fallon or Ferguson. That said, DeGeneres would be a terrific host, and I think she'd be on the shortlist if she lobbied for the gig.

  • JoshUng

    It also helps, that odds are, when Leno truly leaves the show, it probably would be 5 or so year, and NBC can pick somebody other than Fallon to replace him, by stating Fallon is still a bit too young, and it wouldn't come off as a slight.

    If they do give the show to Ellen, please, no crying about puppies, and if you make fun of the iPhone, don't buckle when Apple's marketing complains. Other than that, I think Ellen is pretty funny, and it would be a good choice to have her.

    • grovberg

      Right, that's why Fallon and Seth Meyers have been so reluctant to make fun of the iPhone on NBC.

  • ineffable.me

    I never thought of Ellen for late night, but it totally makes sense and would be really amazing! Now I kinda hope it happens.

    I don't think Colbert could ever do it because his whole performance art/thing just wouldn't translate to late night when I feel like everything is a bit more straightforward and people are there to promote their shit without having to jump over the Colbert-curveballs. He's perfect right where he is.

  • Amy O'Connor

    My money's on Chelsea Handler. Last year, she appeared on The Tonight Show six times, so it's clear that she has an existing relationship with both Jay Leno and NBC. Over the years, she has been honing her reputation as a late-night host and for me, it makes for more sense for a younger host like Chelsea Handler to want to step into a brand like The Tonight Show than an older comic like Ellen to make the move from daytime – where she has successfully turned herself into a brand – into a somewhat tarnished late night brand like The Tonight Show. Handler has that Joan Rivers-esque sensibility and lest we forget, Rivers was Johnny Carson's stand-in on The Tonight Show for yonks.

    • steakm

      don't waste your money

  • robinm

    I don't think Handler is mainstream enough. Colbert can do anything he needs to do so it would be awesome.

    That being said, Leno has always seen himself as "a few years from retiring" so I don't really think this is going to be an issue anytime soon. He has to work. It's his life.

  • http://twitter.com/bradfordevans Bradford Evans

    I kinda envision Colbert just sticking around Comedy Central forever, maybe getting the 11:00 slot if Stewart's Daily Show goes off the air.

    I saw this piece last year during the whole Conan kerfuffle, predicting that Joel McHale would be the next host. As long as Community has wrapped up by the time Leno eventually leaves, I definitely support that idea.
    http://www.vanityfair.com/online/oscars/2010/01/he-e-e-e-e-e-e-eres-joel-nbcs-mchale-waits-in-the-wings.html

  • http://wedealinusedfood.blogspot.com Dan

    I think Ellen is mainstream/accessible enough without being boring or un-funny.

  • steakm

    A lot of women are commenting on here about Ellen being the host of the Tonight Show, and I think its cute.

    But it will never happen. Besides, Ellen has really not been funny for about 5 years and her dancing is so phoney it causes half of the viewers to change the channel.

    I say give the Tonight Show to Zach Galifianakis. It's a less far-fetched option and he would be thrilled to do it.

  • http://www.twitter.com/becca_oneal Rebecca O'Neal

    I like this idea! Aaaand Ellen's still a good stand up. It's not what I usually go for, but Here and Now is absolutely hilarious.

  • Aaron N
  • b in seattle

    jimmy got the tonight show and it should have been ellen!!!

    maybe he'll get canned

    i just can't take him at all