NBC’s New Late Night Succession Problem

In February, NBC is set to undergo another major late night transition, transitioning Jay Leno out and installing Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers as the new hosts of The Tonight Show and Late Night, respectively. While the late night shift is severely less tumultuous and headline-grabby than the Tonight Show conflicts of 1992 and 2010 (at least so far), NBC may have a bigger late night problem on its hands long term.

Handing Late Night to Seth Meyers creates a pattern, and a potentially troubling one at that. Following in Jimmy Fallon’s footsteps, Meyers is now the second anchor of SNL‘s Weekend Update to be given the keys to Late Night, meaning that the line of succession for The Tonight Show is now two people deep instead of one for the first time ever. NBC’s late night chain now goes Weekend Update-Late NightTonight (with Lorne Michaels now producing all three), whereas it used to just go Late NightTonight, and Weekend Update was its own world with anchors moving on to sitcoms or movies instead of daily slots on NBC.

There’s nothing new about the host of Late Night being the presumed heir to Tonight. That tradition has been in place for over two decades, even if NBC botched the Letterman and Conan hand-offs (Fallon may be the first time it actually works out). When it comes time to pick Meyers’s Weekend Update replacement(s) later this year, there will be added pressure on NBC to select someone who could hypothetically someday take over Late Night and eventually, The Tonight Show. It’s bad news for viewers who want a fresh take on the long-running SNL segment, as NBC will likely pick somebody who already feels like a late night talk show host. I can’t imagine execs choosing someone like unpolished standup Norm Macdonald or an untested onscreen presence like Tina Fey for the job now that there’s an expectation – both internally at NBC and externally – that the next Weekend Update host will be a contender for the Late Night gig the next time a transition is in order.

Despite all this, NBC obviously has no obligation to give Late Night to whoever is chosen to take over for Seth Meyers on the Update desk at midseason. It just means that there’s more pressure on whoever gets that job than ever before, and NBC and Lorne Michaels are unlikely to make unconventional choices like they have in the past and will likely use the spot to groom a future late night host, or a primetime star like previous Updaters Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

Then, there’s the late night traffic jam that all of this will likely result in. Several years from now, will Jimmy Fallon leave The Tonight Show so that Seth Meyers can take over for him before he’s too old? Fallon, 38, is actually a year younger than Seth Meyers, 39, making this the first time the Tonight Show host has been younger than the Late Night host and the first time they haven’t been at least a decade apart from one another. If Fallon stays in his new job for 20+ years like his predecessors Carson and Leno, he and Meyers will both be in their early 60s by the time he leaves, making Meyers too old for the job.

Plus, if NBC does in fact groom the next Weekend Update host to take over Late Night someday, that person had better get comfortable behind the desk as it’s going to be a bit of a wait. By the time he leaves SNL at midseason, Meyers will have anchored Update for seven and a half seasons, longer than anyone’s ever stayed on that desk before. He’s spent the last year of it (if not longer, depending on when Meyers knew he got the gig) waiting around to take over Late Night. The segment’s next anchor may end up doing the same thing, potentially breaking Weekend Update records once again by being dragged into NBC’s late night gridlock.

Of course, this is all speculative as we don’t know what exactly the future will hold for late night. It’s been especially unpredictable these last five years, so who knows if Jimmy Fallon will even want to stay on The Tonight Show into his golden years or if Peacock executives will once again use Weekend Update to vet a late night host? All in all, it may be better for the fate of the network’s late night comedy landscape in the long run if Fallon, Meyers, and future hosts don’t stay in their jobs as long as Leno has. As Fallon’s future rival Jimmy Kimmel put it earlier this year, “I’m not going to be one of those guys that they have to drag off the stage … If we’re lucky enough to be able to do another 10 years, I would be very happy with that.”

From Our Sponsors