Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

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 Night-Tonight (with Lorne Michaels now producing all three), whereas it used to just go Late Night-Tonight, 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."

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  • stuttering john

    I don't there is an added pressure to replace meyers with a"possible late night host". It's never been this way. Am I alone here?

  • stuttering john

    don't think*

  • Tom Walsh

    I really think this is a once-in-blue-moon scenario. This whole idea of a succession model is all based on a 2-part hypotheses that a) Meyers on Late Night will actually work, and b) Late Night television shows will still exist when it's time for Meyers/Fallon to move on.

    • Brian Bouton

      Agreed. I think this would be news to NBC and Lorne Michaels. No one is owed that slot and it just happened to work out this time.

      • Frank Rodriguez

        c) Lorne Michaels will still be The Man by the time Jimmy's run is up. This could be 15 years from now? Twenty?

    • Stuie299

      As much as I like that Meyers is leaving SNL, I don't like that he's taking over Late Night. I hope that everything works out but I'm seriously having doubts.

  • Jeff Heatherly

    I think you're just preemptively borrowing trouble, Splitsider; and even if you're not, at least this would guarantee us some decent comedic talent in all three seats for the first time in twenty years.

    • Stuie299

      Meyers decent comedic talent? You can have him for all I'm concerned. I'm just thrilled he'll be leaving SNL.

  • Itsonreserve

    But….it's only because of the Conan botching and the timing of Meyers' career that this is so. With Michael's helming both Tonight and Late Night as producer one can assume that barring a total meltdown Fallon and Meyers are set for at least decade long runs. The television landscape will be completely different by then and no one who steps in now will be interested in staying in the position that long. It will be completely up in the air again the next time this comes around.

  • boop

    Technically Conan was an SNL alumnus, too… It's not surprising that they're chosen from SNL… There's a wealth of talent there that have been through the game, and who know their way around – it's no different than getting a promotion within a company; I can't wait to see Fallon and Meyers do an amazing job – for however long they need to do it.

  • IhateDisqus

    I completely disagree with the premise of this article. If anything, these recent events upend the succession problem that has plagued the Tonight Show since Carson left. Ever since then, the media has been speculating whether the Late Night Host will replace the current Tonight Show host, which puts pressure on the network to move the Late Night Host through. As you point out, in this case, Fallon is actually younger than Meyers, which makes it unlikely that the media will speculate that Meyers is the heir apparent. Plus, as we see from Meyers Weekend Update gig, he is perfectly happy staying one place for a long time (some might say too long) if its a good gig. I don't think he will feel the ego pressure to take on the Tonight Show — especially with out all his friends, family, representatives, and media types telling him that he is next in line after Fallon.

    I will also disagree that this suggests that Weekend Update has to move into Late Night. Meyers will be staying there a while. Plus, Fallon took a roundabout way to Late Night. He did movies before Late Night, which will lead most people to conclude that it does not need to be a straight jump. I don't think this changes anything about how SNL picks its Weekend Update host.

    But I do enjoy you thinking critically about this.

    • AGoodQuestion

      Between "The Awesomes" and various movie projects he's tried to get off the ground, I don't think taking over Tonight is Meyers' top priority. And it would be hard luck for him if it were. He's only getting the Late Night job because he's in with Lorne, which he wouldn't be if he tried a takeover bid. But I think it's a moot point, because if and when he moves on it'll probably be to something else.
      Now at some point the WU anchor may be tapped for Late Night. That depends on a lot of other variables. The time hasn't come yet, though.

  • Stuie299

    Wait, did we seriously just go 1 full article and 8 comments without any mention of John Mulaney?

    • Brian Bouton

      He already peaked an hour ago and his career is on the skids.

    • Brian R.

      Aside from Mulaney trying to have a sitcom, since he already wrote for SNL and has that white boy look, wouldn't he be a shoe in?

      • Stuie299

        That's exactly what I was thinking and since Splitsider is such a fan of his I was shocked that no one had brought him up.

      • Teaflax

        Or, indeed, a shoo-in.

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  • Ryan Gunther

    There is no basis for the presumption that the Late Night host becomes the Tonight Show host, because that has never happened before. Neither Carson nor Leno were hosts of Late Night before taking over the Tonight Show. If anything, history tells us not to consider Fallon the true host of the Tonight Show until he's held onto the job for a full year.

    I think what's going on here is a lot more simple than this article makes it seem. Lorne Michaels has the power to pick the Late Night hosts. Lorne Michaels doesn't know much beyond SNL. The type of person who would make an ok talk show host, on SNL, is the type of person who can sit behind a desk and deliver short, topical jokes, ie Weekend Update.

    The whole reason they've been trying to replace Leno is to try to win back younger viewers from Letterman, Kimmel and The Daily Show. That may or may not work. But the fact is, Fallon and Meyers are about the same age (in fact, Meyers is older), so there's no way for Meyers to be considered a successor to Fallon. Assuming Fallon works out on the Tonight Show, he could host it for 20 years. By that time, it's highly unlikely that either Seth Meyers or Lorne Michaels will still be at NBC. If in fact NBC is still a network.

    • Sally Struthers

      God all this talk of this Show Name nonsense. ITs just different comedians doing different shows. There is no Tonight Show prestige, there is only carson, leno, conan, fallon doing their own thing

  • Evan Roche

    I want to say Jen Kirkman, but I know she's busy in LA with her show, and I really don't want her to have to decrease her standup as well.

    How about someone like Moshe Kasher?

  • Jonny

    Sorry, but I found the logic behind this article a bit faulty, although I still highly appreciated and enjoyed the article.

    I think it is too early to think of Seth as a potential successor to Jimmy on the Tonight show. When Letterman, Conan, and Jimmy were Late Night hosts they were thought of as heirs to the Tonight throne, largely due to the generation gap between them and the current Tonight host. This is not the case with Seth. And we can't even assume
    Seth's show will last as long as Jimmy's Tonight tenure. Another assumption I can't hop on board is that Weekend Update is the definitive new launch board for the Late Night host, just because Jimmy and Seth fell into that pattern back to back.
    The "succession problem" was all based on future assumptions and hypotheticals

  • Si

    I'm not quite sure what new insight this article provides other than speculation about SNL to Tonight Show mobility, and the fact that there is an NBC gridlock (naturally, due to contract length). When I read the title of the article, I immediately thought "Did Jimmy Fallon just get screwed over by Seth Meyers before he started?," as indicated by the article title "Succession Problem." There is NO PROBLEM yet. Why are you making it a problem?

    I'm quite disappointed with the title sensationalization.

  • Eneko Ruiz

    The bigger question is already impossible to formulate. Talking about television existing as it is now in 20 years (hell, even in 10) is simply naïve.

  • Dan F.

    I'm not sure the premise you're working with is valid. How long a gap was it between Fallon leaving SNL and getting Late Night? It's not exactly a line of Succession

  • Jason

    I don't think we can presume that whoever takes over Update HAS to be someone who can eventually take over Late Night and then the Tonight Show. I just don't see TV working that far down the road, but there's also absolutely no reason for this to be the case.
    I love ya, Splitsider, but this just doesn't seem like a problem. It seems like something is happening this time. Lorne is smart enough to know that he needs to pick the best person for Update based on what is best for SNL. No one else has suggested the Update desk is definitely part of the succession now. It just so happened to work out this way now.

  • Bob Trollop

    Jimmy didn't go straight from update to late night the next person to get update will not be thinking of late night neither will Lorne Michaels or NBC but you could include that Conan went from SNL to Late night through Lorne Michaels, he has a show which produces more successful comedians than any other its pretty likely he would choose someone from SNL to host another show he executive produces.