David Letterman announced his retirement from late night at the taping of tonight's episode of Late Show. Letterman has been one of the most prolific late night hosts of all-time, hosting NBC's Late Night from 1982 to 1993 and CBS's Late Show from 1993 until next year, but who will take over once he retires? As with Late Night, Letterman was the first host of Late Show, and we've assembled a list of 9 people likely to be on the shortlist to become the second host of Late Show.
It should be noted that while this is a great opportunity to diversify late night, we’re not expecting much from CBS. The most traditional of the networks with the oldest, whitest demographic, we’re expecting them to be pretty conservative here. This list is an attempt to realistically read the situation. That being said, during NBC's big late night transition, we put together a list of who we’d really love to take over a late night show right here.
The clearest successor to Letterman's throne is Craig Ferguson, longtime host of The Late Late Show, the 12:35 am show immediately after his. Ferguson has a clause in his contract saying that he gets Letterman's timeslot if he retires, but those clauses are never ironclad and CBS has the option to buy him out and install a different host.
The host of Comedy Central's The Daily Show and the highest-paid host in late night also seems like an obvious Letterman replacement, as he's one of the highest-rated and longest-running late night hosts in the game, having anchored The Daily Show for over 15 years now. Stewart seems to be trying to veer in a different direction lately though, having taken last summer off from The Daily Show (his first-ever extended break) to write and direct his first movie, an Oscar-baity Iranian prison torture drama called Rosewater. If Stewart decides he wants to host a bigger late night show instead of being a serious filmmaker, he could end up vying for this job. Stewart's current contract with Comedy Central ends in mid-2015, so the timing could work out.
Deadline Hollywood alum Nikki Finke reports that Stephen Colbert is "first in line" to replace Letterman. That info seems a little shaky at this point, but Colbert, host of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report, is certainly an interesting choice. If selected, he'd likely have to host Late Show as himself, rather than his neo-con character "Stephen Colbert," which could present a challenge, but it's certainly a new and exciting choice as we don't know what the real Stephen Colbert hosting a talk show is like. Maybe after nearly a decade of doing The Colbert Report, he'll want to do something new. Colbert's contract with Comedy Central runs out at the end of this year, definitely leaving him open for the transition.
Conan O'Brien has already taken over for Letterman on one show, succeeding him as the host of NBC's Late Night in 1993, and that went pretty well. I imagine he'd love to return to network TV after spending the last four years on TBS. O'Brien's TBS contract goes through November of 2015, which may be too late for the transition, but the exact date of the Letterman transition has yet to be announced and O'Brien could always buy his way out of his contract.
David Letterman's longtime timeslot rival Jay Leno seems like an unlikely replacement given the bad blood between he and Letterman, but Leno does have some free time having been ousted by NBC for Jimmy Fallon this past year. Leno went out at NBC as the #1 host in late night and he's popular with older viewers, so he's definitely going to be appealing to CBS execs.
Host of E!'s late night show Chelsea Lately, Chelsea Handler picked the right time to announce the end of her long-running series. Over this past weekend, Handler's manager told the press that the host is opting to end Chelsea Lately after eight years. The contract and the show will end in late 2014, leaving Handler wide open to take over for Letterman. It'd make her the first female host of a network late night show since Joan Rivers anchored another program also called The Late Show on the then-new Fox network in 1986, but Handler's bawdy sense of humor may not be a fit for conservative CBS.
Ellen DeGeneres's daytime TV contract is extended through 2017, making her unlikely to host Late Show, but she could hypothetically get out of that contract and would be high on CBS's list, given how popular she is.
Jimmy Kimmel, like most late night hosts of his generation, considers David Letterman to be his idol, so the thought of taking over his show would probably be appealing; however, Kimmel is doing just fine in the ratings at ABC having been given the 11:35 timeslot last year, His current home network has never done him wrong, and it's doubtful that he would walk away from that. His current ABC contract goes through 2015.
Neil Patrick Harris
The only person on this list with no late night hosting experience, Neil Patrick Harris has hosted plenty of other TV stuff and has a relationship with CBS's execs and audience. Harris has hosted the Emmys twice (CBS's pick the last two times they aired the ceremony) and the Tonys four times, and his gig on CBS's long-running hit How I Met Your Mother just ended this week.