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Thursday, May 8th, 2014

Could Norm Macdonald Really Pull Off Being CBS's Next Late Night Star?

For the past week, Norm Macdonald has been on Twitter campaigning to become the next host of The Late Late Show after Craig Ferguson steps down at the end of the year. After comedian Ben Hoffman started the #latelatenormnorm hashtag, Macdonald has retweeted hundreds of folks encouraging CBS to give him gig (full disclosure: I was one of them). While there's no way of knowing if CBS is taking this seriously, or if Norm is actually interested or just doing this for his own amusement, the buzz around the campaign begs the question: could this actually work?

Ever since Macdonald left SNL, he's been looking for a steady gig, and nothing's really stuck. The closest thing he had to a hit was the ABC sitcom The Norm Show, which lasted three years, and was probably funnier than you remember. Since then, A Minute With Stan Hooper and Sports Show With Norm Macdonald were both canceled after a year, while the 2005 sketch comedy show Back To Norm was canceled after just one episode. Macdonald is a well-respected comedian, with a lot of admirers, but so far that hasn't translated into a consistent television gig.

Could his luck change with the 12:35 slot? It's not that crazy of an idea. Remember, this is a time of night where giant ratings are not a requirement for success. Sure, Macdonald tends to be one of the more polarizing comedians around, going back to his SNL days. People either see him as a comedic genius or they wonder how anyone could possibly think the guy is funny. But while Norm's cult following has been too small too keep him on the air in primetime, the late night world is a bit different. If Macdonald can get a decent number of viewers to tune in, and remain competitive with Seth Meyers on NBC, a Norm-led Late Late Show could have some serious staying power.

Of course, putting a polarizing comedian with such a spotty track record in such a prominent spot would be a serious gamble. But CBS has shown that they're not averse to taking risks and keeping things weird in that time slot. For the past nine-and-a-half years, Craig Ferguson has had the most off-the-wall late night show on network TV. He has a robot sidekick with a Price is Right nametag, does a mostly improvised and conversational monologue, and he's all-too-willing to have an interview get a little awkward. He's differentiated himself from the pack by being an acquired taste who does his own thing.

Likewise, Norm would likely have no interest in doing a conventional talk show where he plays nice with famous folk like Jimmy Fallon does now. As his memorable Conan appearance from the late 90s, where he made things painfully awkward for Courtney Thorne-Smith (and hilarious for the audience), he's far more interested in being funny than being tactful.

Moreover, he could position himself as the direct antithesis of Meyers. While the two share a history at the Update desk, they differ in just about every other category. Meyers is a likable, slightly nerdy comedian who tends to play things safe. While he's not quite as ultra-nice as Fallon, he takes a similar approach to telling jokes and interviewing celebrities, where he tends to be agreeable (and often funny), but not one to really do anything all that daring. As anyone familiar with Macdonald knows, he's the exact opposite of that — he pretty much does his own thing, and if anyone else decides to go along with it, that's fine, too.

When Letterman announced his retirement in March, one of the main things he was praised for was his total disinterest in brown-nosing his celebrity guests. If he had contempt for a guest, and didn't really want to be interviewing them, he had no trouble making that perfectly clear to both the guest and the audience. Macdonald would likely act a similar manner, and might even take it to another level. Imagine the glorious awkwardness that might transpire if CBS tried forcing one of the Kardashian sisters on him. Whereas Fallon or Meyers would gleefully pretend to be interested in whatever reality show or tanning product they were promoting, Macdonald would likely take a page out of Letterman's book, and let them know just how un-enthused he was about having to talk to them. And as with some of Letterman's best interviews, it would be incredible to watch.

Of course, we have no way of knowing if this has any chance of happening, or if Norm even really wants it to. But if Norm Macdonald does end up becoming the next host of The Late Late Show, he'd be one of the few late night hosts dedicated to humor over friendliness. Whether Norm intended this campaign as a joke or not, one hopes that CBS takes it seriously. A Colbert-Macdonald tandem five nights a week would be a stark contrast to the all-too-harmless fun of Jimmy & Seth, and could attract a lot of viewers who would rather see uncompromising comedy than cheerful celebrity schmoozing. And what would be a better way of continuing Letterman's legacy than that?

John Hugar is a writer based in Buffalo, NY. His work has appeared on The Classical, Deadspin, and Gothic Ginobili. He's been a comedy nerd since he was 12, and he thinks the world would be a better place if Jay Sherman came back.