In the summer of 2004, host Craig Kilborn abruptly departed CBS's nightly 12:35am program The Late Late Show, and the network made a rather unusual choice when it came to selecting the show's next host: for the first and only time in late night history, CBS auditioned all of its potential hosts on air, letting its audience in on the host selection process that has always taken place behind closed doors.
Inspired by the success of Live with Regis and Kathie Lee finding Kathie Lee Gifford replacement Kelly Ripa via on-air auditions, CBS tried out 22 different Late Late Show hosts on air over the course of three months in the fall. Some were serious contenders, while others publicly said they weren't interested in the job and were just there to have fun. The auditioning hosts were a grab bag of sportscasters, ex-sitcom stars, and standups who got the chance to anchor The Late Late Show for one, two, or three nights at a time. Those who tried out included Jason Alexander, Jeff Altman, Tom Arnold, Michael Ian Black, Tom Caltabiano, Drew Carey, Adam Carolla, Tom Dreesen, David Duchovny, Damien Fahey, Craig Ferguson, Jim Gaffigan, Ana Gasteyer, David Alan Grier, D.L. Hughley, Lisa Joyner, Donal Logue, Rosie Perez, Ahmad Rashad, Jim Rome, Aisha Tyler, and looking to echo Conan O'Brien's writer-to-host transition, The Late Late Show's head writer Michael "Gibby" Gibbons.
Damien Fahey, Michael Ian Black, D.L. Hughley, and Craig Ferguson were all deemed finalists by the network, invited back to host a week's worth of shows each as one last tryout and, needless to say, Ferguson ended up winning the job. Besides the five poor-quality videos embedded in this post, there's a shockingly low amount of evidence online that this CBS late night stunt even took place. There's no footage from the well-received handful of episodes Michael Ian Black guest hosted, just a McSweeney's piece he wrote about being a finalist for the job.
Despite the lack of online proof that CBS ever attempted something so bold and exciting, auditioning Late Late Show hosts on air is absolutely something the network should try again in the wake of Craig Ferguson's recent announcement that he'll be departing in December. Launching a new late night host is expensive and a lot of work and picking the right person is an important investment for CBS. On-air tryouts are a great opportunity to see who's fit for the job and who the general public is excited about before making a big commitment.
CBS's 2004 host search also injected some much-needed diversity into the late night world. Even though the network eventually went with a straight white guy for the job, they did allow a handful of female and/or non-white TV personalities to anchor a major late night talk show, even if it was just for a night or two. In the wake of CBS and NBC's recent late night transition handing The Tonight Show, Late Night, and Late Show to three more straight white men and causing more criticism over the diversity issue in the blogosphere, this is an opportunity for CBS to give a bunch of diverse voices a public shot at the job and to quell online criticism and disenchantment with the late night genre.
The only big risk for CBS with repeating the on-air audition stunt is that other networks may wind up poaching the hosts who are runners-up. After The Late Late Show's 2004 auditions, Comedy Central snapped up Adam Carolla and D.L. Hughley and gave them each a late night show, but neither of those series wound up lasting more than six months anyway. In attempting this again, though, CBS would be doing something dangerous by possibly creating an army of late night hosts who would make money for other networks and compete with The Late Late Show once CBS has to inevitably pass them over because they only have one job to hand out. This fear may be part of the reason that in 2004, many of the guest hosts the network chose were, quite frankly, "people who aren't meant to host late night talk shows."
CBS pulling a stunt like this again would be a big gamble, but it worked for them the last time. I doubt Craig Ferguson was a frontrunner to inherit Craig Kilborn's throne prior to execs and audiences seeing and liking his on-air audition. He wound up being a very successful late night host with an impressive 10-year run, outlasting The Late Late Show's previous two hosts. That's the great thing about an on-air audition process like this: The Late Late Show might end up with a host the network wouldn't have considered otherwise. Technology has changed so drastically in the 10 years since the last time this was attempted. Viewers now have DVR and YouTube so they don't have to actually stay up until 12:35am to watch and get invested in the auditioning hosts, and they're now armed with social media, which allows the public to campaign for their favorite host as demonstrated by the "Norm Macdonald for Late Late Show" movement on Twitter and makes a Cinderella Story all the more exciting and possible.
CBS still has yet to announce what they're doing with the 12:35 slot come January. Joel McHale, Jason Jones, John Hodgman, Amy Schumer (whose career is going too well for her to even consider taking this job), and once again, Michael Ian Black and Aisha Tyler, are all reportedly contenders for the job; as stated earlier, there's a big online push for Norm Macdonald and Chelsea Handler hasn't been ruled out. Letting all those comedians try out the job on-air would certainly be an exciting, attention-grabbing, and useful way for CBS to go about narrowing that list down to one name.