Jimmy Fallon visited The Ellen DeGeneres show on Monday and, while he was there, the two hosts had an awfully interesting conversation. DeGeneres asked Fallon if he ever thinks about what he’d do “if The Tonight Show got offered to you? Would you take the time slot?” Fallon responded with a cute joke about how if he’s learned anything from Conan and Dave, it’s that doing Late Night means you’ll never do The Tonight Show before saying that he’d love to do it, but he loves his 12:30 time slot. Pretty standard banter, but here’s the thing: what if Ellen was asking for herself?
It’s not so far-fetched. Jay Leno will, eventually, retire for real. In Bill Carter’s excellent book The War for Late Night, sources say that Leno is seriously discussing retiring in his mid-sixties, just a few years from now. When that happens, he’s going to need a replacement and my money is on Ellen DeGeneres. Here’s why.
First and foremost, DeGeneres is a great host. She’s funny as hell - her monologues kill with her show’s audience and her jokes are far more consistently unexpected than Leno’s. DeGeneres’ humor is not, however, as enchanted by a post-Letterman sense of irony as Fallon and Conan O’Brien. Her jokes are smarter than Leno’s, but accessible enough that a grandmother watching in her Central Florida subdivision is as apt to laugh as a twentysomething dude in his Brooklyn apartment. Her two high-profile hosting gigs (the post 9/11 Emmys in 2001 and the Oscars in 2007) went off without a hitch.
DeGeneres’ daytime show also features more desk bits and sketches than any other daytime host. Monday’s episode included the very Tonight-y “‘What’s Wrong With This Photo?’ Photos,” wherein readers send in photos with something off, as well as a faux PSA where Ellen speaks out against overlong reality shows.
DeGeneres is also a skilled interviewer. She’s equally comfortable talking with other celebrities (see: the aforementioned Fallon interview) and politicians. DeGeneres’ sit down with John McCain in May 2008 justly got a ton of press when she calmly explained that “When someone says, ‘You can have a contract, and you’ll still have insurance, and you’ll get all that,’ it sounds to me like saying, ‘Well, you can sit there, you just can’t sit there,’” essentially forcing McCain to admit to her face that he doesn’t think she should be able to get married. DeGeneres’ interviews benefit tremendously from her friendly, non-confrontational style, allowing her both to surprise guests with disagreements (McCain clearly had no idea what was coming) and to get guests to open up. This could be a boon for The Tonight Show with Ellen DeGeneres, allowing her to hold her own against The Colbert Report.
DeGeneres’ talent and skills, however, aren’t even the top reason I’m convinced she’ll get The Tonight Show. To put it mildly, last time Leno “retired,” it didn’t go so well. When he gives the show up for real, NBC is going to have to control the narrative. Moving Fallon to 11:30 would set up some uncomfortable parallels: Leno says he’s retiring, the eccentric guy beloved by college kids gets The Tonight Show, but is he ready? We’ve all heard that story before. If DeGeneres got the job, however, the conversation becomes about the first female (and the first openly gay) host - a much more satisfying narrative.
Sure, DeGeneres has her liabilities as a potential Tonight Show host: as a daytime host, she’s obviously much more popular with women than men, and there’s always the gay thing. I’d argue, however, that her female audience is a function of her current form - daytime isn’t dude time. As for the homophobia issue, I don’t see it being a big deal outside of a fringe element that probably isn’t watching much late night to begin with. The Ellen DeGeneres show is one of the top programs on daytime television - it gets plenty of advertisers and the numbers are great.
Leno isn’t going anywhere for a few years and there’s no way of predicting how the television landscape will have shifted by then. I’m just going to leave this prognostication right here, just in case it gives me the ability to say a big, loud “I told you so” later this decade.