It only happens every few years, but whenever a late night talk show host leaves his or her post, it’s a crucial decision by the network to choose the right replacement and has a ripple effect on the rest of the late night landscape. Since David Letterman is considering retiring next year and Jay Leno will have to leave The Tonight Show eventually (either by choice or in a bodybag), it’s an appropriate time to examine the process of hunting for a replacement talk show host. Late night talk show history is prone to repeat itself, as proven by 2010’s Tonight Show dust-up between Leno and Conan O’Brien, which echoed the 1992 fight for the chair between Leno and Letterman. Examining what went wrong and what went right with past network hunts for a new late night host offers a nice preview of what to expect in 2013, when Letterman is considering retiring, and in the year 2032, when Jay Leno leaves his show behind to go to that big garage in the sky.
Replacing Jack Paar on The Tonight Show – NBC (1962)
Jack Paar, the second host of The Tonight Show left the job in 1962, and numerous guest hosts were brought in to take over for him while NBC searched for the perfect replacement. Along with Johnny Carson, who got the job and went on to become the most iconic and influential talk show host in American history, NBC also considered Bob Newhart, Groucho Marx, Jackie Gleason, and Joey Bishop for the job.
Not hiring Carson, who was best known for hosting the game show Who Do You Trust? at the time, would have been a big misstep by NBC - even if some of these other candidates were pretty promising. Bob Newhart was probably the next best choice. His 1960 record The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart had made it to #1 on the Billboard charts - the first comedy record to do so - and won him a Grammy. Newhart’s comic sensibilities ended up best captured in sitcom form in the decades that followed. Groucho Marx would have been a strong choice too - despite being in the later days of his career. Marx had just come off of a long run as the wise-cracking host of the game show You Bet Your Life. He ended up introducing Johnny Carson to the audience on Carson’s first Tonight Show. Jackie Gleason and Joey Bishop were soon given talk shows of their own.
A Permanent Host for Saturday Night Live – NBC (1975)
When Lorne Michaels was developing Saturday Night Live in the mid-70s, he offered comedian Albert Brooks the opportunity to host the show, Brooks didn’t want the gig, instead opting to make a series of short films for SNL, and claims he suggested to Michaels that he have a different host for the show each night. Here’s Brooks on his decision:
“Now, as I did with everything – every time I said no to someone in my life – I always felt compelled to come up with an alternative idea so I don’t sound like an asshole. So I swear to God on my own life, I said to them ‘You don’t want a permanent host anyway. Every show does that. Why don’t you get a different host each week?’”
Replacing Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show - NBC (1992)
When Johnny Carson announced his retirement in 1991, David Letterman, who hosted Late Night following Carson’s show, was expected to be his replacement. A power struggle occurred, though, when Jay Leno, the longtime resident guest host of The Tonight Show, threw his hat into the ring and his pushy manager Helen Kushnick fought hard to win him the job. Letterman packed his bags and headed to CBS. There’s more detailed information on the controversial 1992 Tonight Show power struggle elsewhere, particularly in Bill Carter’s excellent book on the subject, The Late Shift, or the silly but compelling HBO TV movie adaptation of said book for you non-readers out there, the highlight of which is Jay Leno hiding in a closet to eavesdrop on a conference call between NBC brass he wasn’t supposed to be privy to.
Letterman was Carson’s choice for the job, and Carson occasionally faxed in jokes to Letterman’s Late Show and made appearances on it during his retirement. In Carson’s eyes, David Letterman was the heir to his throne, and he pretty much ignored his Tonight Show successor Leno. Worried that they had made the wrong choice, NBC execs offered Letterman The Tonight Show at the last minute, but asked him to wait to see how Jay Leno did as host for 18 months first. David Letterman wisely rejected the offer and headed for CBS.
The way NBC mistreated Letterman in ‘92 directly set up the 2010 Conan/Leno conflict (much in the same way that the seeds of World War II were sown in World War I), with the network making Jay Leno diplomatically agree to hand The Tonight Show over to Letterman’s Late Night successor, Conan O’Brien, in five years. We all know how that shook out.
As the resident guest host on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, a position she held from 1983 to 1986, Joan Rivers was at that time probably first in line for Carson’s job after his departure. Rivers instead chose to host her own talk show on the fledgling Fox network in 1986. Rivers moving to another network and competing with The Tonight Show so upset her longtime friend Johnny Carson that he refused to speak to her from that point forward. Joan Rivers’s Fox show, like most late night attempts by the network, was a big disaster, and Jay Leno soon succeeded Rivers as Carson’s regular guest host.
Replacing David Letterman on Late Night – NBC (1993)
When Letterman left Late Night, Conan O’Brien, who barely had any on-camera experience, was far from the network’s first choice for his replacement. NBC offered Garry Shandling, the regular guest host on Carson’s Tonight Show prior to Jay Leno, the opportunity to host the show airing after Leno’s Tonight Show. Shandling turned the offer down and chose to create and star in The Larry Sanders Show for HBO instead. The Larry Sanders Show was a sitcom set around a fictional late night talk show, with Shandling playing the vain, neurotic host of the show-within-the-show. The Larry Sanders Show became one of the best and most influential TV comedies of all-time, and it holds up a hell of a lot better today than any actual late night talk show does after the fact. Shandling made a wise choice by avoiding a permanent gig on a late night talk show, which allowed him to create a comedy more insightful and honest than any talk show ever could be.
With his contract for SNL due up in 1993, Dana Carvey was an in-demand comedian and everyone was wondering what his next move would be. NBC pursued him to host Late Night, but like Shandling, he passed on the chance to fill Letterman’s shoes. Wayne’s World had been a big hit for Carvey in 1992, and he spent a few years trying to maintain the momentum of his movie career before starting to craft his return to TV in 1995 with the short-lived ABC sketch program The Dana Carvey Show.
Other comedians who auditioned
Lorne Michaels, who began producing Late Night after David Letterman transitioned out, watched several comedians audition to fill the position, including Jon Stewart, Drew Carey, Paul Provenza, Rick Reynolds, Allan Havey, and Michael McKean. Michaels decided he didn’t want a stand-up to host the show, instead seeking someone that was very different from Letterman so as not to draw comparisons.
Replacing Tom Snyder on The Late Late Show - CBS (1998)
David Letterman’s company Worldwide Pants also produced The Late Late Show, the program after Letterman’s. Worldwide Pants signed Jon Stewart, who had impressed Letterman with his work on The Jon Stewart Show, to a three-year holding deal in 1995, with the intention being that they would someday give him his own show. Letterman surprisingly picked Tom Snyder to for The Late Late Show but signed Stewart to host a 1:35 am show after Snyder’s. This super-late Jon Stewart show never made it to air, presumably because Stewart didn’t want the awful timeslot, but there was widespread speculation that he was being groomed to replace Tom Snyder as host of The Late Late Show, on which he was a frequent guest host. The job, instead, went to Stewart’s Daily Show predecessor Craig Kilborn, leaving the Comedy Central anchorperson position open for Stewart, who would use it as a platform to become a late night powerhouse all on his own as host of the show and producer of its follow-up, The Colbert Report. It seems odd in hindsight that David Letterman would pick the smarmy, self-absorbed Craig Kilborn over the funnier and wittier Jon Stewart, but hiring Kilborn may have been a plan by Letterman to avoid generating talk of succession.
Conan O’Brien on Fox (2001)
When Conan O’Brien’s Late Night contract was close to running up in 2001, the Fox network - which has never had a stable late night talk show - made a run at O’Brien, offering him a $21 million salary that handily beat the $3 million he was making at NBC at the time. O’Brien’s NBC salary at the time was much lower than that of anyone else in late night. Fox president Peter Chernin offered Conan this large paycheck to host an 11 o’clock show that would get a jump on Leno and Letterman’s 11:35 programs. Conan turned the offer down because he didn’t want to tear himself away from NBC just as he was getting popular and still had his heart set on hosting The Tonight Show someday - whenever Jay Leno would give it up.
Fox also tried to go after Conan the next time his contract was up in 2004, but he and Jeff Ross used the offer from Fox as leverage to get NBC to agree to the five-year succession plan that saw him replacing Jay Leno in 2009.
Jimmy Kimmel on Fox and CBS (circa 2002)
Before Kimmel was given his ABC show, CBS president Les Moonves tried to win him over to do sports comedy for the network’s NFL coverage. Moonves mentioned in a meeting with Kimmel that he was unhappy with Craig Kilborn’s late night performance and would consider him for the position when Kilborn leaves his show. Kimmel received an offer from Fox to host a late night talk show right around this time too. Because Fox had such a disastrous record in late night (Joan Rivers, Chevy Chase), the network execs wouldn’t be able to start Kimmel, who wasn’t anywhere near as widely-known as he is now, out on all of their affiliates. They offered to let him start doing his show on a Minneapolis Fox affiliate with the opportunity to expand from there, but Kimmel turned this bizarre and insulting offer down.
Replacing Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect with a New Talk Show – ABC (2002)
ABC has been airing the respected news show Nightline in late night since the early 80’s and precluding the network from ever having a long-running 11:30 comedy show. Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect aired after Nightline on ABC from 2997to its cancelation in 2002 in the wake of some controversial remarks about 9/11 made by Maher.
With Maher out of the picture, ABC looked to finally set up a late night talk show. The network offered Letterman the 11:30 slot - looking to cancel Nightline, a show that had become far less relevant in the 24 hour news era, especially with anchor Ted Koppel was approaching retirement. Letterman considered ABC’s generous offer of $31 million (slightly more than CBS was paying him) and his own studio in Times Square but ultimately turned it down after CBS sweetened the deal to re-up his contract.
After Letterman turned the ABC gig down, the network decided to keep Nightline around but went after Jon Stewart to host a post-Nightline comedy show. Stewart was interested in coming to ABC, but the network gave the timeslot to Jimmy Kimmel instead. Stewart was disappointed he didn’t get the network job but was happy for his old Comedy Central pal Kimmel. Jon Stewart was discussed as a Letterman replacement at CBS in 2002 when it looked like Letterman might defect to ABC. Although a network gig would have given Jon Stewart much more exposure, he’s been able to maintain more creative control over The Daily Show on basic cable and has won tons of praise and awards for his work.
Conan O’Brien on ABC (2004)
Despite already having Jimmy Kimmel after Nightline, ABC met with Conan O’Brien in 2004, presumably to get him to host a new show that would replace Nightline. There was no formal offer, but O’Brien re-upped his contract with NBC instead of leaving his home network.
Replacing Craig Kilborn on The Late Late Show – CBS (2004)
When Craig Kilborn left The Late Late Show, CBS went a different direction when tasked with replacing him. The network auditioned potential new hosts on-air, giving numerous comedians and media personalities anywhere from one to three nights to take the talk show for a spin. After several weeks of try-outs, CBS narrowed the field down to four finalists: Michael Ian Black, D.L. Hughley, Damien Fahey, and Craig Ferguson. Each of these four were given a week to host the show, and producer David Letterman selected Ferguson for the job.
Amongst the other finalists, Michael Ian Black was probably the closest to getting the gig. During his stint as guest host, he proved a natural, with his sarcastic charm fitting nicely into the format, and he even brought on his buddy Tom Lennon to play an animal trainer as a gag. Black was hot off his appearances on the NBC show Ed and VH1’s I Love the… series, and like, Ferguson, he would have also been an excellent choice for this post. If chosen, however, Michael Ian Black would have been unable to do the Comedy Central series Stella, the pilot of which he was working on with David Wain and Michael Showalter at the time, so maybe things worked out for the best here.
Two dozen comedians and public figures guest hosted The Late Late Show during the gap between the two Craigs. Many of these people weren’t interested in the permanent job and were already tied to other gigs at the time, but some of them were actually wanted to take over from Craig Kilborn. Here are the other celebrities who tried out for the spot on air: Jason Alexander, Jeff Altman, Tom Arnold, Tom Caltabiano, Drew Carey, Adam Carolla, Tom Dreesen, David Duchovny, Jim Gaffigan, Ana Gasteyer, Late Late Show writer Michael Gibbons (looking to echo Conan O’Brien’s writer-to-host transition), David Alan Grier, Lisa Joyner, Donal Logue, Rosie Perez, Ahmad Rashad, Jim Rome, and Aisha Tyler.
Billy Crystal on Fox and NBC (2007)
Fox tried to score Billy Crystal for an 11pm late night talk show in 2007. According to Fox executives quoted in Bill Carter’s The War for Late Night, Crystal came close to signing the deal but didn’t do it because the workload of hosting a daily late night show was too much for him. An anonymous item in The New York Post’s Page Six claimed that Billy Crystal had his eyes on Late Night once Conan vacated his seat, but planting the story may have just been a tactic by Crystal’s camp to pressure Fox into offering the star a better deal. Billy Crystal would have been a very odd choice for Late Night, as the host of the show has always been a comedian who skewed towards a younger audience (Letterman in the 80’s, Conan in the 90’s and 00’s, and Jimmy Fallon now). If NBC had hired Crystal, who was in his early 60s by the time Conan O’Brien left the show, it would have gone against the history of the hip program.
Jay Leno on ABC, Fox, USA, and Sony (2009)
When Jay Leno’s stint on The Tonight Show was winding down and before he was given the 10 o’clock slot for The Jay Leno Show, he made it clear that he still intended to host a late night show after leaving Tonight, often joking in his monologue about leaving for ABC. He was an in-demand host for any show since his Tonight Show was still the highest-rated program in late night. NBC held exclusive TV rights to Jay Leno throughout the duration of his contract, so he couldn’t legally accept any offers until 2009, but he could have informal meetings with other networks and studios.
Leno was pursued by ABC, FOX, and Sony, who offered him a lucrative syndication deal, but his most likely choice – had NBC not given him the 10 pm slot to keep him off of other networks – would have been ABC. In The War for Late Night, author Bill Carter discusses how Leno seriously considered moving to ABC and even struck up a friendship with Jimmy Kimmel and got him to agree to move his show back a half hour. NBC president Jeff Zucker didn’t want Conan to have to compete with Leno, so he booked him to host The Jay Leno Show at 10pm, which had a disastrous run. Giving Leno a 10 o’clock show was a last resort for Zucker, who, prior to this, offered the host a show on NBC’s cable cousin, the USA network, as well as a weekly talk show and a show on weeknights at 8. Leno turned down all of these offers.
Replacing Conan O’Brien on The Tonight Show – NBC (2009)
When Conan O’Brien began having ratings trouble during his first year as Tonight Show host, NBC met with Jerry Seinfeld, who was also producing the new series The Marriage Ref for NBC at the time. There was speculation amongst the press that the network was talking to Seinfeld about replacing Conan. NBC denied these claims so fervently that it almost seemed as if the network execs were trying to cover their own footsteps. A Jerry Seinfeld-hosted Tonight Show would have been a huge television event and certainly more thrilling than seeing Jay Leno amble back to the desk for another two decades of showcasing newspaper typos.
Conan O’Brien on Fox, FX, and in syndication (2010)
After leaving The Tonight Show, Conan O’Brien was up for grabs by other networks looking to beef up their late night lineups. With ABC and CBS happy with their late night lineups, Fox looked like the best bet for Conan O’Brien. That network’s murky history in late night, though, didn’t bode well, and it would have been a challenge for Fox to convince its affiliates across the country to move their expensive but lucrative syndicated sitcom reruns back an hour for Conan’s show. The Fox network’s cable channel FX was also interest in O’Brien, as were several syndication companies. Conan O’Brien ended up heading to TBS instead, where his show currently resides… for now.
Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.