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The Four People Who Were Offered 'Late Night' Before Conan O'Brien

By Dustin Rowles | Late Night TV | November 13, 2015 |

By Dustin Rowles | Late Night TV | November 13, 2015 |

There was a time when The Tonight Show had a stronghold on late night, and who knows? It may have remained that way until today had NBC not decided to hire Jay Leno and attempt to keep Letterman on Late Night in the hopes of creating a back-to-back ratings powerhouse.

Obviously, that didn’t work, and Letterman bailed to create his own show on CBS after NBC passed him over for Leno. Letterman created the first successful fracturing of late night. Now, of course, there’s not only competition within the 11:30 hour on the networks, but in the 12:30 hour, as well. And to think, NBC could’ve had a goddamn late-night monopoly, and successive attempts to unseat The Tonight Show by anyone other than Letterman might have been met with the same success as Chevy Chase’s or Joan River’s late night show, or MadTV’s attempt to compete against SNL. Twenty-one years of late night grief, all because NBC got greedy.

Dum dums.

At any rate, when Letterman bailed, it opened up the Late Night slot, and unlike the next two successions (Fallon, Meyers), no one had been groomed for the job, so there were a lot of people that came up for the position. Among those who auditioned were Jon Stewart, Drew Carey, and Paul Provenza. They weren’t offered the position, but these four people were offered the spot before Lorne Michaels landed on Conan O’Brien:

Gary Shandling — Shandling — a frequent guest host on The Tonight Show during the Carson years — declined in order to create his own late-night parody show on HBO, The Larry Shandling Show.

Dana Carvey — Carvey declined because the poor guy — coming off the success of Wayne’s World — thought he had a future in movies. He’s now set to be a judge on a reality competition for impressionists.

Neil Patrick Harris — Fresh off of Doogie Howser, Neil Patrick Harris says he was also offered the gig, but he declined because he thought he would get bored hosting a late-night show every night. He was also offered Craig Ferguson’s job after he left The Late Late Show, but he declined that, as well.

David Spade — Spade, of all people, admitted this week that after they went to Shandling and Carvey, they also came to him and offered him the gig, as he told Esquire:

Now, in fairness, there was a rumor that they had first gone to Garry Shandling and Dana Carvey, and they had both said no. I said, “Why me?” And they said, “Well, you sort of brought a new attitude to Saturday Night Live and a little edge, and you’re not like People magazine. You’re going after people, and we like that.” And I was young and new. And I said, “Aw, I don’t think I’d really want to do a talk show.” And they were all sort of stunned. They went, “Well, it’s like a million dollars a year. It’s Letterman!” Which was huge.

I couldn’t believe they were handing me this. I thought, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing! They said, “We’ll get you writers, you know.” I said, “I always pictured maybe a sitcom or something like that. I want to try that first. I want to go try that. And a talk show feels like the last job you would take. You don’t have another job. That is it.”

Finding this out is like finding out that Spade once dated Heather Locklear, Carmen Elektra, and Julie Bowen. It’s just weird and wrong.


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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.