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Handicapping David Letterman's 'Late Show' Replacements

By Craig Wack | Lists | April 7, 2014 |

By Craig Wack | Lists | April 7, 2014 |

When word spread that “Late Show” host David Letterman was going to retire in 2015, it didn’t take long for the speculation about who would fill his spot to rage on sites and in the comments sections of entertainment sites the world around.

The speculated candidates broke into two camps: the middle age white guys and non-middle age white guys. Hosting a late night talk show is the comedy version of gymnastics. To be really great, it’s not enough to be adept at one or two disciplines, a great late night host needs stand-up skills, the ability create sketches and running gags, interview skills, working in both political and goofball humor and, of course, the floor routine.

This handicapping is based on the idea that the changeover will happen March/April of 2015 because Dave can wrap up his run before the NCAA Tournament, giving CBS those three to four weeks to build new sets and unleash a promotional blitz while they have a captive audience during the basketball tournament and also possibly, The Masters golf tournament. It gives the new host some momentum going into May sweeps and gives them a summer of guests desperate to plug their new movies to help round the show into shape.

Middle-Aged White Guy Division

Craig Ferguson

Pros: Ferguson has been host of CBS’s “Late Late Show” since 2005, so he’s a known commodity to the network. His show has as strong of a following as any 12:30 show gets with a humor unlike just about anything out there. His show is also produced by Letterman’s Worldwide Pants, so there is synergy there. He’s based in Los Angeles, which could fill the void left by the departure of The Tonight Show.

Cons: His deconstruction of the format, which includes a robot skeleton sidekick and a complex running gag with Secretariat, might not fly in that 11:30 p.m. timeslot on the “network for old people.” It therefore begs the question: Can he be as effective in a more constrained interpretation of the show? There’s also the little matter that he’s made statements for years that he doesn’t want the job. Some reports from the weekend point out that the situation could be a win-win for Ferguson no matter the outcome.

Odds he gets it: 4 to 1

Stephen Colbert

Pros: Colbert, host of the Colbert Report on Comedy Central, was one of the first names raised in the aftermath as a favorite. It makes some sense. His show is political and cultural force. His bits, rants and strong interviews are often clipped and go viral, very important in the modern media environment. Colbert is also under the Viacom umbrella.

Cons: Like Ferguson, the biggest question surrounding Colbert is can he shed the very thing that makes him beloved by audiences (the right wing blowhard Stephen Colbert) and make the Late Show a success as un-ironic Stephen? His show and the Jon Stewart helmed Daily Show are such a cornerstone to Comedy Central’s identity, it would be hard to see the cable network giving up Colbert without a huge fight.

Odds he gets it: 2 to 1.

Neil Patrick Harris

Pros: Fresh off a long run on a CBS sitcom, NPH has developed a nice bag of comedy tricks since his days as a child star, which could work to his advantage. He’s done some guest hosting on daytime shows and has hosted both the Primetime Emmys and Tonys on multiple occasions.

Cons: Unfortunately for NPH there’s already a host in the 11:30 time slot who likes to sing and dance. In this world, it’s often more important to be first than best. You also get the feeling that after doing nine years on a sitcom he might want to spread his career wings a little and not get tied down to the day-in-day out slog of hosting a talk show.

Odds he gets it: 50 to 1.

Paul F. Tompkins

Pros: Has an impeccable writing resume ranging from comedy cult classics (Mr. Show) to the topical (Real Time with Bill Maher). His Speakeasy Web series demonstrates he’s got significant interview chops as well.

Cons: “You mean the guy with the mustache who dresses like a ‘Boardwalk Empire’ extra? Pass,” said most any CBS executive. He would probably better suited to the 12:30 slot if Ferguson is promoted.

Odds he gets it: 750 to 1.

Joel McHale

Pros: With the possible exception of Patton Oswalt, McHale is the candidate who embodies Letterman’s comedy sensibilities the most. His smart-ass delivery and occasional smirk is right out of the Dave playbook. McHale has a strong Twitter presence and thanks to his years of hosting The Soup on E!, he can play goofball bits and do fun interplay with fellow famous people.

Cons: Although he does have some standup in his background, the nightly monologue might be a challenge for him as will the interview portion of the show. If Community goes the full six seasons and a movie, he might not be available in 2015 anyway.

Odds he gets it: 100 to 1

Non-Middle Aged White Guy Division

Aisha Tyler

Pros: Probably the most interesting possibility that’s been thrown out so far. Currently part of the CBS family as one of the hosts of The Talk, so she knows current events and interviews. She’s got a strong standup background, serious nerd and comedy hipster cred (thanks to being an avid gamer and her role on Archer) and can come up with bits thanks to her days on Talk Soup.

Cons: She hasn’t hosted a show as big as Late Show solo. She got some good reviews hosting the Critic’s Choice Awards, but is that enough to turn over the reins of a late night franchise over to her?

Odds she gets it: 3 to 1

Ellen DeGeneres

Pros: Extremely well liked daytime personality with a strong following and Emmy award winning pedigree. Has the strength to bring that audience with her. She’s got her own style in both standup delivery and interview style on “Ellen” that stands out from others. Her times hosting the Oscars were well received.

Cons: She’ll be 57 by the time Dave hangs it up, which while it jibes with CBS’s audience, isn’t exactly what the network wants to compete with the Jimmys. Also, you want your late night host to have more edge than a spoon.

Odds she gets it: 88 to 1

Chelsea Handler

Pros: Handler’s style of comedy generates a lot of buzz and she has a strong following with women. She’s the author of several best-selling books. Handler is probably the edgiest of the candidates out there. And hey, she’ll be available.

Cons: She is rarely the funniest part of her own talk show. Her style is caustic and she frequently likes to pick fights with celebrities. Handler doesn’t have much experience dealing with current events that don’t appear in the pages of Star and People magazines.

Odds she gets it: 1,000 to 1


Pros: They are inseparable in our minds and who doesn’t love Amy-And-Tina? They were funny on SNL, on their sitcoms, when they host the Golden Globes. Both can do the funny news thing since they both rocked it on “Weekend Update.” They are both great talk show guests, so they should pick up on the interview part of the hosting duties by just being themselves.

Cons: It’s doubtful CBS is going to pick fruit off the NBC tree for the next host of their show, and also it’s hard to fathom either Amy or Tina going head-to-head with old pal Jimmy Fallon, no matter how many truckloads of money are dumped in their laps. Plus Amy will be wrapping up her show next spring and Tina is trying to get a new sitcom off the ground, so it’s doubtful either one will even be free.

Odds either one gets it: 2,222 to 1

Amy Schumer

Pros: She’s a member of the Viacom family thanks to her show Inside Amy Schumer on Comedy Central. The show is a darling with critics and fans alike. She is the youngest of anybody on this list, so she could potentially draw a younger audience. Her standup experience is also a plus.

Cons: It’s going to take a pretty ballsy executive to hand over Late Show over someone based on a stand-up special and a little more than a dozen episodes of a sketch show. Schumer is funny, but the workload of 160-180 shows a year is a big task for even the most seasoned of performers.

Odds she gets it: 7,396 to 1

Craig Wack is a veteran journalist. Follow him on Twitter.