Barely two months into his term as the host of The Tonight Show and it is undeniable: Jimmy Fallon is a force to be reckoned with after reinventing the late night standard bearer, earning solid reviews and consistently decisive wins in the ratings while making viral comedy bits a daily fixture on social media.
As CBS deals with the looming retirement of David Letterman, they aren’t just trying to replace a legend that has been a constant part of their nightly lineup for 22 years with The Late Show, they’re also trying to find someone that will challenge Fallon and that someone may be Colbert Report host Stephen Colbert.
According to a new report from Mashable, it seems that there is mutual interest between Colbert and CBS and that contact was initiated before last night’s announcement.
“Colbert has not had any formal contract discussions with CBS, and no agreement is in place, but sources tell Mashable that he first engaged with network executives while Letterman was still mulling the timing of his retirement. Though CBS has had conversations with other candidates, including Colbert’s Comedy Central counterpart Jon Stewart, individuals with knowledge of the situation say Colbert is currently the front-and-center candidate.”
On its face, the idea of Colbert moving on up to The Late Show slot (there’s no word yet on if the show name will pass from Letterman to the next host, or if it will stay in New York or move to Los Angeles) makes a lot of sense. Critically adored with a devoted and advertiser friendly fanbase, Colbert is a gifted comic performer and searing satirist as well as an occasionally daring interviewer who feels like a stylistically natural successor to Letterman and an experienced and capable opponent for Fallon.
The trouble is, all this week, Colbert has been at the center of a firestorm thanks to a tweet that was sent from the Comedy Central run Colbert Report twitter account; a gaffe that prompted many to support the #CancelColbert micro-movement to get Colbert fired. But while they say all publicity is good publicity, this latest controversy stands as a reminder that Colbert’s exaggerated on-screen persona (and Daily Show host Jon Stewart’s less exaggerated but more severe persona) can also polarize.
NBC has the opposite of that. Jimmy Fallon is an effervescent and in-offensive showman, but CBS has to decide if they can attack that as a sort of weakness with counter programming like Colbert or accept it as a trend and adapt.
Speaking of CBS, Craig Ferguson is a candidate that doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of internet support despite his nine year run behind David Letterman as the host of The Late Late Show, which is produced by Worldwide Pants, Letterman’s production company. A proudly alternative show with a robot sidekick (Geoff Peterson), uber-casual interviews, and a whimsical, cheeky, and un-tethered sensibility, Ferguson could represent the most outside-of-the-box choice and an expensive “no” thanks to a clause in his contract that will pay him $8 million dollars if he doesn’t get Letterman’s chair.
Whether Ferguson would take that money and run remains to be seen, but there are reports that CBS did, at one point, reach out to John Oliver about replacing Ferguson, should he leave. This all happened before Oliver booked his weekly series on HBO, though, so we can probably count him out, but a new rumor about Chelsea Handler linking up with CBS following Letterman’s announcement has popped up and there are indications that she might be a candidate for either the 11:35 or 12:35 show. So the question has to be asked: is CBS going to use Letterman’s departure to completely redesign its late night lineup, and where does Ferguson go?
Clearly, CBS has a plan and they have been working at putting their ducks in a row for quite some time, making it all the more impressive that both Letterman’s intentions and other possible names haven’t leaked out until now, though now that the flood gates have come open, we should probably expect a deluge and a long process.
Where will that process wind up? Really, it’s anyone’s guess. Maybe it will be Colbert, or maybe CBS will tag a big name like Chris Rock, Kevin Hart, or Neil Patrick Harris (who the Mashable article also mentioned as a dark horse candidate). Maybe they’ll explore Jimmy Kimmel’s seeming openness to replacing Letterman, or convince Conan O’Brien to leave TBS when his contract expires next year. Maybe it’ll be someone else from cable like Chris Hardwick or Joel McHale (who has always seemed like he might flourish in such a job), or someone totally unexpected.
The possibilities are exciting to ponder even if this is a bittersweet moment, but while the field is seemingly full of attractive options, the pressure is on for CBS, lest they choose wrong and cede control of late night over to NBC for the next decade or so.
The Late Show with David Letterman airs on CBS on weeknights @11:35PM