In the world of late night television (for many years) one man dominated, Johnny Carson. While many tried to compete, during his time, Joan Rivers, Pat Sajak (yes that happened), and many more, there was a stubborn mentality within American homes to move away from this man's impact. Carson was King of late night television, cue his retirement in 1992, and one of the greatest rivalries in night time history.
David Letterman was groomed to be the heir apparent to the Tonight Show, but in a similar fashion to Conan losing the show, although more behind the scenes, he lost this show show to painfully unfunny Jay Leno. Yes that is my bias. From 1992 until the mid 2000s late night television was dominated by these two men. At one point early on there was of course the talented Arsenio Hall, who is back on late night television, but his show was cancelled. To be fair Hall started during the Carson era, and was the answer to this white bread show. Hall's show last two years past the Letterman/Leno era began.
Of the two men who competed for the crown in a post Carson era, I must share that I always favored Letterman, his Top Ten lists, mixed with his dry humor, and ability to be a much better interviewer, except with Madonna, made him a much better option. This always seemed to be a CBS vs. NBC battle, of the major broadcast networks ABC had Nightline, with Ted Koppell and Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, and while Nightline was well respected it was a different kind of show.
With the rise of cable television, Comedy Central entered the game, first with Craig Kilborn who was on from 1996 until 1998, the with Jon Stewart who started in 1999 and has been on the air ever since.While Kilborn went to the Late Late Show on CBS (we will talk about these shows in a second), Stewart focused his evening show, on news with a satirical spin on politics. The wit was there, but you were learning. Stewart and his team pushed the genre of television than anyone before. This made networks nervous.
How do you compete? Many banked on their traditional audience following them, and sticking with them. The truth of the matter was that while Letterman and Leno stuck with their same old, same old, the Late Late talk show hosts which followed these two men started to steal their thunder (minus Kilborn). As the 2000s past men like Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, and Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert started to be the people everyone talked about. Their humor matched the quirk of The Daily Show, taking the genre further, maintaining some semblance of the traditional late night routine (minus Colbert), but adding their own personal quirks. This paid off for their networks, but now it was time for other networks to enter the game.
Comedy Central proved it was possible to compete, so TBS, F/X and the E! network started adding their own personalities to the late game. TBS gave us George Lopez first, and then when Conan was laid out to waste by NBC he bumped Lopez back an hour. F/X had Russell Brand, E! has Chelsea Handler. Lopez's show was cancelled, while I do not find him funny, it was apparent that TBS and E! were doing something most major networks, were not creating an opportunity for diversity in the game. Most of the late night hosts are straight while middle aged men. Andy Cohen who hosts Bravo's Watch What Happens Live, is the only person who could be considered part of this club who identifies as a gay male. Arsenio is also back, but was left off the image above as on of the late night show hosts, this caused some controversy too. As the game has evolved its time for CBS to evolve.
I could create a great list of people who should replace Letterman. Craig Ferguson, he hosts the Late Late Show on CBS, but he also fits the norm in the world of Late Night and might be more of Conan situation for CBS. Jon Stewart, he is already part of the extended family, Comedy Central is owned by Viacom, and is therefore part of the CBS family. I think Stewart is the obvious choice, his evolution of the genre is the reason Late Night television is great again, is it time to change things up? What about Chelsea Handler or Chris Rock? The answer you will get is that they are "too edgy" which might sound like code for one is black, and the other is 'oh my' a woman. CBS now is the time to push your network, and this show in the right direction, evolve don't turn this into another lazy NCIS spin-off, make waves and step outside the box to find this replacement.
With that said congratulations to David Letterman on over 30 years of great entertainment!