On paper, the most obvious successor would be Craig Ferguson. The sassy Scot has helmed The Late Late Show, which follows Late Show with David Letterman, for the past decade and his show is already produced by Letterman’s Worldwide Pants production company.
More to the point, Ferguson actually has a clause in his contract stating that he is first in line when Letterman steps down.
Of course, Ferguson supporters should keep in mind that such contract clauses are rarely ironclad and CBS undoubtedly has the option of buying him out and putting in a different host.
Also considered in contention: Jon Stewart – and why not? Over 15 seasons helming The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, he has the necessary dry wit to fill Letterman’s shoes and he’s a decent interviewer to boot.
Perhaps more importantly: Stewart’s current contract with Comedy Central runs out in mid-2015, so his transfer from cable to network television could be pulled off without a hitch.
Even more available: Stephen Colbert – whom Hollywood columnist Nikki Finke has already declared “first in line” to take over from Letterman.
Colbert’s contract with Comedy Central expires at the end of 2014. He’s obviously a sharp comedic mind but his transfer to fulltime talk-show duty could present some transition difficulties.
Namely, on The Colbert Report, he’s playing a character – his own take on a dim Fox News personality – and viewers have never really seen the real Stephen Colbert. It’s difficult to picture him selling viewers on an opening monologue each night.
Also on the speculation list: Conan O’Brien. Since his ignominious arrival and departure from The Tonight Show a few years back, Coco has reinvented himself with his late-night talker on TBS.
Like Letterman, O’Brien is irreverent, fast and funny, but his TBS contract is in place until November, 2015 – which could be too late in terms of making a seamless handover.
Another name being bandied about is Chelsea Handler. She’s already planned out her departure from E!’s Chelsea Lately for the end of this year. Chelsea is wickedly smart and funny and a fearless interviewer.
And if Chelsea took over from Dave, she’d be the first female host of a network late-night show since Joan Rivers hosted her own talk show on Fox way back in 1986.
At the same time, Handler has a reputation for being a loose cannon, and CBS isn’t exactly a progressive U.S. network. At best, she’s a long-shot to take over for Letterman.
An even longer shot: Ellen DeGeneres. Ratings for The Ellen DeGeneres Show have steadily ascended in recent years and she acquitted herself nicely in her recent repeat performance as Oscar host.
Working against Ellen’s odds: Her present daytime TV contract runs to 2017 and she’s not likely to agree to move from Los Angeles to New York to host the show.
And how about Neil Patrick Harris? He already has a relationship with CBS courtesy of the recently departed How I Met Your Mother, and has proven himself a triple threat (Singing! Dancing! Presenting!) in his multiple stints hosting the Tony Awards and Emmys.
But then again, it’s unlikely CBS is apt to install an unproven talk-show personality into one of their most popular TV properties.
And then there’s Jay Leno.
Given the bad blood between the lantern-jawed comic and Letterman (whose production company will very likely produce the new program), he’s an unlikely choice.
At the same time, when Leno departed The Tonight Show a few months back, he went out as the number-one host in late night, and he’s hugely popular with older viewers, who comprise a sizeable percentage of the late-night viewing demographic.
And perhaps most important of all: Leno is available.