Speculation turns to possible successors

Fifteen years ago, when Conan O’Brien took over David Letterman’s chair on “Late Night” to a resounding Bronx cheer — including a review skewering the new show as “roadkill” — the question on many minds was: Conan who? Now, with O’Brien poised to leave “Late Night” to replace Jay Leno next year on the “The Tonight Show,” fans are wondering: Who’s the next Conan?

Ever since NBC announced plans for O’Brien’s ascension, industry insiders and fans have made a parlor game out of speculating on who will replace the lanky comic in Studio 6A, where Johnny Carson, Jack Paar and other legends once hosted shows.

And O’Brien’s transformation from a largely unknown comedy writer to a venerated latenight host has triggered a succession problem at NBC Universal, which also is juggling how to keep Leno around after he steps down from “Tonight.”

Some of the names floated for O’Brien’s replacement have included Jon Stewart, Dane Cook and Australian television star Rove McManus. As one concerned blogger pleaded, “Anyone but Carson Daly or Jimmy Fallon.”

Well, maybe anyone but Carson Daly. Although NBC has yet to announce a decision, Fallon, a popular ex-“SNL” cast member and host of “Weekend Update,” widely is considered the leading contender for O’Brien’s throne. The network’s latenight chief, Rick Ludwin, has said that Fallon would be “terrific” and sits “at the top of our short list.” NBC, though, would not comment for this story.

Daily talkshows are a grind, and even established celebrities like Chevy Chase, Magic Johnson and Joan Rivers have shipwrecked while trying to navigate the latenight waters.

In the case of an aspiring new host at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, expectations run even higher. The modern talkshow was more or less invented in Studio 6A, and the ghosts of hosts past — Steve Allen, Paar, Carson and Letterman — are hard to ignore. In one early sketch on O’Brien’s show, even a pope visiting New York kneeled down to kiss the floor of Studio 6A. (The fake pope, noticing the ground tasted like caramel, blurted out: “Now that’s a floor!”)

While Studio 6A’s legends will be tough acts to follow, Fallon, or whoever wins the race to head “Late Night,” should take heart: The greats who came before also faced uphill battles. Carson “didn’t have a big name” when he took over, says Laurence Leamer, author of “King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson.”

“It just seemed like a second-rate choice,” adds the author, noting that Carson, who had a cool charm and knew how to let his guests shine, succeeded in reaching a broad audience in an era before the proliferation of talkshows and the fragmentation of the latenight audiences.

Letterman, whom the Washington Post once dismissed as “lankish, prankish, boyish and goyish,” also met with some initial skepticism. And critics pounced on O’Brien, a former “SNL” and “Simpsons” writer who had little experience before a camera. Even before the show debuted, the Associated Press suggested O’Brien was “flunking.” But slowly, O’Brien, living on week-to-week pickups, began hitting his stride, helped along by crack writers and inventive sketches that have ranged over the years from “Clutch Cargo” to “Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.”

The choice of Fallon for “Late Night” has a certain logic to it. Fallon, 33, filled in for Letterman on the “Late Show” in 2003. He’s an established comedian and is said to be a favorite of “SNL” producer Lorne Michaels, who took a chance on O’Brien for “Late Night” in 1993 and who likely will play a key role in picking O’Brien’s replacement. NBC has negotiated a holding deal with Fallon, much as did it with Letterman prior to his start on “Late Night.”

And Fallon, who comes from Brooklyn, could bring a local sensibility that meshes with the show’s biting, New York comic essence. Over the years, “Late Night” has turned to the city as both inspiration and prop, as when Letterman cast 60-foot hand puppet shadows on the skyscraper at 1251 Avenue of the Americas, and O’Brien taped outside on the sidewalk during a blackout. A native New Yorker like Fallon could push that connection in new ways.

So far, though, it’s unclear what will happen with “Late Night,” and the show’s replacement may get caught up in an expensive, ego-laden game of musical talkshow chairs. Leno, still on top in the ratings, appears happy with his latenight gig and reportedly has misgivings about leaving “Tonight” in 2009. ABC and Fox have hinted that they want to scoop up Leno if and when the time comes, while NBC, which lost an embittered Letterman to CBS when he was passed over to replace Carson, has suggested it wants to keep Leno in some capacity.

NBC execs still could get cold feet and keep Leno at “Tonight,” in which case they would have to pay O’Brien a penalty estimated at more than $40 million. Another nagging question remains whether “Late Night” needs to remain in New York City, with some suggesting “Tonight” be moved back to the East Coast.

Whoever does take over “Late Night” will have to endure a job that O’Brien, celebrating his 10th anniversary on the air, likened to “a Bataan Death March that ended at a Dairy Queen: … long, arduous, difficult, but ultimately happy and refreshing.” And that next host will have to march awhile in what, despite the long odds, have become O’Brien’s improbably large shoes.

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