David Letterman Retirement News Sparks Frenzy of Successor Speculation

Stephen Colbert

David Letterman’s decision to retire next year has predictably set off a storm of speculation about successors to his “Late Show” throne.

Stephen Colbert (pictured) has had quite a reversal of fortune in the past seven days. Last week he was forced to defend his Comedy Central series from accusations of racial insensitivity stemming from a joke involving a reference to Asian-Americans.

But in the past 48 hours Colbert has been tabbed by showbiz insiders and the media as a top contender to move to CBS’ 11:35 p.m. slot.

CBS reps have steadfastly declined comment on possible Letterman successors. A source close to the situation said the network intends to move quickly to set its post-Letterman lineup, a process that is expected to take a few weeks but not months.

Colbert’s current contract with Comedy Central runs through 2014. He has hosted “The Colbert Report” in the persona of faux conservative commentator since 2005 after getting his start on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

Moving to CBS would give him the opportunity to move out from behind the mask of the fulminating Bill O’Reilly-esque character he’s played for nearly a decade. That could be a risk for CBS as viewers don’t have much of a sense of Colbert’s actual on-canera personality. However, he excels in the guest interview segments on “Colbert Report,” even when done in character.

Letterman, who turns 67 next week, surprised viewers on Thursday when he announced he would exit late night TV sometime in 2015.

“We don’t have the timetable for this precisely down,” he told the Ed Sullivan Theater audience. “I think it will be at least a year or so, but sometime in the not too distant future.”

Sources close to the situation tell Variety the decision was ultimately Letterman’s despite the fact that he is now going up against much younger competitors on NBC and ABC.

He joked about his impending departure (and old age) on Friday’s telecast, saying he knew it was time to hang it up when his makeup artist who turned to him recently and said “‘Dave, there’s really nothing more I can do.'”

The longer the speculation continues, the more difficult the situation becomes for Letterman’s latenight companion, Craig Ferguson.

Speculation is mounting that CBS does not see “The Late Late Show” host as a prime contender to replace Letterman. Ferguson, 51, is in the midst of contract talks with CBS as his current deal ends later this year.

Ferguson does, however, have a clause in his contract that calls for him to either succeed Letterman or command a form of payout from CBS. A report in the New York Daily News Friday said his payout could be as much as $8 million-$12 million.

Chelsea Handler, the host of E!’s “Chelsea Lately,” has emerged as a possible replacement for Ferguson, as the host is in the midst of her own contract wrangle with the NBCUniversal cabler.

Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report

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  1. Lynda and Ken Laurence says:

    WAYNE BRADY. Would be the most exciting successor. He has his own unique wit and humor plus great charm and people skills.
    All the others seem predictable. Wayne would be the greatest surprise.

  2. MC Squared says:

    This guy is not funny when portraying his “character” and certainly has an irritating voice when conversational….I suggest dropping the program all together and going with reruns of M*A*S*H.

  3. rocky-o says:

    conan! conan! conan!…the advertising alone could be brilliant, that he was just too big to be contained on such a small show like ‘the tonight show’…

  4. Dallas says:

    the names now being mentioned as possible “contenders” are only showing up in print because their publicists are attempting to score brownie points. moreover, this exercise is going to become a a two (2) person deal simply because Ferguson will walk if he isn’t selected to succeed Letterman.

    Look for Drew Carey (his hosting the “Late, Late Show” [for Ferguson]) on April 1 was a hoot) to come out of the woodwork to become one of the top candidates to replace Letterman.

  5. Russ Donnelly says:

    Go big or go home (pun intended)…Kevin Hart. His learning curve would be a bit steep, but, he’s funny, spontaneous, could do the physical schtick Dave did in the early days. He’s edgy, a grounded family man and has crossover appeal demographically. It would be a bold choice with a potentially HUGE upside (again pun intended.)! With great writers and his sense of comedy and perspectives it could work. He could have a female sidekick. A win-win all around. Discuss amongst yourselves. :)

  6. TOM WIERDAK says:

    I would think a female would be the favorite since there are none at the present. If a female doesn’t get the job you can bet all the females and their organizations will be on a rampage questioning the choice of a male rather than one of their own. Who ever it is please hurry and replace that old sour puss letterman.

  7. Mike Rowe would be great!

  8. Sara junker says:

    If Ferguson does get it, I will never watch again. I cannot understand a word he says with his thick brogue.

  9. Steve says:

    If CBS has any sense at all they would be putting Craig Ferguson. in when Letterman retires. he’s funny, spontaneous, and does the best interviews since Carson. I’d take Ferguson over Leno or Letterman, never mind these younger hacks, any day. If you don’t like him then you haven’t watched much of him.

  10. Johnno66 says:

    Colbert has a tiny draw of 1.9 million in the target demographic. They would be better off putting Phil from Duck Dynasty in Letterman’s slot, with his 13.9 million viewers, if they cared about ratings.

    Of the names actually being fielded, Ferguson makes more financial sense than Colbert.

  11. Lucy says:

    Jon Stewart is the one.

  12. Bob says:

    Chelsea Handler works for me!!

  13. Totally agree. Conan and Letterman share a peculiar, nutty sensibility. He’d make a fine replacement. Andy Richter is great, too!

  14. Cheech Chi says:

    Colbert & Stewart are goldmines. No one under 50 watches any of the main network late night shows – we all watch Colbert & stewart though. don’t you read all the reports that say that people in their 30s get more news from colbert & stewart than any other source? Conan & fallon were close seconds to the Colbert & Stewart combo, as they often guest starred on C&S’s shows. But fallon is out of the running now so 1) Colbert (which would be the biggest coup for CBS to get the younger demo since Big Bang Theory & The Crazy Ones) 2) Conan (but Conan might not want it cuz of the stigma of “also-ran” that even Dave had: its the spot for the people who “couldn’t get the Tonight Show gig”)

    @George: “Jackass?” If we are just talking about talent, then just look at the Emmies & Peabodies nominations. SOMEONE thinks the C&S shows are great. (I put them in the same category cuz their producers are almost identical.)

  15. Jack says:

    Let the speculation and the agents and the “insiders” spew their replacement talk to put their clients and favorites outfront. Conan OBrien should take over the late show….only one with a built in audience with the credentials to take over for DAVE.

  16. ted says:

    Why a guy? Sofia Vegara has my vote.

  17. Mr. Hollywood says:

    Someone please explain Chelsea Handler to me. Unfunny, unattractive, unappealing. Why she would be given one second of consideration, even mentioned in the same breath as David Letterman, staggers me.

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