TIME Television

Want to Be the Next Letterman? Don’t Take Letterman’s Job

David Letterman announces his retirement for 2015, on the April 3 2014. Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS

Jon Stewart, Chelsea Handler, Stephen Colbert, would-be Late Show hosts everywhere: your pretend agent suggests that you think twice when CBS calls.

TO: Jon, Stephen, Chelsea, Craig, et al.

FROM: Your Pretend Agent

RE: The Late Show Job

Sorry I’ve been hard to reach–phone’s been ringing off the hook here! April 3, David Letterman announced that he was retiring from CBS’s Late Show next year. Dave had barely cut to commercial when the names started flying. Your names. Other names. Changing of the guard, new generation, how will CBS rebrand against Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel, blah blah blah. Drama! Intrigue! Excitement! I may have to hire a new pretend assistant.

Bottom line: one of you, at some point, is going to be offered a life-changing opportunity, the chance to take over for Dave and be the next face of CBS at 11:35 p.m.

Don’t take it.

I’m telling you this, heart to heart, as your pretend agent, because your real agents probably won’t. Why would they? CBS is going to back up a money truck. Well, more like a money van–late night is not pulling in the dollars it used to–but still, they’ll tell you, you would be crazy not to take that job.

Which would be true. If the job still existed. I don’t just mean that late night shows–despite the disproportionate media attention to the musical chairs–don’t have the reach they used to. Johnny Carson used to get 15 million viewers a night; now Fallon averages 4.3 million and NBC throws confetti.

But beyond that, Dave’s job was what it was because Dave created a new thing. On Late Night in 1982, he and his head writer Merrill Markoe created a show that embraced television by rebelling against it. Ambushing the Today show with a bullhorn, strapping a camera to a monkey, making a folk hero of angry graphic novelist Harvey Pekar: he made a TV show whose message was, Can you believe we’re doing this on TV?

Dave was an original. Your names are being thrown out there because you’re originals. Which is exactly why you are probably the wrong people for the job. If one of you takes over Late Show, you might do fine. (Dave’s ratings have been low enough lately that you’ll have a nice low bar to clear.) But you won’t be able to make a truly original creation, because Late Show is now an institution. Institutions have expectations, constituencies, and targets to meet. Steve Jobs didn’t change his industry by becoming CEO of IBM.

In today’s media, bigger isn’t automatically better. Jon Stewart–without the benefit of the big networks, you made The Daily Show‘s fake newscast into a laser-sighted commentary on politics and the media, unafraid to take sides and call b.s. You think you’d get to do that on CBS? Your bosses will be watching the ratings for Fallon’s Tonight, where he just invited Sarah Palin on to play the flute.

Likewise Stephen Colbert: you’d be robbing your audience and yourself if you left your character behind to become a network gladhander. Chelsea Handler: you hosted for years at E!, and yes, it’s long since time for a woman–but be warned, that job would sand down your raw edges beyond recognition. Craig Ferguson, you’re nominally next in line, but your quirky, thoughtful conversations would be squashed into the 11:35 celeb-promotion machine like haggis onto a McDonald’s bun. Ellen DeGeneres–you’d be a natural, but don’t let anyone fool you that this job is better and more influential than the one you have just because it follows the news at 11. Neil Patrick Harris, you are multitalented, charismatic, and a delightful Tony Awards host: do you want to churn out this show for the next couple decades? Tina Fey, you’re possibly the top TV comedy writer of your generation: keep making brilliant shows, and enjoy the occasional Golden Globes.

Louis CK, a genius comedian who’s also a genius about the business of being a comedian, gamed this all out on his FX show Louie in 2012. His character, a fictionalized version of himself, is lured with the prospect of taking over for Letterman, and goes through the grueling work of adapting his edgy comedy to the rigid format–though, in the end, Letterman re-ups and Louie gets nothing. And it’s a happy ending! He’s stronger for becoming the kind of person who could get the job, yet not getting it is the best thing that could happen to him. And the real life Louis CK? He’s a great talk show guest, but he’s making TV history on his own show, which is not quite like anything before it.

OK, Conan O’Brien, Arsenio Hall, Jimmy Kimmel–you’re already in late-night and if CBS writes you a big check to make a lateral move, mazel tov. But if anyone truly wants to become the next David Letterman, they won’t do it by becoming the last David Letterman. An 11:35 p.m. show on CBS is not the place for someone who dreams of reinventing the wheel. It’s for someone who likes the wheel, and doesn’t mind watching it spin in place, over and over, for years.

I’m sure CBS will find that person, and it will be better for everyone. Speaking of which, anyone have Jay’s number?

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