Drama at 11:35: Who Will Make Us Laugh?

With O'Brien set to succeed Leno, some think Stewart covets Letterman's slot.

February 9, 2009, 6:04 PM

Oct. 22, 2007 — -- Who will make us laugh in the midnight hour three years from now?

In 2010, late-night comedy king Jay Leno will step down from the "Tonight Show" to make room for Conan O'Brien, and there is speculation that David Letterman may also quit when his contract runs out that year.

Last week, Jon Stewart's decision to sign a two-year contract extension with Comedy Central, which coincides with Letterman's deal at CBS, sparked reports that Stewart was positioning himself to take over for Letterman.

If that happens and O'Brien and Stewart inherit the mantle of Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Leno and Letterman, it would represent the biggest change to the late-night comedy landscape in 20 years.

After all, both comics have honed an ironic sensibility and contrarian wit that appeals to younger audiences and may not appeal as much to older mainstream viewers.

Stewart and O'Brien both dominate the 18-49 demographic coveted by advertisers while Leno and Letterman keep losing those younger viewers. While Leno lost 11 percent of his total viewers compared to last year, the big-chinned comic lost 16 percent of that crucial demographic. Similarly, Letterman was down 7 percent in total viewers and 14 percent in the 18-49 demographic.

"Someone like Jon Stewart is a very attractive option for a lot of networks and I can see why he'd be playing his cards to be available then," said Tim Brooks, a TV historian. "One of the continuing battles network executives have is trying to get younger audiences and anyone who stays there long tends to attract an older audience. Younger viewers are restless and on to the next thing."

New hosts have always upended the traditional format, Brooks explained. "When Carson started in 1962, he was the young, bright, up-and-coming comic. He was only known for a few game shows and he brought a whole new tone, a comic tone in a time period that had been fairly serious."

But the question remains: Besides the larger audience and bigger paycheck, why would a new-school comic like Stewart be interested in such a traditional slot?

"It would be a great move for him," said MediaWeek's Marc Berman. "Despite the huge success he's had at Comedy Central, it's not a big network and this would give him a much bigger platform. For CBS, they could probably get him for less than Letterman and he doesn't have to have [bandleader] Paul Shaffer acting like an idiot."

The chance to remake a traditional format would be immensely appealing, said Brooks. "There is nothing more salving to the ego than thinking you're the person who can take something old and turn it on its head."

Stewart's publicist did not return calls. A CBS spokesman insisted that Letterman is not retiring. A spokesman for NBC didn't return calls for comment.

Meanwhile, the NBC deal with Leno appears to be fraying as the comic reportedly is resisting plans to retire him in three years. Although he first agreed with the network's succession plans, Leno apparently has changed his mind and would like to continue the gig, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Unlike Carson, who was 65 and much less active in his personal appearances when he retired, Leno is only 57 and remains busy on the comedy circuit.

"His numbers are still huge," said Berman, who used to work for Leno. "He doesn't want to leave. He's obsessed with his ratings. He used to call me on Thanksgiving -- 'How did we do?'"

But as younger audiences get distracted by other entertainment options from cable to YouTube videos on the Internet, who will still be watching those shows at 11:30 five or 10 years from now?

"There will still be an audience," said MediaLife TV writer Toni Fitzgerald. "It's certainly an institution, one of the only ones that will still have that mystique, unlike the evening news. But it's hard to tell whether late-night comedians are still going to be looked at in the same way."

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