LOS ANGELES (AP) — Congratulations, Stephen Colbert, on winning CBS’ “Late Show” gig. You’re brilliantly funny, you’ve proven yourself in the Comedy Central farm leagues, and odds are you will be a worthy successor to David Letterman.
But forgive us if we spend a few wistful moments thinking about what might have been. Nothing personal here, but your anointment is just so, well, predictable.
Yes, there’s big bucks at stake, even in the shrinking world of ratings and advertising dollars that late-night TV has become. And CBS, the broadest of the major broadcasters with a strategy that aims for the most viewers, not niche audiences, is the least likely to take a chance.
But the swiftness of the network’s announcement Thursday about Colbert allowed little breathing room for online and water-cooler speculation, the kind that can be both juicy and illuminating.
There are other engaging entertainers around, whether they have or haven’t occupied a talk show chair. And did the last network late-night job likely to be open for years have to go to yet another man? And did it have to be another white guy?
Here are a few who could have been contenders, worthy competitors to NBC’s Jimmy Fallon and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel:
— Jamie Foxx. Want energy, confidence and a host’s roster of A-list colleagues a show can summon at will? Here’s your man. Foxx is an Oscar-caliber movie star as well as a comedian and singer, with a winning unpredictability that could lure new viewers, especially the advertiser-favored young ones Fallon is drawing to “Tonight.”
— Ellen DeGeneres. In the post-Oprah Winfrey world of daytime talk, DeGeneres holds fast as queen bee despite heavyweight challengers, including Katie Couric. DeGeneres’ easy charm has translated to the biggest stage, hosting the Academy Awards, so her mainstream credentials are proven. Plus, she can dance.
— Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, together or separately. They always kill, whether on “Saturday Night Live,” on their respective sitcoms (“30 Rock,” ”Parks and Recreation”) or on the Golden Globes, where they bring their sassy and oh-so-21st-century female empowerment vibe. Picture that in late-night and try not to smile.
— Louis C.K. Who can deny that great stand-up comedians can make great hosts? He’s a true original, a wily veteran of stage and sitcom but, at 46, still comfortably within the age range of late-night’s new young guns who are following 60-somethings Letterman and Jay Leno. Hey, Colbert is 49 and he’s cool.
Chelsea Handler. She’s done her time in the minor leagues and indicated she’s ready to leave her E! Entertainment Television talk show. Yes, she might have to soften her tough-chick persona for network TV and the blue jokes definitely would go, but she would still bring the rarity of free-wheeling sexiness to late-night.
— Neil Patrick Harris. So obvious. The CBS sitcom star (the just-ended “How I Met Your Mother”) is a jack-of-all-entertainment who handles stage and screen with the greatest of ease. Sing, dance, whatever; he could probably have done “Late Show” Shakespeare soliloquies with the flair to make them online sensations.
Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter@lynnelber.