There have been dozens hosts throughout late-night talk show history. The history of the genre dates back to Steve Allen when he hosted the original version of The Tonight Show. A few decades later The Tonight Show was the only major late-night talk show, but as time went on starting in the early 1980’s more late-night shows were added, starting with Late Night with David Letterman. Then two more were added later on with The Late Show and The Late Late Show. Now there are numerous talk shows which go beyond network television with cable networks, streaming services, podcasting, and internet shows.
Of the major network talk shows, the hosts have included Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Tom Snyder, Craig Kilborn, and Craig Ferguson among many other current hosts. The history of late-night television shows could have been very different over the years. Conan was famously on the edge of being fired several times during his first few years, Craig Kilborn and Craig Ferguson both choose to leave late-night voluntarily at the end of their contracts, and there was plenty of drama with The Tonight Show during the Conan and Leno years.
What could have also altered the history of late-night talk shows includes those comedians who turned down the hosting job. Here are three comedians who almost hosted a late-night talk show.
Garry Shandling was a very funny and successful stand-up comedian who guest-hosted The Tonight Show many times in the 1980s when Johnny Carson was off. Shandling would also star in his own show, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which was a very different type of sitcom for its time. Often breaking the fourth wall, characters acknowledging that they were in a television show, characters talking directly to the audience, and using the show’s studio as part of storylines.
After It’s Garry Shandling’s Show ended in 1990, Shandling had to decide which career path he would take next. Shandling had the idea and concept for The Larry Sanders Show, a behind-the-scenes show of a fictional late-night talk show. Shandling loosely based the show on his experiences while guest hosting The Tonight Show.
Around the same time, Garry Shandling was also offered the hosting job of Late Night after David Letterman left for CBS. Shandling turned down Late Night, instead choosing to create, write, and star in The Larry Sanders Show. Shortly after, Shandling was offered the hosting job of The Late Late Show on CBS, which he also turned down. Ultimately, the comedian turned down two late-night talk shows to deconstruct the late-night talk show format and explore various stories and subjects on The Larry Sanders Show.
Dana Carvey was a huge star during his tenure on Saturday Night Live from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. Carvey gained fame on Saturday Night Live for his various impressions including President George Bush and presidential candidate Ross Perot and his characters such as the Church Lady, Hans of Hans and Franz, and Garth from Wayne’s World.
The timing could have worked out perfectly for Carvey: he choose to leave Saturday Night Live in 1993, the same year the new host would take over Late Night after Letterman left for CBS. Carvey later said that if he would’ve accepted the hosting job, Conan O’Brien would have been the producer of the show. Years later reflecting on his decision to turn the Late Night job Carvey said, “It’s emotionally intense to be on TV that much. I could’ve done it, but I didn’t. No regrets now.” Dana Carvey would go on to star in a few movies in the 1990s, star in the short-lived The Dana Carvey Show, and continue performing stand-up comedy.
Norm Macdonald said on an episode of Tom Green Live in 2014 that shortly after his infamous firing from Saturday Night Live, he received a phone call from Rob Burnett (producer of The Late Show with David Letterman). According to Norm, Burnett told him “I got some bad news for you, you’re not getting the 12:30am slot. We’re giving it to Craig Kilborn.”
Macdonald said he was surprised and confused, commenting that he didn’t even know he was up for the 12:30 am slot. According to the comedian, Rob Burnett told him that David Letterman fought hard for CBS to hire Macdonald as the host of The Late Late Show but Les Moonves preferred to hire Craig Kilborn.
Unlike Garry Shandling and Dana Carvey, who turned down the hosting job, Norm Macdonald was turned down as host by CBS executives even with David Letterman pushing hard for Norm to get the job. An unfortunate turn of events for fans. However, years later Norm would host his own podcast on YouTube called Norm Macdonald Live, giving us a short glimpse of what could have been.