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Could Handler or Stewart Replace Letterman?

Maybe it’s time for a Jewish comedian on late night television

Rachel Shukert
April 04, 2014
David Letterman. (Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS)
David Letterman. (Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS)

Well, in the most decisive ending to a long running feud since Henry Tudor pluced the crown of England out of that hawthorn bush on Bosworth field, David Letterman is retiring from Late Show, just a few months after his rival Jay Leno finally packed it in.

It’s the end of an era for the longest-serving late-night host in history (his tenure on television has encompassed virtually my entire life) and the announcement of his leaving has brought, along with at least three of the four flaming horsemen of the apocalypse, the usual flurry of speculation as to just who might fill his shoes. Craig Ferguson, his fellow late night CBS host, might step up to fill the big job much the way Jimmy Fallon did at NBC; Conan O’Brien might want to return from exile on cable to sit at the desk of his former mentor. There is speculation that the network may choose someone out of the box (although this is CBS, so don’t hold your breath) like Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, or Stephen Colbert, or they might even do something totally cray-cray and pick a woman (I KNOW!) like Chelsea Handler, who has conveniently, and perhaps not coincidentally, announced her intention to leave her show at E! at the end of her contract.

If Letterman’s desk does go to Handler, she won’t just be the first woman to be the full-time host of a major network’s late show, she’ll also be the first Jew. (Obviously, so would Stewart, but he seems like much more of a long shot; it’s hard to understand why he’d leave his perch as the King of Topical Satire to spend a decade or more doing softball interviews with celebrities he’s not particularly interested in. Also, Seth Meyers is not Jewish! I looked it up. #journalism.)

It’s a peculiar state of affairs, given the dominance of Jews in American comedy. The Jewish comics who made their name on the Tonight Show during Carson’s day are legion … and legend. But the late-night desk requires the ability to mainly be a straight man, and traditionally (which is relevant here, remember, these vacancies open up less often than one of the Supreme Court seats) Jewish comedians served the role of the mischievous outsider, always poised to speak truth to power, or at least, to mercilessly mock it.

Times, of course, have changed. The eternal outsiders have become insiders, and it’ll be interesting to see if the desk reflects that. (Sarah Silverman, anyone?) Otherwise, we could just build a time machine, go back in time, prevent the rift between Joan Rivers and Johnny Carson, and boom! No Leno. And then I guess we could go back and kill Hitler. But you know, first things first.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.