David Letterman, who announced plans Thursday to retire from CBS' "Late Show" next year, influenced a generation of comics, including some current rivals – and possible successors.
In keeping with the spirit of Letterman's signature bit during his combined 32 years of after-hours TV comedy, here's a Top 10 list of potential "Late Show" hosts, ranging from favorites to long shots:
•Craig Ferguson: Reports vary on whether the "Late, Late Show" host has first right of refusal on Letterman's job. But it's an offer he could very well refuse: The offbeat Scot's fans might believe that his brand of comedy – complete with improvised, occasionally brilliant monologues and a robotic skeleton sidekick – plays best to a smaller, insomniac crowd. But Ferguson's intelligent, quirky approach could help him stand out amid earlier-hour competition.
•Chelsea Handler: Save for Jimmy Kimmel, she might be the most Letterman-esque of the current crop of late night hosts, armed with a biting, sardonic wit. Handler's also signaled that she's looking for a bigger platform than her current show on E! She wins points for her popularity as an author who spares no one – least of all herself – in her best selling humor books.
•Amy Poehler: With her great “Parks and Recreation” about to mark the end of its sixth season, Poehler might be looking for a new challenge right around the time Letterman steps down. Like fellow former "Saturday Night Live" veterans Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers, she served a stint on "Weekend Update," which has become a de facto training ground for late night talk show hosts. She's proven in her Golden Globes outings with Tina Fey that she's among the fastest funny folks in show business.
•Arsenio Hall: He returned to late night TV in September after a nearly two-decade layoff without missing a beat – or, in his case, a woof-woof-woof of his “Dog Pound.” He gave Johnny Carson serious competition in his first go-around, and could be itching to get out of syndication and onto a bigger stage.
•Jon Stewart: After 15 years on "The Daily Show," the lures of a longer program and a potentially larger audience could bring him to the Ed Sullivan Theater. While clearly a Letterman acolyte, in some ways Stewart, whose show offers a range of guests, is among the most Carson-like of the current late night field. Stewart also has shown he’s capable of delivering a consistently high-quality monologue.
•Stephen Colbert: After nearly nine years of brilliantly playing a character, Colbert might be itching to play himself. He would arrive to “Late Show” with musical comedy chops to rival Fallon, his faux TV frenemy. Like Stewart, Colbert would bring sharp topical humor to his monologue.
•Conan O’Brien: He’s doing the silly-smart show he wants to do on TBS. But he’s likely still smarting from his quick and unceremonious dumping from “The Tonight Show” four years ago. He followed Letterman on “Late Night” with great success, so why not try the same with “Late Show?” O'Brien's goofy, laid back demeanor belies a competitive spirit and sense of unfinished business that could bring him back to major network TV.
•W. Kamau Bell: For most viewers, the “W” in W. Kamau Bell might as well stand for “who?” But the comedian came across as a major talent in waiting with his “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell” series, which aired in near-obscurity on FX and later FXX. The fiercely smart comic would be a bold, but admittedly long shot, choice.
•Jerry Seinfeld: In last season’s edition of “Louie,” Louis C.K. secretly auditioned to replace Letterman, only to find out that he was being used as negotiation leverage against Seinfeld, who got the job. It seems unlikely in real life that a performer of Seinfeld’s stature would put him self through the “Late Show" daily grind. But his post-“Seinfeld” path has been anything but typical, with frequent stand-up gigs, a movie, mini-“Seinfeld” reunions and a web show. Instead of hanging out with comedians in cars and coffee shops, he could bring the conversations to CBS.
•Jay Leno: The lantern-jawed comedian, who beat out Letterman for Carson’s “Tonight Show” post all those years ago, later successfully fought to retrieve the job from O’Brien. While the recent handoff to Fallon was far friendlier, there’s always been a hint that Leno wasn’t quite ready to leave. The specter, though, of Leno helming “Late Show” just might be enough to draw Letterman out of retirement.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.