Conan O'Brien Almost Lost His Late Night Career To David Spade, Because Comedy

The Late Night Wars. Cue the seven-piece stage band playing suspenseful music. The story always revolves around Jay Leno and David Letterman, and the unamicable split that broadened the late night talk show game. Conan O’Brien, Letterman’s successor as NBC’s Late Night host, could have had his entire career thwarted – or at least mildly delayed – by one David Spade, who turned down some pretty solid money to replace Letterman.

Had he agreed, Spade would have been welcomed into the replacement slot once Letterman left to take over the Late Show on CBS, which came after the Late Night gig was turned down by Garry Shandling and Dana Carvey. But Spade was too into keeping his slot at Saturday Night Liveto do it. Here’s how Spade put it during an interview with Colin Cowherd.

The first time [Letterman] left, when he left NBC for CBS. I got a call to have lunch with Lorne [Michaels], Brad Grey and Bernie Brillstein…And out of the blue, they go, ‘We want you to take over for Letterman.’ I was like, ‘Does that mean I’m still hired at [Saturday Night Live], for starters. Second of all, I’m more excited that I’m at lunch with you guys.’ Cause it’s so fun, cause these guys would never talk to me.

Spade split that story by saying at that point, he was just trying not to get fired from SNL, not thinking he could compete as well against Adam Sandler and his songwriting and Chris Farley and his characters. He was more interested in keeping sketch-based stuff going than taking over as the host of anything on a permanent basis. Can’t hate on that motivation, as not everyone wants to trade career paths like that, but O’Brien worked a lot of sketch comedy into his shows, though probably of a weirder variety than what Spade would have brought.

Understandably, Spade saying no surprised his superiors. The comedian said he was first offered $1 million a year, which would have been a good promotion at the time. And then the offer was doubled to $2 million, but he still turned it down. I would be a terrible host of any kind, and while I would love to milk a lot of money out of someone to test that for a year, that wouldn’t be in anyone’s best interest. And no one should ever forgive the person that would stop the Masturbating Bear from entering our lives as soon as possible.

Spade went deeper into his decision not to go the talk show route.

I was shocked. But I go, ‘That’s not my thing.’ I’d rather do a sitcom. You know, you got your whole career in front of you, and I don’t know if I had confidence or what, but I just go, that sounds so hard, and that might be it for me, I’ll just be a talk show…And if it bombed, I’d be really in trouble. That early on, to have a big mark like that.

You can watch a clip from that interview below.

David Spade went on to star in Just Shoot Me (among other sitcoms) and to host Comedy Central’s The Showbiz Show , and Conan O’Brien went on to amaze audiences across three different talk shows across two different networks,. O’Brien ended up entering the Late Night Wars story over The Tonight Show, while Spade dodged those bullets. Is the world a better place?

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native and an Assistant Managing Editor with a focus on TV and features. His humble origin story with CinemaBlend began all the way back in the pre-streaming era, circa 2009, as a freelancing DVD reviewer and TV recapper.  Nick leapfrogged over to the small screen to cover more and more television news and interviews, eventually taking over the section for the current era and covering topics like Yellowstone, The Walking Dead and horror. Born in Louisiana and currently living in Texas — Who Dat Nation over America’s Team all day, all night — Nick spent several years in the hospitality industry, and also worked as a 911 operator. If you ever happened to hear his music or read his comics/short stories, you have his sympathy.