The all-time greatest late night talk show hosts have entertained us for years as we drift off to sleep. These hosts are charismatic, often hilarious and sometimes controversial. One thing they are not: They are never boring. From the early days of late night television to the current crop of late night hosts, this list includes some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry.
The comedian took over The Tonight Show for Jack Paar in 1962 and stuck around for three decades. During the first 18 years, the show ran for 90 minutes. That’s an absurd amount of television to churn out every single week, but somehow Johnny made it work. Unlike previous Tonight Show hosts, Carson didn’t see the role as a stepping stone to something higher. He realized the show itself was the ultimate prize for any TV personality, and he used the platform to give everyone from Roseanne Barr to Garry Shandling to Joan Rivers a national audience.
A comedy writer before he became a host, O’Brien learned from the best, creating a show and style that melded brainy humor, surreal bits, and anything-for-a-laugh nuttiness. O’Brien’s approach has been influential on several contemporary comedy hosts; if only they were as good at interviewing guests as O’Brien is.
It’s not the traditional “Tonight Show”-style late-night talk show, but Stewart has made the news/comedy/satire/commentary formula indispensable. He’s enough of a comedian not to come off as pompous and full of himself, but there’s little doubt where he stands.It took a couple of years, but he eventually turned The Daily Show into one of the funniest programs on television and a great platform for authors, congressmen and even presidents to speak directly to younger viewers.
Ferguson’s utterly unique show had elements that recalled early-TV comedy by the likes of Ernie Kovacs, but was always flavored with the host’s own eccentric sense of humor and love of absurdist hijinks.
Despite Lorne Michaels’ firm belief that he was the best man for the job, the former Saturday Night Live star was dismissed by many as too green for the big desk. Once again, Lorne was proven right, and the show became a monster hit. Last year, Fallon took over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno. Along the way, he managed to obliterate his competitors in the ratings and create a stunning amount of viral videos.
Allen practically invented the late night talk show when he became the first host of The Tonight Show in 1954. It was the birth of the opening monologue, the desk and even the celebrity interview. Over 60 years later, this model has somehow persisted. Allen left after just three years, but it was an extremely formative time for the medium and his influence cannot be overstated.
Maher doesn’t ask people to like him, or necessarily agree with him, but without “Politically Incorrect” showing where comedy, conversation and current events could meet, there might not be a “Daily Show” or “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”
The thinking-person’s host, Cavett wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But the dry, intellectual Cavett brought on guests who weren’t just there to promote their new movie, but to debate such issues as the Vietnam War, or share erudite anecdotes about literature, theater and movies.
Hall blazed a trail with his first late-night show, bringing a hip, African American sensibility to what had been the primary domain of white-guy hosts. And who can forget then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton playing a saxophone solo on “Heartbreak Hotel?”
He’s one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA, but his three-month stint as the host of The Magic Hour wasn’t exactly a career highlight. It’s hardly his fault: The man simply had no background in comedy. It would be like putting David Letterman on the Cleveland Cavaliers and expecting him to compete. That said, the show did give Howard Stern some amazing material to mock over the radio.