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The Best Late Night Talk Shows (in America) of All Time, Ranked

Some of television’s most famous moments were seen from the opposite side of a desk. The late night talk show format has been a staple of home entertainment for decades, and there is a reason why. One late night talk show host with their co-host (or talkative bandleader), a monologue, a segment, a guest or two, and a stand-up act or a musical guest. This format has not only introduced us to modern day household names, it is also just a perfect, tried-and-true formula. You will get everything and anything, but most importantly you will laugh.

For over 50 years, the talk show has been one of prestige and finesse. Elements like the opening monologue gives them a chance to show off their own comedic timing and connect to the sociopolitical moment, and the guests offer tacit insight into culture. There are many special factors that go into being a famous late night talk show, but what makes one truly successful? What makes a late night talk show really great? Well, the answer lies in nine of the best American late night talk shows over the past half a century, and why they’ve made an impact on television audiences.

9 The Colbert Report and The Late Show With Stephen Colbert

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

Combining intellect with sophistication, Stephen Colbert became a household name with his show The Colbert Report. His commitment to truth, which was presented with his own quirky and satirical style, made the format his own. He dove into important conversations and conveyed serious political themes, but his mocking, parodic personality allowed him to do so with a wink and a laugh. While he had the ability to push an agenda, he rarely took one side over the other. The Comedy Central original show ran for 11 award-winning seasons until Colbert moved on to host The Late Show, following David Letterman’s retirement. This allowed him to finally drop the fake, right-wing personality and breathe a little like himself, though he was no less hilarious and biting.

Related: Robert Downey Jr. Welcomes Stephen Colbert Into the Avengers with Open Arms

8 The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon

jimmy fallon

A Saturday Night Live alumnus is no stranger to the bright lights and live audiences. Jimmy Fallon went from hosting Late Night for five seasons to hosting perhaps the most famous late night television show in America (after the unfortunate mess Jay Leno made for Conan O’Brien). Fallon took over The Tonight Show in 2014, and has been running strong for nine seasons so far. His commitment to light-heartedness and a simple good time has made his version of the program a fun watch. While maintaining the traditional format, Fallon also implements games with guests and time for his comedy chops to shine; he also benefits from having one of the most influential hip-hop bands, The Roots, be his house band.

7 Late Night With Conan O’Brien and Conan

conan o'brien

Conan has been through the ringer over the past two decades. From hosting his lift-off program Late Night with Conan O’Brienbeloved by many as a lo-fi cult classicto hosting The Tonight Show. However, his dream of hosting the show was unfortunately short-lived. From network jumping to time slot shifting, Conan could never settle in one spot. He was essentially forced out of The Tonight Show and left to start over.

However, he found a home on TBS to host Conan from 2010 through 2021. This show itself experienced a variety of struggles, most prominently being cut from an hour to thirty minutes, but Conan continued to prove himself and surpass any challenge. He is not only outstanding in his comedic delivery, but also a fantastic interviewer. Graduating from Harvard University and writing for the hit animated series The Simpsons, Conan brought his skills forward with wit, class, and a proletariat connection with the audience. He’s expected to host a variety show for HBO Max.

6 The Daily Show

jon stewart
Comedy Central

Perhaps one of the most prominent political satirists of all time, Jon Stewart continues to connect to the millennial audience by presenting facts of the world in a way that actually makes sense. Hosting The Daily Show from 1999 to 2015 after Craig Kilborn’s more pop-culture approach, Stewart brought a revolutionary way to garner political information. He made the goal of the show to be funny overall, but also not shy away from the reality of the world around him. When things got serious, he got serious. Jon Stewart continues his creative endeavors through directing and producing, and hosting The Problem With Jon Stewart on Apple TV. The Daily Show is succeeded by host Trevor Noah, who has connected to a new generation.

5 Real Time With Bill Maher

Real Time With Bill Maher

Real Time With Bill Maher has run for 20 seasons because of Maher’s commitment to the conversation. He is as real as it gets, calling out both sides of the political aisle and usually upsetting everyone in the process (except for people who can take a joke). While more conversational and not as satirical, Real Time With Bill Maher has brought great success and viewership to HBO. Considering this is far from basic cable, Maher can use choice words one can not use on other networks, and that makes what he says all the more impactful to the ears of millions who have admired his work for years.

Related: Real Time with Bill Maher Gets Renewed at HBO Through 2024

4 The Joan Rivers Show

The Joan Rivers Show

The Joan Rivers Show ran for seven seasons from 1989 until 1993. Joan Rivers was a television icon who brought waves of laughter to generations of audiences. While unrelentingly funny, Rivers was also a great conversationalist. Whether on her own show or during her many guest hosting appearances on The Tonight Show, Rivers made history as one of the best comedians and talk show hosts of all time.

3 The Dick Cavett Show

The Dick Cavett Show

Dick Cevett was never one to shy away from real face to face conversation. The Dick Cavett Show ran from 1968 through 1986, and interviews from his talk show included famous icons like Alfred Hitchcock, Marlon Brando, George Harrison, John Lennon, and Orson Welles, all of which detailed intellectual conversations about the individual.

Cavett’s program was also one for heated debate, such as the famous moments between Jim Brown and Lester Maddox. What makes Cavett and his show so unique is the authenticity and intimacy of the conversation. It is a joy to watch and learn about him and his guests, as clips from his interviews are widely available on YouTube.

2 David Letterman

david letterman

David Letterman is one of the kings of late night television. His program The Late Show with David Letterman ran for 22 seasons from 1993 until 2015, and redefined mainstream humor in a more ironic and sarcastic direction. Letterman was always one to be a part of the joke, and sometimes the punchline. His dynamic with musician Paul Shaffer was one of the more iconic in late night television. What also made Letterman so great to watch was his versatility as a performer. He could change the directions within an interview in a matter of seconds and also maintain the points of the conversation. Famous moments with Joaquin Phoenix, Drew Barrymore, and director Harmony Korine will be sealed in television history for generations to come.

1 The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson

johnny carson ed mcmahon

Quite possibly the best talk show host of all time, Johnny Carson had it all. His comedic timing was outstanding, his ability to control a conversation was always professional, and his consistency for the audience is what made him a legend. Hosting (with his right-hand man Ed McMahon) The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson for 30 seasons, from 1962 until 1992, Johnny was always there, and he made some of the funniest comedians who they are today. From Jim Carrey, Rodney Dangerfield, Ray Romano, Drew Carrey, and most famously Don Rickles, they all got their big break from Johnny. Don Rickles himself appeared on the show more than 100 times, each time sending waves of laughter to live and home viewers.

What made Johnny such a great host was his ability to set guests up for success. He opened the door for a joke and allowed them to take the reins. He knew when to step back, especially with Don Rickles, and the one and only Frank Sinatra. He also knew when it was time to maintain control and steer the conversation back on track. His show was classy, ​​sophisticated, and highly entertaining, and will be held to the highest standard in late night television.

Logan Paul and Jimmy Kimmel Trade Barbs After Controversial Late Night Joke

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