Best Late-Night Talk Show Hosts Of All Time: Top 5 Legendary Personalities, According To Fans

For decades people around the world have been entertained by the likes of late-night talk show hosts. Whether you grew up watching “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” or, for our friends across the pond, are being kept in stitches by Graham Norton, the idea of a consistent late-night comedian is like a warm home-cooked meal. But with such a long list of talented comics holding the reins of such successful shows like the prior mentioned “Tonight Show” or even more nostalgic favorites like “Chelsea Lately,” narrowing it down to the best late-night talk show hosts is no easy task.

The start for late-night talk show hosts was no easy path, however. In 1950, NBC aired its first ever late-night comedy series titled “Broadway Open House” but struggled to find a host for its first few weeks on air, opting instead to have guests such as Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin take on the task. Jerry Lester eventually landed the role of sole host of the show till its finale. Though not a huge success, this series would serve as the blueprint for creating “The Tonight Show” four years later. 

With seven decades of hosts under its belt, from Steve Allen to Jimmy Fallon, these individuals have reinvented the term “late-night,” each bringing their own comedic timing and original sketches. But furthermore, “The Tonight Show” opened the door for series such as “The Late Show,” “The Late, Late Show,” “The Daily Show,” and more. Few can ignore the impact these shows have had on pop culture. With celebrity interviews and games being invited into our living rooms almost nightyl, the intimacy these shows and their hosts create has transcended generations.

But of course, with anything, there is always the good, the bad, and the ugly; thankfully, we at StudyFinds like to focus on the good, researching across ten websites to bring you the best of the best. Today’s topic? The top five best late-night talk show hosts of all time. And don’t worry if you don’t see your favorite on the list; we’d love to hear your favorite in the comments below. Now let’s get on to the comics, shall we?

The List: Best Late-Night Talk Show Hosts, Per Experts

1. Johnny Carson

Would it be too on the nose to introduce him with a “here’s Johnny“? Either way, of course, the beloved Johnny Carson would be at the top of the list. “The gold standard of the late-night talk show world, ‘The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson’ aired for 30 years, from 1962 to 1992. With his sidekick Ed McMahon sitting alongside him, Johnny Carson became the most respected late-night show host of all time, helping bridge the classic late-night talk shows with the modern era of late-night television comedy,” says MovieWeb. “Even though it’s now been 30 years since Carson’s last show, Johnny Carson is still considered by many to be the best late-night talk show host of all time.”

“Carson wasn’t the first ‘Tonight Show’ host, but he was far and away the greatest, to the point that he pretty much single-handedly created the late-night program as we know it. It was Carson who pioneered the monologue-and-interview format, sprinkled with sketch comedy, musical numbers, and stand-up sets from up-and-comers. It was also Carson who popularized sidekicks, house bands, games, and more. Late night is an entire genre of TV now, and Johnny Carson is the man to thank,” describes Looper.

“Johnny Carson, the undisputed king of late-night television, helmed ‘The Tonight Show’ for an impressive three decades. His genuine warmth, an instinctive knack for conversation, and irreverent humor made him a beloved figure for countless viewers. Whether chatting with glamorous Hollywood stars or engaging in the show’s legendary send-up of Carnac the Magnificent, Carson’s gentle charisma was simply unmatched, and his influence on the genre can be felt to this very day,” raves Ranker.

2. Conan O’Brien

“Conan O’Brien, with his distinct pompadour and quick wit, has undoubtedly carved out his own niche within the world of late-night television. Over the years, as the host of shows such as ‘Late Night with Conan O’Brien,’ and ‘Conan’ on TBS, he has showcased his unparalleled comedic timing and an endearing awkwardness that has consistently struck a chord with television viewers of all stripes. Notably, his ‘Clueless Gamer’ series has become an iconic moment in the gaming world, proving that a late-night host can still break new ground and maintain relevance in an ever-evolving landscape,” says Ranker.

Conan O'Brien at the 2014 MTV Movie Awards
Conan O’Brien at the 2014 MTV Movie Awards (Photo by Tinseltown on Shutterstock)

 

“Conan has been working various Late Night shows since 1993. With over 25 years in the industry, Conan has cemented himself as a comedy and late-night legend,” describes The Forest Scout, where they also commended the comedian‘s improv abilities and his humorous yet heart-warming relationship with his crew over the years. 

TheTopTens goes on to rave about the host saying, “Watching his show always feels a lot different than other talk shows, and it’s mostly due in part to the relationship between Conan and his guests. No matter who they are, they always seem to display a very ‘at-home‘ and relaxed sort of vibe. I sincerely hope I can look forward to seeing Conan O’ Brien for many, many more years to come.” Conan is undoubtedly a favorite among late-night personalities, his fiddly charm with interviews is hard to watch without smiling ear to ear

3. David Letterman

“This late-night host needs no introduction. Television would never be the same again after David Letterman starred on NBC’s ‘Late Night with David Letterman.’ He was the captain of the show in the ’80s and was following in the footsteps of his mentor Johnny Carson. He is bold, ironic, and yet has a mocking sense of humor. With his eccentric manner, he became immensely popular. Not only has his comedy inspired many comedians and other talk show hosts, but he is arguably the king of late-night shows and had a massive impact on comedy,” raves NextLuxury.

Ed Sullivan Theater and home of Late Night with David Letterman
Ed Sullivan Theater and home of Late Night with David Letterman (Photo by littlenySTOCK on Shutterstock)

WRKR goes on to note his late-night debut in 1982 while also describing Letterman as holding “the prestigious record for longest-serving late-night host in television history.” Adding his famous bits, such as the Top 10 List and Stupid Pet Tricks, as bits that have since become ingrained in pop culture

“David Letterman, known for his iconic gap-toothed grin and acerbic wit, completely reinvented the late-night scene during his tenure on ‘Late Night with David Letterman,’ as well as ‘The Late Show with David Letterman.’ His sardonic humor, laced with hints of absurdism, and his ever-present irony shattered the previous mold for late-night hosts and paved the way for a new generation,” says Ranker.

4. Stephen Colbert

“The leader of the pack in ratings, Colbert was already a late-night powerhouse from his ‘The Daily Show’ days and his decade-long run on the Emmy winning ‘The Colbert Report.’ It was during the Trump years that Colbert took off, finding his voice by simply being himself. He became the nightly voice of reason vacated by Stewart. His interviews match the intensity of his monologue. He can joke around with the best of them, but it’s his serious discussions with journalists and those in the know, as well as his heartfelt talks with the likes of President Biden to Andrew Garfield about their shared loss, that make Colbert the best in the game,” describes Collider.

Stephen Colbert at the PaleyFest - "An Evening With Stephen Colbert" in 2019
Stephen Colbert at the PaleyFest – “An Evening With Stephen Colbert” in 2019 (Photo by Kathy Hutchins on Shutterstock)

The Gentleman’s Journal goes on to note him as being a worthy replacement for David Letterman “since he also is an advocate of humor and intelligence mixed together. He is not only capable of poking fun at people but, more importantly, making valuable political statements.” Noting his show as having a healthy balance of comments on world news while also keeping an easygoing and loveable demeanor.

“Many of the hosts on this list hosted more than one show. Very few of them actually can say their shows were much different from one another. There often isn’t much versatility, and the formula remains the same. That can’t be said of Stephen Colbert. ‘The Colbert Report’ was very different from ‘The Late Show’ but both of them were brilliant. He never broke his character, delivering hilarious comedy yet insightful nuggets of information seen nowhere else. The show became prevalent as a comedy program for many to watch late at night. Colbert is immensely talented in many aspects, such as acting and writing, but in the last few years, we’ve seen the best of him as a late-night host,” raves NextLuxury.

5. Craig Ferguson

“Craig Ferguson, a breath of fresh air amongst the host of talk show stalwarts, injected his quirky musings into the conversation through his time on ‘The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.’ With his Scottish charm, self-deprecating humor, and his capable sidekick Geoff Peterson, the animatronic skeleton, Ferguson’s approach to the late-night format directly contradicted conventions while creating a loyal fanbase. His intimate and consistently amusing interviews, as well as his hilarious and candid monologues, set him apart in a world of cookie-cutter hosts,” describes Ranker.

Craig Ferguson at the 42nd Daytime Emmy Awards Gala in 2015
Craig Ferguson at the 42nd Daytime Emmy Awards Gala in 2015 (Photo by Joe Seer on Shutterstock)

“Craig Ferguson has often been recognized and praised for his particular skill in executing interviews. One of the most notable, of course, is the moment when he sat down with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. What’s more, he was also known for his frank discussion of some very painful topics,” adds ScreenRant.

“His CBS show, which shrugged off tired tropes in favor of whatever hysterical hijinks he felt like getting into, was every bit as much a parody of the late-night format as it was a part of it. His interviews were unscripted and infinitely better for it. After all, a man with Ferguson’s peerless, instantaneous wit needs no notes or staged bits. He’s the kind of guy who could make drying paint hilarious, so when he hosted another comedic mind, the results were electric and endlessly rewatchable,” says Looper.

Looper also importantly notes his handling of particular public celebrity struggles and breakdowns, saying, “Not only did he refuse to pick such obvious low-hanging fruit, even when it was all the rage to do so, he delivered impassioned defenses of using comedy to target those in power instead.” This was a big stray away from how fellow hosts handled such topics at the time, but his empathy undoubtedly helped earn him a favorite spot in fans’ hearts.

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About the Author

Jilly Hite

New York raised and Florida-based Jilly Hite studied screenwriting and theatre at The Lee Strasberg Institute before becoming a full time content creator and podcaster. She loves old movies, musical theatre, and her pup Ted.

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