For nearly a decade, he played a caricature of a conservative talk show host on Comedy Central, but since taking over for David Letterman on CBS in 2015, Stephen Colbert has reinvented himself—as himself. And the new approach is working: "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert," with its blend of friendly interviews and political bite, has been on a ratings upswing, especially since Inauguration Day 2017. Here, as Colbert celebrates his 54th birthday, are 20 talk show hosts who forged the world of late-night TV over the course of more than six decades.
When Steve Allen stepped before the camera on September 27, 1954, as the first host of NBC's "The Tonight Show," he told the viewing audience: "I want to give you the bad news first: This program is going to go on forever." Little did he know that more than six decades and 12,000 shows later, we'd still be staying up late to watch "The Tonight Show." Allen hosted the program for only three years, but he laid down the ground rules for late-night talk show hosts to come. Opening monologue, celebrity interviews, wacky comedy sketches, man-on-the-street interviews, audience-participation—one night he even jumped into a vat of cottage cheese.
Witty and urbane, unpredictable and emotional, Jack Paar took over "The Tonight Show" in 1957 and held the desk for five years. With guests ranging from Zsa Zsa Gabor to J.F.K., Paar was the first to put the "talk" into the late-night vocabulary. He famously battled with the network, in 1960 walking off the show while on-air because NBC censors had cut one of his jokes without his knowledge. In tears, Paar told his viewers, "I'm leaving 'The Tonight Show.' There must be a better way to make a living than this." Three weeks later—after a network apology—Paar was back. "As I was saying," he began, "before I was interrupted…"
Johnny Carson took over "The Tonight Show" in 1962 and remained its host for the next 30 years. Famously reserved off-camera, he embraced the zany on his show, giving us such sketch characters as Aunt Blabby and Carnac the Magnificent. But it was his quick-witted interaction with guests—a Who's Who of the celebrity world—that propelled him into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. Carson, who retired in 1992, remains the touchstone for talk show hosts. Years after his death in 2005, a swing of the imaginary golf club and a "Heeeere's Johnny" is all that's needed to conjure up memories of "The King of Late Night."
He never had the wit of Jack Paar, the inspired comedy of Steve Allen or the all-round greatness of Johnny Carson. But when it came to show biz schmoozing, no one topped Merv Griffin. A former singer (his novelty song "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts" was a No. 1 hit in 1950), Griffin hosted various incarnations of his talk show for 21 years. With sidekick Arthur Treacher as a foil, he would practically curl up on the couch with his guests for a good heart-to-heart. And though Hollywood celebs were his bread and butter, he didn't shy away from controversial figures of the era, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Abby Hoffman. It was a winning formula that—in addition to creating TV game shows such as "Jeopardy!"—made Griffin one of the richest men in the entertainment business.
It certainly helped that he was witty, urbane, intelligent and a great interviewer. But what made Dick Cavett—whose ABC show competed against Carson from 1969 to 1975—truly special was the quality of his guests. They weren't just stars plugging their latest projects. Many were the legends: Groucho Marx, Laurence Olivier, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, Orson Welles, Noel Coward, John Lennon, Ray Charles, Alfred Hitchcock, Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, Janis Joplin, David Bowie, Salvador Dali, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. No half-baked comedy sketches here. Just great conversation.
A former television news anchor, Tom Snyder inhabited the late-night scene—cigarette in hand—from 1973 to 1982 ("Tomorrow With Tom Snyder") and then again from 1995 to 1999 ("The Late Late Show With Tom Snyder"). He didn't tell jokes or give us goofy characters. Instead the often prickly host offered frequently hard-hitting one-on-one conversation with guests ranging from John Lennon to Ayn Rand and even (behind bars) Charlie Manson.
On October 9, 1986, Joan Rivers became the first woman to have her own late-night talk show on a major network (the newly formed Fox). Given her long career as a stand-up comic and permanent guest host status on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show"—on which she appeared more than 80 times—"The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers" should have been a natural. But it wasn't to be. Carson, feeling betrayed, never spoke to Rivers again. A-list guests, fearing Carson's wrath, were reluctant to appear on her show. Despite her comedic talent, it lasted a brief six months.
In his two incarnations as a late-night host ("Late Night" and "Late Show"), David Letterman kept us up after hours for 33 years. That's 6,028 episodes of comedy classics like Stupid Pet Tricks and Larry "Bud" Mellman and Top Ten Lists. In terms of longevity, the former Indianapolis weatherman beat out even his friend and idol Johnny Carson. Yet Letterman was somehow able to keep it all fresh, night after night. Irreverent and quick with a comeback, he rarely took anything seriously, most of all his guests. But when tragedy struck with the events of 9/11, it was Letterman who first to returned to TV's late-night desk, serving as a sort of national voice for our collective grief, giving the monologue that Americans needed just one week after the disaster.
Hosting the syndicated "Arsenio Hall Show" from 1989 to 1994, this spirited actor and comedian scored a hit with younger viewers and people of color who found the likes of Carson old and irrelevant. With his "Woof! Woof! Woof!" trademark entrance and guests ranging from Sinead O'Connor to saxophone-playing presidential candidate Bill Clinton, Hall offered a late-night alternative for the MTV generation. You'd never find Bob Hope, Dean Martin and George Gobel cutting it up on his couch. But that was the point.
Later the subject of both a best-selling book and movie, the war between Jay Leno and David Letterman over who would succeed Johnny Carson as host of "The Tonight Show" is now the stuff of show business legend. The edgier Letterman was Carson's own choice. But NBC picked comedian Leno, who went on to front the program until 2014 (with a brief sabbatical in 2009). Less innovative than his rival—with softball questions no guest ever disliked—Leno still consistently beat out Letterman in the ratings, getting plenty of laughs along the way. In that respect, Leno delivered in spades.
A former writer for "The Simpsons," Conan O'Brien took over David Letterman's position as host of "Late Night" in 1993. Though early reviews were less than stellar, he was given space to hone his combination of self-deprecating wit and wacky anything-goes humor and, over time, became one of the most highly regarded late-night hosts on television. To no one's surprise, O'Brien was tapped to host "The Tonight Show" when Jay Leno left the program in 2009—that is, until seven months later when Leno decided he wanted his old job back. Out went O'Brien (with a $45 million buyout), who rebounded with a late-night show on TBS. Said a O'Brien of the Leno coup, "I just want to say to the kids out there watching: You can do anything you want in life ... unless Jay Leno wants to do it, too."
"Later"—whose first incarnation aired on NBC at 1:30 a.m. from 1988 to 1994—had no house band, no opening monologue, no studio audience, no guest musical performances. What it did have was a half hour of the erudite sportscaster Bob Costas conversing with a wide variety of guests—Paul McCartney, Jerry Lewis, David Letterman, Mel Brooks, Shirley MacLaine, Anthony Quinn—in one-on-one interviews. Perhaps above all other late-night hosts, Costas knew how to listen, making his after-midnight show more than just joke-filled chatter.
Starting his career as a stand-up comic, Jon Stewart kicked around show biz a bit before rewriting the rules of late night as host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show." Between 1999 and 2015, he made after-hours TV safe for political humor—eventually eclipsing straight-ahead news programs as the go-to source for legitimate political reporting and commentary. Charming on the surface, Stewart's personality also had an edgier—even dangerous—quality that often placed his guests on the hot seat. But they came anyway. As Rolling Stone noted, "Stewart's Daily Show is the hot destination for anyone who wants to sell books or seem hip, from presidential candidates to military dictators."
Jimmy Kimmel has often joked that he got into show business just so that he could be friends with his idol David Letterman. But, as host of ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live," the comedian became Letterman's direct late-night competitor. With his A-list guests, Matt Damon mock feuds, "Mean Tweets" and regular guy persona, Kimmel knows how to get the laughs. But he's also unafraid to go serious, as evidenced by his heartfelt plea to Washington politicians for affordable health care, especially for children, and his furious, tearful response to the mass shooting in Las Vegas. More than any other late-night host, during his 15-year run, Kimmel has matured before our eyes.
Former "Saturday Night Live" cast member Jimmy Fallon took over as the sixth host of "The Tonight Show" in 2014. Warm, welcoming, even embraceable, Fallon is late-night host as pure entertainer—inviting his A-list guests to play charades, engage in lip sync battles or play egg Russian roulette. As one of the youngest hosts in late night (born 1974), he has brought a much-needed younger demographic to the 64-year-old "Tonight Show." Only 17 when Johnny Carson retired, he is more class clown than Carson disciple. And while he may never be King of Late Night, Fallon, with a contract that runs through 2021, is poised to be its official court jester.
A former correspondent with Jon Stewart's "Daily Show," Samantha Bee crashed the male-dominated world of late-night TV in 2016 with "Full Frontal With Samantha Bee." With no desk, no fawning celebrity interviews and only one half-hour show a week, "Full Frontal" has been described as "a tragicomic feminist primal scream in the Trump era"—a description that Bee readily accepts. Firing off bare-knuckle insults and observations touching on everything from sexism to social injustice, Bee is ready and able to push every red-hot button in the collective public console. That she can do so and still become a ratings hit is testimony to her fierce and uncompromising talent.
Though "Late Night With Seth Meyers" got mixed reviews upon its 2014 debut, former SNL Weekend Update anchor Meyers has consistently upped his game, with a sharpened focus on contemporary currents events and political-driven discourse. Able to have quality chats with anyone, Meyers, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, gives us "something of an intellectual salon, with authors and biting political commentary as well as celebrities." It's a combination that works, giving the host a reason to show off one of the best smiles in late night.
While stand-up comic Sarah Silverman can be as caustic and biting as they come, late-night host Silverman more often chooses to explore the concept of compassion in a world that seems increasingly devoid of it. Her Hulu-streamed web show "I Love You, America" consciously seeks to find the commonalities and connections between people of differing beliefs and experience. It's a courageous move for Silverman—and, so far, a successful one. People are watching, and Hulu has renewed "I Love You" for its second season.
He was strictly New York, never national. But Joe Franklin, who debuted his late-night show in 1951, kept talking until 1993, making his the longest stint behind the desk in television history. And what a show it was. Franklin's guests were an often bizarre mix of celebrities, but they included legends like John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and Cary Grant. Not to mention Madonna, the Ramones, Debbie Reynolds and Jimmy Durante. Franklin reportedly gave first TV exposure to Woody Allen, Andy Kaufman, Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Bruce Springsteen, Robin Williams, John Belushi and Richard Pryor—though it is sometimes difficult to separate the host's claims from reality. What is not in dispute is that "The Joe Franklin Show" was one-of-a-kind television for the ages.
It's being described as a half-hour "variety/sketch" show, but whatever it turns out to be, multitudes are going to tune in to Michelle Wolf's new late-night Netflix program, "The Break," which premieres May 27. Her scorching, take-no-prisoners monologue at the 2018 White House Correspondent's Dinner made Wolf the most talked about performer in the nation, even as President Donald Trump—a target of many of Wolf's jokes—tweeted that "the so-called comedian really bombed." With her self-described Orphan Annie looks and poison-dart mouth, Wolf is poised to be the next late-night sensation.
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