The Best Late-Night Talk Show Hosts in History

Late-night talk shows have been a critical part of television history since practically the very beginning of TV as a popular medium in the 1950s. For years, there were a very limited number of television stations even in existence in the United States, with only three major networks – NBC, CBS, and ABC — available nationally. This meant they controlled the late-night talk show landscape an entire generation first grew up watching. As television later expanded into cable networks, 24-hour programming, and now with streaming and the Internet, there is a much larger desire for content and many more outlets in order to find it. Because of this, the audiences are further split than ever before by all the options available to them, diversifying the type of late-night shows out there. Nowadays, you don’t even need to own a television to watch late-night talk shows. There’s a regular onslaught of late-night talk show clips posted to social media on a near-daily basis, trying to become the next viral video everyone will share with their friends. In turn, this has led to lower ratings of the overall shows themselves on TV, while simultaneously garnering millions of additional views of specific late-night talk show highlights online. The format itself and the way people watch late-night talk shows has clearly changed.

While this list is not extensive, the contributions of the dozens of late-night hosts over the past six and a half decades should be acknowledged for their impact on pop culture. Honorable mentions must go to contemporary-era hosts such as Jay Leno, Amber Ruffin, Chelsea Handler, Bill Maher, Samantha Bee, Craig Kilborn, Joan Rivers, and Craig Ferguson, among others, who could easily have been on this list. It’s also worth noting, there have been some wonderful international late-night talk shows in the UK hosted by Graham Norton, Jonathan Ross, and Jools Holland, to name a few. However, perhaps most importantly, it must be stated there have been some legendary classic late-night talk show hosts such as Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar, Dick Cavett, Alan Carr, Merv Griffin, and Steve Allen. Without them, there may not even be late-night talk shows anymore, and they certainly wouldn’t be what they are today. With all that in mind, here are the best late-night talk show hosts in television history.

Updated, September 2022: To keep the article fresh and relevant by adding more information and entries, this article has been updated by Kassie King.

Related: These Are the Weirdest Talk Shows of All Time


12 Seth MeyersLate Night with Seth Meyers

Seth Meyers began his late-night career on the sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live from 2001 to 2014, on which he co-hosted the parody news segment «Weekend Update» along with Amy Pohler. Following his run on SNL, Meyers became the fourth host of Late Night, following powerhouses David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, and Jimmy Fallon, who exited to take over The Tonight Show. Meyers former SNL collaborator Fred Armisen leads the show’s house band “The 8G Band” and often banters with the host between segments. Late Night with Seth Meyers has gradually become more political over the years, particularly after John Oliver left The Daily Show in 2015, and aligns with the hosts more left-leaning viewpoint.

In addition to the typical opening monologue of any late night show, one of the signature segments on Late Night is called “A Closer Look,” in which Meyers satirizes a complex or misunderstood political issue. There is also a popular digital segment called “Corrections” that appears on the show’s YouTube page in which Meyers reads and responds to comments posted on the show’s videos. In 2021, “Corrections” earned an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Short Form Comedy, Drama, or Variety series, though it ultimately lost out to James Corden’s «Carpool Karaoke.» During Meyers’ run on Late Night, the show has received four primetime Emmy nominations for writing and two for directing, and also earned its first nomination for Outstanding Variety Talk Series in 2022. NBC has renewed Meyers’ contract and he will remain as hostthrough at least 2025.

11 James CordenThe Late Late Show with James Corden

The Late Late Show with James Corden has been airing on CBS since 2015. The British actor, comedian, singer, writer, and producer is the fourth host of the show, following Tom Snyder, Craig Kilborn, and Craig Ferguson. James Corden distinguishes himself from other American late night talk shows by including elements more commonly found on British programs such as The Graham Norton Show. For example, he invites all the night’s guests onto the stage simultaneously and interviews them from a chair to the left rather than one at a time from behind a desk to the right. Corden’s lovable personality and frequent appearances in popular shows and movies make him particularly appealing to younger audiences.

In 2011 at the UK charity telethon Comic Relief, James Corden debuted a segment called «Carpool Karaoke» and later adopted it for The Late Late Show in 2016 to massive popularity and critical acclaim. In the segment, Corden drives around Los Angeles with a famous musician while the two sing some of the artist’s hits together. The first «Carpool Karaoke» with Adele became the biggest YouTube viral video of 2016 and later a live taping of «Carpool Karaoke: When Corden Met McCartney» in Liverpool earned a primetime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Variety Special. Other guests of the segment have included Madonna, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Harry Styles, and A$AP Rocky, among others. Unfortunately, it was announced in 2022 that Corden would be leaving The Late Late Show in mid-2023, so be sure to catch some episodes before his seven-year tenure ends.

10 John OliverLast Week Tonight with John Oliver

John Oliver first garnered public attention while working as the Senior British Correspondent at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart from 2006 to 2013, on which he won three primetime Emmys. Since 2014 he has been the host of the HBO talk show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Aired weekly, the 30-minute program allows Oliver to deliver seamless social and political satire without the distraction of commercial breaks. With full creative rein, Oliver was able to format the show to his unique skills and interests and differentiate himself from other politically-focused comedy shows. Rather than focusing on breaking news stories or celebrity interviews, Last Week Tonight instead explores a single concept in depth during each episode and has gained widespread critical acclaim for its influence.

Some of Last Week Tonight’s most popular episodes focused on topics such as televangelists, debt buyers, coal mining, and tobacco — in which Oliver created his infamous mascot Jeff the Diseased Lung in a Cowboy Hat. Many of these segments went on to influence the public and corporations to enact actual change. For example, the 2014 episode about net neutrality was said to be a contributing factor to the FCC reversing their stance on the issue. The show’s ability to influence social and political issues in America has been dubbed “The John Oliver Effect,” though Oliver himself has reportedly dismissed the phenomenon. During its run, Last Week Tonight has won thirteen Emmy Awards, two Peabody Awards, and Oliver was included on the 2015 Time 100 list as a “comedic agent of change.”

Related: Late Night Host Seth Meyers Says COVID Gave Show a ‘Window of Opportunity’ for Creative Changes

9 Jimmy Kimmel

Currently in its 19th season, Jimmy Kimmel Live! has been a popular late-night show for practically two decades now. The ABC show stars comedian Jimmy Kimmel (and his regular cast of family members) alongside his faithful sidekick Guillermo. The show is known for its Mean Tweets, where celebrities read real (and often very unflattering) things people on Twitter have posted about them. Kimmel has had a funny fake rivalry with actor Matt Damon going on for many years now, sending his apologies to him for supposedly having to cut Damon’s appearance on the show due to a lack of time every single night. There have also been many pranks done on the show, including when celebrities have shown up at Kimmel’s actual home in the middle of the night to wake him up, often by breaking into song in his bedroom while he’s asleep in bed.

8 Stephen Colbert

The former Colbert Report host and Daily Show correspondent has been the host of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert since 2015, taking over for David Letterman after he retired. Nowadays, Second City alum Stephen Colbert relies less on recurring bits and more on his sarcastic and satirical humor with the guests and audiences alike, including parodying various politicians and media personalities in the process. Colbert is often at his best when portraying a fictional persona, such as the conservative TV show host he played for nearly a decade on the Colbert Report, even being invited to host the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006.

7 Arsenio Hall

When Fox came onto the scene in the late 1980s, they tapped Arsenio Hall to host their network’s late-night talk program, The Arsenio Hall Show. The move was a hit, prompting audiences that may have felt somewhat alienated by the typical formula of late-night talk shows of the time to watch Hall. Although the show only lasted for four seasons, Hall hosted numerous iconic pop culture moments in its time. For example, then-Presidential candidate Bill Clinton once came on the show and played saxophone, which quickly gave Clinton a relatable factor none of the other candidates seemed to have. This was credited as a pivotal moment that eventually led Clinton to the Presidency. The show was also great at having some of the absolute most famous African-American guests across sports, music, movies, and television nearly every single night. Hall was not afraid to say what he thought and was great at getting the crowd involved with a forearm fist pump at the top of each show. Hall even had a popular catchphrase, “let’s get busy” when it was time to get the show underway.

6 Jimmy Fallon

What sets The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon apart from some other late-night talk shows is that instead of following the typical route of sometimes making fun of the show’s guests, Jimmy Fallon tries to create viral moments that instead include the celebrities in on the fun. To do this, The Tonight Show often relies on silly games and bits more often than perhaps at any other time in the show’s lengthy history. With celebrated band The Roots at his side, Fallon has the credibility of the Tonight Show brand (Fallon is the show’s 6th permanent host) while still making it his own, yet not taking himself or the show too seriously. There were other changes, too. The show moved from Los Angeles to New York City when Fallon took over and the current vibe works well. Nowadays, there are often musical impressions, lip-sync contests, “thank you» notes, over-the-top games, and Saturday Night Live-esque sketches worked into the show.

Related: SNL: The Best Weekend Update Hosts, Ranked

5 David Letterman

As one of the most respected and idolized late-night talk show hosts of all time, David Letterman certainly deserves a spot on any late-night list. Letterman was a late-night host for 33 years overall, first with Late Night with David Letterman on NBC and then The Late Show with David Letterman on CBS. Musician Paul Schaffer was with him throughout his long run and served as a great sideman to Letterman’s regular shtick. Described as a “disgruntled eccentric trapped inside a traditional talk show,” Letterman resonated with millions of fans. Known for often attracting more alternative and edgy musical guests, Letterman brought in a younger crowd than Johnny Carson or Jay Leno. In fact, it was Letterman who was slated to take over The Tonight Show upon Johnny Carson’s retirement before regular Tonight Show fill-in Jay Leno got the gig instead. This prompted Letterman to move over to CBS and the rest is history.

4 Jon Stewart

When Craig Kilborn finished up a successful three-year run as host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, comedian Jon Stewart was brought in and made the show completely his own. Stewart’s serious topics mixed with humor was a great combo that you can currently see Daily Show alumni Stephen Colbert and John Oliver use on their own shows. Comedians Steve Carell, Lewis Black, Samantha Bee, Michael Che, Larry Wilmore, and Ed Helms (among many others) also made memorable appearances as correspondents during Stewart’s tenure, but there was never a doubt that Stewart was the true star of the news-based comedy show. The show transformed into a sharp political satire under Stewart’s watch, which was not being done anywhere else in late-night comedy at the same level. When a major political story broke, many people turned to shows like The Daily Show for information and perhaps even a little guidance about how to feel about the latest state of events. The show was there during a cultural shift in how many people received their news as well. You can currently see Stewart hosting The Problem with Jon Stewart, a show in many ways still parallels his time on The Daily Show. In April 2022, Stewart received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, arguably the highest honor in comedy.

3 Trevor Noah

As Jon Stewart decided to step away from the desk at The Daily Show, South African-born comedian Trevor Noah soon became his successor. Stewart, who’d been at the show for 16 years, was not an easily replaceable host. Noah was a smart and talented stand-up comedian, however, but no one really knew how that would translate to late-night television. For the first year or so, most would likely say Noah had some growing pains as he worked to fill Stewart’s shoes. However, over time, his unique outlook as an American outsider on U.S. late-night television began to connect with audiences. It didn’t hurt that he had some amazingly funny correspondents to help him: Ronny Chieng, Desi Lydic, Roy Wood Jr., Hasan Minhaj, and Jordan Klepper have all held their own on Noah’s version of The Daily Show. In fact, the show probably has the most diverse team in the history of late-night TV. Noah has helped guide the country through the political turmoil of recent U.S. elections with a wit that makes you feel less alone in a never-ending barrage of headlines and clickbait.

Related: No One Noticed Trevor Noah’s Big Role in Black Panther

2 Conan O’Brien

Comedian Conan O’Brien has had a nearly three-decade career in late-night comedy. Starting as a writer on The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live, O’Brien finally got his time in front of the camera when SNL producer Lorne Michaels selected him as David Letterman’s successor upon Letterman’s departure from NBC. Having the 12:35AM slot for Late Night with Conan O’Brien after The Tonight Show with Jay Leno allowed O’Brien to be more self-deprecating and do more immature and absurd humor than the straight-laced Tonight Show. With sidekick Andy Richter and Bruce Springsteen drummer Max Weinberg and the Max Weinberg 7, the show debuted in 1993. O’Brien had long been a huge fan of Letterman, however, their styles differed in that Letterman was often more of a dry humor, while O’Brien would do practically anything for a laugh, even if it was at his own expense. While the show initially struggled in the ratings, it was with characters such as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Pimpbot 5000, The Masturbating Bear, and skits such as In The Year 2000, Celebrity “Secrets”, If They Mated, Walker Texas Ranger, and Celebrity Surveys that the show hit its stride.

When O’Brien’s contract was coming up, NBC locked him in for another one by promising him the coveted Tonight Show hosting gig in five years. When the time came and the five years passed, Jay Leno left, and Conan became the new Tonight Show host. However, the ill-fated idea to put a new Jay Leno show on before the Tonight Show hampered O’Brien’s chances of catching on with his new audience. When ratings lagged, O’Brien was ousted (he eventually received a hefty settlement package for the violation of his contract), which ultimately led O’Brien to his late-night show, CONAN, on TBS. While never fully the same as his earlier success, O’Brien was able to introduce a “Conan Without Borders” segment that eventually turned into a spin-off show of the host traveling to other countries and comedically interacting with the locals. O’Brien has been in late-night for 28 years; however, with a current podcast (named Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend) and an HBO Max show in the works, the future still looks bright.

1 Johnny Carson

“Here’s Johnny!” 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. During those three decades, Carson helped bridge the classic late-night talk shows with the modern era of late-night television comedy. The late-night talk show format that’s still the most commonplace today came from Carson’s tenure at The Tonight Show. For many years, the highest praise a comedian could possibly receive was getting to do stand-up on The Tonight Show. If Carson called the comedian over to talk with him after the comedian’s set, it was considered the ultimate stamp of approval and a sign you’d truly made it in the industry. Carson was also known for his bits, including Carnac the Magnificent, a «mystic from the East» who could receive unknown answers to unseen questions. Carson’s skits were equally memorable, including Carson impersonating Willie Nelson, or fictional characters like Hamlet. However, he may be best remembered for his interactions with wild animals or young kids who could be unpredictable in interviews. 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.

Manuel Rivas

Fernando Rivas. Compagino mis estudios superiores en ingeniería informática con colaboraciones en distintos medios digitales. Me encanta la el periodismo de investigación y disfruto elaborando contenidos de actualidad enfocados en mantener la atención del lector. Colabora con Noticias RTV de manera regular desde hace varios meses. Profesional incansable encargado de cubrir la actualidad social y de noticias del mundo. Si quieres seguirme este es mi... Perfil en Facebook Email de contacto:

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