In Which We Rank the Late Night Hosts

I’m a multi-tasker: my daily routine includes catching up on the highlights of the previous night’s late shows on Youtube, while I do the busywork of sharing my blogposts. It’s an exciting time in the late night universe. The form and the format are experiencing a roiling revolution which I imagine roughly 2/3 of America loves, and 1/3 of America can’t stand. You know what that formula corresponds to, don’t you?

Back in the day, the late night talk shows used to deal with the day’s news strictly in a perfunctory, safe way. The form was born in the 1950s, a (theoretical) time of relative prosperity, progress, and optimism. As defined by Founding Fathers like Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and Johnny Carson, late night reflected the prevailing national mood. Since the era of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show (1999-2015) it’s all changed. The expectation is that the shows all be much more aggressively topical and political and so every host is now a Will Rogers/ Mort Sahl/ Lenny Bruce. Since 2017 I have been uncomfortable with a lot of it, not for being too political, but for not being political enough. It feels to me like the times have gotten too dire and dark for levity, and very often the humor, frankly, on all of these shows, feels entirely too light and normalizing for what is going on. To give them their due, these guys frequently get serious and drop the jokes and talk straight about the various abominations being committed by the Trump administration and its lackeys in Congress. The hosts are clearly trying to strike a balance so they don’t lose their audience. I personally would like to see them get still more serious, though. The times are not not frivolous. The comedy shouldn’t be either.

Could the field be more male dominated and white? It is so white that the list contains two Englishmen and a Canadian, and the one person of color is half-Caucasian. There have been previous African American late night hosts (Arsenio Hall) as well as women (Joan Rivers), and the daytime slots have many powerful women (Oprah, Ellen, and The View), but you’d think the field would be much more diverse by now. Is it a “Nixon Goes to China” thing? Only a white man can get away with uttering “dangerous” truths because otherwise it would be too dangerous? If that’s the philosophy (I suspect it is) I predict it will change, probably not too far in the future, because events are unfolding very rapidly at the moment. Statues are toppling.

Another recent development that’s worth talking about is the drastic aesthetic changes that have happened as a result of the pandemic. Traditionally performed before live, studio audiences, starting three months ago these shows of necessity became quiet, intimate affairs, with a look and feel of homegrown Youtube shows. The glitz and glamor are gone. A flattening out has occurred. A very large, ominous question has got to be looming. How permanent is this change? The pandemic is spiking. We may go a year or even more under these conditions. When it’s all over, will these shows go back to the old method? I know how producers think. If these comedians keep their audiences through this, why shell out big money for a lavish show any more? One good reason (to me) is showmanship. I miss the specialness and the magic of a big production, and have disliked the unshaven, unkempt martyr-like self pity of the bargain basement editions of the shows. But I am old. Maybe young people don’t care.

Which raises a second question: if all the shows now look like this, what’s so special about these guys or these networks? Because I assure you there are self-produced straight-to-Youtube shows as good or better than these more famous ones out there somewhere. I already watch the network programs on Youtube rather than television. These days, the only thing I watch on real-time TV is the news. The inevitable question is: what do we need the old formats for? I was already finding them (much like the 3 camera TV sit-com) antiquated, a 20th century holdover, suitable only for the geriatric. I do believe everyone will discover this inevitably, for better or worse, and that what we used to know as television, will be increasingly universal and two-way, no longer a top-down production from a handful of providers. This has its pros and cons. I love the idea of democratic access to the medium and to audiences (I used to work in public-access, btw). But I am naturally a fan of show biz and spectacle. I hope there is room in this new world for both.

So consider this a snapshot of now, because no one knows what tomorrow will bring. The top late night hosts, from best to worst:

Stephen Colbert, The Late Show, CBS (2015-present) 

With his unique mixture of bookishness, Liberal Catholic morality, and Southern courtliness, Colbert feels like a partial throwback to the days of Steve Allen. He’s old school in some ways. He takes his job and his responsibility very seriously. And yet he is more than a little elusive. Unusual among late night hosts, he did not start out as a stand-up comedian, but as a Second City trained improv actor. I first knew him as a regular on Strangers with Candy (1999-2000), then as a “reporter” on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show (1999-2005), and then as a mock-conservative talk show host on The Colbert Report (2005-2014). Those were all ROLES. And while Colbert frequently gets real on The Late Show, he still seems to shift back and forth between his real self and a persona. He uses irony and sarcasm as comic strategies a good deal of the time, and it makes for a sophisticated cocktail, which I’m certain must fly over the heads of a lot of the audience. In this, he goes even farther than his predecessor David Letterman, who was the first to bring that sort of non-earnest approach to a late night desk. Colbert goes further in both directions: sometimes more honest, sometimes more flip. It certainly was a trial by fire for him. He’d only been at the job a few months when the 2016 election began, and so dealing with the Trump phenomenon has been a major defining aspect of his job as Late Show host. I feel he brings the necessary gravitas and the tone of moral authority the moment calls for, in addition to being very funny with seeming effortlessness. The Late Show, prior to the pandemic was shot at the historic Ed Sullivan Theatre, just a stone’s throw from Times Square, adding to the glamor.

Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Kimmel Live, ABC (2003-present) 

I have only known Kimmel in his late night incarnation (I never saw The Man Show and have probably watched about five minutes of Crank Yankers). I find him very smart and likable, with a down-to-earth, working class Brooklyn energy that’s refreshing in today’s nepotistic world of television, dominated by writers who came from Yale and who’s uncle the producer got them their jobs. (Almost as revenge, Kimmel seems to have hired his entire family both before and behind the cameras). Kimmel is an insightful commentator, and I get the impression that he is either speaking off the cuff, and/or gets his hands dirty in the writing process. The show lives or dies by his relaxed personality. You feel like you’re listening to a guy talking to you in your den while the Thanksgiving turkey is cooking. Ya know, you’re watching TV and then Trump comes on, and then your friend goes, “I can’t even with this guy” and starts riffing. That’s what Kimmel feels like to me. He seems, and I’d be shocked to learn I’m wrong, like a guy who smokes a lot of pot. Maybe that accounts for the blackface kerfuffle that’s returned to the news in recent days. 

Seth Meyers, Late Night, NBC (2014-present) 

Meyers took over Late Night in 2014, when its previous host Jimmy Fallon assumed the hosting duties on The Tonight Show. Prior to this he had been at Saturday Night Live since 2001, where he had been one of the head writers, and was best known as a host of Weekend Update. It was the latter association which helped him put his stamp on Late Night: kidding about the day’s news. He can be KILLER. His set at the 2010 White House Correspondent’s Dinner was historic. And of course, helped piss Trump off so much that…well, here we are. Thanks a lot, Seth Meyers! His routines are cheerfully, wildly uneven. He loves to keep the bad jokes in, and then point out how bad they were. He’s just a few years younger than Colbert and Kimmel, and his writers and his material skew much younger. He actively seems like he’s trying to capture and keep that coveted younger demographic. To his credit, he also actively reaches out to women and people of color, and often generously showcases members of his writing staff on the show to make it more inclusive. That’s been harder since the lockdown.

Samantha Bee, Full Frontal, TBS (2016-present)

There was a time, especially right after Trump’s election, when I held Sam Bee first in my esteem, and in some ways I still do. She is the most heedlessly brave of all the hosts, she really doesn’t give two fucks, she is caustically funny, and there is a distinct tone of “I’m a woman, you’re going to hate me anyway, so I might as well go there.” Because of this, I really feel like she’s the one who set the bar these past few years. The other shows have had to match her tone or something close to it or they will simply seem bourgeois and regressive. We consign her to 4th place only due to the show’s brevity (half hour), infrequency (a weekly as opposed to a daily), and obscurity (TBS, as opposed to a big three network). Like Colbert, she had previously been a “reporter” on The Daily Show. She left after Jon Stewart departed and she was passed over for his replacement.

John Oliver, Last Week Tonight, HBO (2014-present) 

John Oliver is the only one on this list who I have seen perform live. I saw him do a stand-up set as the opening act for a friend’s improv show about 20 years ago. It was a bit of a fluke. He was already getting successful by that point and made it clear to the audience that he far outclassed this ignominious favor-gig. Some will be appalled that I put him this low, but I have my reasons. One is that, like Bee, he only does a weekly show. Two is that his show is so narrowly focused on current events, the entire thing is more like a segment of one of the other guys’ shows. He is very serious, and I can’t help comparing him to David Frost in that much of what he does skirts journalism as much as comedy (and yes, also because he’s British). I enjoy him but (and this will chagrin some people as well), I don’t find him as funny as many of the others above. Yes, he is often absurd, surreal, and extravagant, but I find much of his writing labored. Lastly (and this is less true at the moment), those “deep dive” pieces that form the meat of his shows often lack the immediacy you expect from this kind of show. As he himself has often pointed out, those segments take weeks, even months to produce. While they are almost always important, they are not up-to-the-minute, thus they feel like an anti-climax after his opening jokes which are based on the week’s news. The second half of his show feels like you’re watching 60 Minutes sometimes. But like I say — much less true at the moment. I also feel Oliver has done a MUCH better job than most of the people here at converting his usual show into a new, homegrown format. But he didn’t have far to stretch.

Trevor Noah, The Daily Show, Comedy Central (2015-present)

Noah has grown on me considerably since he was first named host of the Daily Show five years ago. At that point he’d only been a contributor to the show for a few months. When Jon Stewart anointed him, I was among the perplexed, especially when I saw him host. He seemed (seems) like a very nice, polite young man — just not a very funny comedian. But over time, a couple of things happened. One is that he has grown in confidence as he has grown in the job. He’s more spontaneous and outgoing and consequently funnier, in particular in some of the candid bits they share on Youtube, the stuff he does that’s not part of the official show. He’s a brilliant guy, and one of the smartest interviewers among his peers. (To me that’s another factor worthy of esteem. There is a place for somebody more earnest than hardy-har-har in this field, and that’s Noah’s niche). The other thing I gradually realized was that there was a method behind Stewart’s madness. It didn’t occur to me until I became a habitual audience member of Noah’s. It was that the world had gotten a little smaller. I was now a fan of, or at least someone who appreciated, a South African comedian, and thus newly privy to his perspective. I’m not sure through what other routes that might have come to pass, but Stewart saw to it that it came about through his choice of replacement. He walked the walk. It’s more than most of us manage to do. (On a related topic — see this post from yesterday. The world is getting smaller, despite all the badness going on around us).

Jimmy Fallon, The Tonight Show, NBC (2014-present) 

I liked the overall make-over of The Tonight Show when Fallon took over (the new band, the new set, the new graphics) but Fallon himself not so much. Taking over a job that had been occupied by Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno (and for half a second, Conan O’Brien), Fallon seemed like a five year old walking around in his father’s shoes. His antic, child-like personality has its winning aspects in interviews, for sure, as long as they’re kept light. On the monologues he merely reads the jokes that have been written for him, much as Leno had. I boycotted him for a long time after he played with Trump’s hair. For ages, the show resisted becoming “political”, and tried to steer the middle American course but eventually they had to cave in and deal with what’s going on. In recent months, it’s tacked closer to what the other shows are doing and Fallon tries to do serious interviews (especially in the aftermath of the recent Black Lives Matter upheaval, since he’s had some blackface missteps to apologize for). I won’t say I have zero respect for him, but certainly not a huge amount. Fallon is sort of the Aaron Burr of late night. No principles in evidence, other than making people laugh (if you defend the latter in the present political moment I will bite your feet off faster than Joe Exotic’s tiger). Fallon is of course as I said extremely “likable” if you choose not to reflect about him, or are incapable of reflection. But who is he? The funny thing is, he’s also not a good sketch comedian. My favorite thing he does is his musical impressions of rock and roll stars. That is a very vaudeville act, and it is the thing for which he is best suited. In an ideal world, he would just tour with an act where he did rock star impressions.

Bill Maher, Real Time, HBO (2003-present) 

I can’t help but have a soft spot for a man determined to alienate everybody. On the other hand, at present he’s alienated even me, so there goes the sweet spot. Maher’s older than everybody else on this list by 10 or 20 years (in the case of Noah, 30). He has an old school delivery in his monologues that reminds me of Hope and Benny. (Not even Carson and Leno. Hope and Benny). So he’s going to have a different perspective. In a weird way he has the most in common with Samantha Bee, though they’re at the polar opposite ends of this narrow band of the spectrum. He is at the conservative end of liberal. But, like her, he has no censor. He’ll say anything for a reaction. Unlike her (and most everybody else on this list) he also points his blunderbuss at the hypocrisies, inefficacies, inanities, and affectations of the left, which I often find delicious — until it’s not. Because of his brusque willingness to offend women, Muslims, the LGBTQ community etc, many (maybe most) of my friends have long boycotted him, but I had continued to watch to him in the spirt of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and because (much of the time) he is funnier and more insightful than anyone else on this list — usually when he’s attacking conservatives. So I generally have sat through his most boorish Politically Incorrect moments for his takedowns of Trump, McConnell and company. Maher is also one of the few who figured out something funny to do with the home video format (he inserts stock footage of audiences laughing after all the jokes in his monologue) But recently he joined the anti-mask crowd and for me that was a bridge too far. Can’t watch him now. (Addendum, a few months later: now I would move him to the bottom of the list, I think. See this added post).

Here’s a theoretical question for you. DO all the late night hosts have to be liberal? To my mind, theoretically no, but they can’t be a Nazi (i.e. a Trump person). Punching down is not a good look. Dennis Miller could conceivably have such a show, though I have observed that he never seems able to be funny and conservative at the same time. Mike Huckabee tries to be funny but is usually just mortifying . The British have done a far better job than the Americans at producing conservatives who could be genuinely funny and erudite. American conservatives tend to be humorless firebrands with murder in their hearts. The British ones can at least be funny. (I’m looking at you, G.K. Chesterton!)

James Corden, The Late Late Show, CBS (2015-present)

Corden took over The Late Late Show from Craig Ferguson in 2015, and whenever I see him I go “Who, what, where, when, why?” Did he win the lotto? He seems like a very nice fellow and excellent sidekick material. In fact, I did initially tend to confuse him with Andy Richter, Conan’s sidekick, despite the British accent. And…I’m being too harsh, I know. I actually find him very likable in a Teddy Ruxpin sort of way, and increasingly funny the more I watch him. Also I am a huge fan of Reggie Watts, whom I once appeared on a bill with.

Conan O’Brien, Conan, TBS (2010-present) 

I haven’t watched Conan since the pandemic, but prior to that when I would tune in, I found the show unwatchably aloof, like I had entered a timewarp and it was suddenly four decades ago. But not ENOUGH like that. Certainly, I would love a RETRO show that aped the aesthetics of traditional TV (it has long been my dream to have a show just like that). But Conan’s show is more like…grandpa is too set in his ways to get a modern cash register for his candy store. The thing is, I actually like, and respect him a lot, from his work on The Simpsons, Late Night, and even The Tonight Show! I was kind of pissed when for some inexplicable reason he didn’t do well on the latter and even more pissed when they brought Leno back to replace him. It’s just…he’s not very cutting edge at the moment. He sort of takes me back to 1993. And while I would very much like to go back to 1993 at the moment, PRETENDING to do so right now happens to be the Trump brand.

For more on variety entertainment, including TV variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,