In the 21st Century most Late Night Shows pivoted from being one of the few ways celebrities could be heard to full-fledged variety show idea machines. Auteur visions paired with a talk show became more commonplace. This is in part thanks to Johnny Carson and his Late Night dominance, but it's also due to the splintering of the television audience. It really doesn't matter why we got the beautiful shows we got, it just matters that we did. After all, there are only so many chances to make Late Night TV out there ... it's easier statistically to become a US Senator then to host a show.
1) Show airs late at night ... duh. 2) Air with a regularity of at least once a week when it's in season. 3) Have an interview portion of the show semi-regularly, and some version of a monologue like rapport with the audience (even if it's in the form of a desk-piece and not a stand-up monologue). The interview portionis most crucial because without that basically any sketch show (think "Chapelle's Show") could qualify. 4) The show has aired on TV for several years in the 2000s (it's OK if the show started before the 2k's).
This is what I consider to be a 'Late Night' show, now here is how I judge the shows for ranking:
1) Impact on viewers. Did this show leave a mark in terms of inspiring action/thought for viewers? Creators in the industry? How about both? 2) Popularity or ratings. This is not specifically a popularity contest but it has to mean something. 3) Critical reception. Awards, high praise from critics, respect from other creatives, etc. 4) Longevity of the show's incarnation. 5) Overall strength of the qualities that make it a 'Late Night' show (i.e. how good was the interview portion of the show, the monologue, etc).
With the basic guidelines stated, I also want to point out something crucial: I am NOT ranking my favorite Late Night personalities or hosts. That is an entirely different beast that would likely require its own few thousand words to explore in list form. Furthermore, many hosts have had multiple shows spanning the past 19 years — I am only ranking their work in the context of one specific show. The other work neither adds nor takes away from a singular show, but that unfortunately does mean that longevity is better rewarded with one consistent show as opposed to spreading a career over multiple shows.
And Now, List
15. "The Graham Norton Show" BBC (2007 — Now)
The only non-American production to make the list is the 'chat show' from the BBC, "The Graham Norton Show." In England no name is more synonymous with talk shows than Graham Norton, and that is a testament to his character. Nothing about this show is the best of all time, however it is an extremely well oiled machine. Mr. Norton is a warm interviewer, a witty host, and has a very pleasing voice. Using those attributes "The Graham Norton Show" has built itself into a recognizable brand. Google any celebrity, or any notable figure, and they probably have an appearance on "The Graham Norton Show," and it is probably one of the more viewed moves of their career.
14. "Desus & Mero" Viceland (2016 — 2019)
Hear me out, because this is potentially the most hypocritical choice I made. With only three years on Viceland, "Desus & Mero" just barely qualifies for 'several years' on air. It also was no ratings-monster (most of the show's popularity was massively apparent online). I will harp on longevity a lot in this piece, and I believe that it is still crucial to my selections, but "Desus & Mero" is simply too funny and groundbreaking not to include. If I allowed the continuation of shows I would be able to include their new Showtime show under the same name, which is just this show but better in every way. It's entirely plausible that Desus & Mero end up as two of the most popular and influential Late Night voices in the 2020s.
13. "Late Night with Seth Meyers" NBC (2014 — Now)
Seth Meyers looks and sounds like a Late Night TV host if you drew him up ... I'm not sure that always works for him. It's not that Meyer's feels disingenuous, it's that he doesn't feel like anything new or fresh. He's funny, hardworking, well-respected, and almost entirely unoffensive. However, he had the unenviable task of taking over for Fallon and upholding the brand that Conan helped establish. Meyers certainly does enough to warrant a top 15 ranking, and enough to give NBC's "Late Night" its third show spot on the list, but that's about it. Meyers will have to be pretty remarkable in the coming years to move up the list.
12. "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson" CBS (2005 — 2014)
Ferguson never got the respect he was due. Albeit, "The Late Late Show" came on, well, really late. And he was relatively unknown in America as a comedian. And CBS was inferior in ratings to NBC in Late Night ratings. The list goes on, but the fact remains: Craig Ferguson was underrated as a host and his show was on the whole. Pair the grab bag of grievances with his successor from the U.K. James Corden becoming a massively popular celebrity from his incarnation of "The Late Late Show," and you'll see how the general public missed Ferguson's brilliance. I'll say this of him: His monologues were solely unique in the industry.
11. "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" Comedy Central (2015 — Now)
I think when it's all said and done for Trevor Noah he will be remembered fondly for his TDS service. Furthermore, this show would be ranked 3-4 spots higher if the quality stayed consistent and I made this list in a year-or-two's time. "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" simply lacks the time put in. The nicest thing I can say about Noah's show is that Noah is content to make it his own. He isn't needlessly following Stewart's footsteps. He isn't looking for his Colbert. Noah instead is making a politically sharp and damned funny show.
10. "Inside the NBA" TNT (1989 — Now)
You may be thinking this is a stretch to call this a Late Night show — you're wrong. It meets all of my arbitrary criteria, the show is massively popular, it has a well-respected host, critical accolades galore, and technically is the longest running show on the list. When people think of "Inside the NBA" they think of Ernie Johnson, Shaq, Charles Barkley, and Kenny "the Jet" Smith, and that's due to their chemistry. This show is 25% analysis, 25% interviews, 50% other, 100% hilarious, and 1000% Barkley & Shaq. Honestly, when I typed this blurb out I felt like I was making a case for this show to be number one on the list.
I don't know who needs to hear this, but, GIVE TNT THE FINALS FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.
9. "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" NBC (2009 — 2014)
Plain-and-Simple: This show would be higher on the list if Fallon hadn't taken "The Tonight Show" gig. I mean, I can't blame Fallon for not seeing how that would affect his list positioning on a stranger's internet list (in 2014), but those are the breaks. Lack of longevity hurt this show's ranking, but it's not to say this wasn't hysterical. I know Fallon has dramatically dipped in quality when he got the big promotion, but I beg of thee to remember peak Fallon. For awhile there it seemed like he could be the one true King of Late Night ... that optimism spawned from this gem of a show.
8. "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" NBC (1993 — 2009)
As I mentioned earlier, I value longevity. Conan was able to have two shows in this century that if you or I had anything to do with we'd die happy and satisfied and that were/are on the air for a loooonnnggg time. My first real memory of watching any Late Night TV is laying with my mom on our couch in Belleville, MI, watching Conan O'Brien's spry young face, with a tidal wave of red hair, bring the funny. In a lot of ways, this show set the standard of what I'd except from Late Night TV, and also set a precedent for the "Late NIght" show brand on NBC to always be hosted by really gifted comedians. Conan O'Brien may not have reinvented the wheel here, but he certainly contributed to building roads.
7. "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" ABC (2003 — Now)
If not for Conan's sheer will-to-host Jimmy Kimmel would be the highest ranking traditional Late Night host on the list. Quietly, Kimmel has put together a 6 year run of fantastic shows. He had to shake the unfair label of being "unfunny" early in his career and had to battle the established Late Night brands of the the Late Show and The Tonight Show, and has somehow emerged at the end of this decade as victorious. When I think about it, Kimmel and Oliver have the most potential for moving up this list of the all-time great shows. The biggest negative for Kimmel has been that when he is most talked about is when he is addressing serious topics (like his son and healthcare). Kimmel is hardly known for the hilarious monologue and more for the heartfelt one.
Bonus points for hiring Bill Simmons early on, I love that dude.
6. "The Eric Andre Show" Adult Swim (2012 — Now)
Ostensibly this is a talk show. But when you scratch the surface of "The Eric Andre" show you began to question reality itself. What even is a show? Andre pushes the boundaries of comedy, sanity, FCC guidelines, and ranch. This Adult Swim sleeper-hit checks all the hallmarks of a Late Night show; it airs regularly, has interviews, and monologues. As long as you define everything I just mentioned as loosely as possible. This show may not have the awards love, the ratings dominance, or even serious recognition as a variety show, but I'm here to tell you this show is iconic and its influence will be felt for decades to come.
5. "The Colbert Report" Comedy Central (2005 — 2014)
In the heat of the Bush Administration nothing felt more cathartic than to see a complete mockery of Conservative Punditry (and even conservatism itself) on TV every night. It really helped that one of the funniest, most quick-witted, and character-committed improvisers to ever live was also the host. This spin-off is the crown jewel of Mr. Colbert's career — so much so that even today we literally mispronounce his name because of this show's success. It is fitting that the first show to dethrone the Emmy Supremacy that "The Daily Show" held was its own subsidiary show. Possibly the best compliment I could give "The Colbert Report" is it's one-of-a-kindness. "The Daily Show" existed before & after Stewart ... but "The Colbert Report" was such a monumental flex by Colbert himself that it could never be replicated.
4. "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" HBO (2014 — Now)
There is no Late Night show on television right now that is as impactful as "Last Week Tonight." John Oliver, the highest ranking non-American on the list, has now become notorious for uncensored, long-form takes on highly nuanced issues. He delves into topics with such specificity that it virtually guarantees uniqueness. Our media diets are so saturated with the same thing that John Oliver simply benefits from going further in depth than anyone else in the game. When Oliver devotes a portion of the precious 30 minute run time to an interview its with a considerably profound guest that you wouldn't see making the typical cable rounds (guest like Edward Snowden, Anita Hill, and Monica Lewinsky to name a few).
Again however, it is most important that John Oliver is hilarious. This show isn't as impactful, popular, or critically adored if it isn't jaw droppingly funny. If this show wasn't funny it would be the most depressing show on TV (take this Lethal Injection piece, for example). Attached for the example of a show, I used the seriously depressing topic of Family Separations at the Border. If this doesn't illustrate how important, and how funny in the face of disparity, "Last Week Tonight" is, I don't know what will.
3. "Conan" (2010 — Now)
Conan is the most peculiar case for a host on my list. While I don't think he made the best Late Night show at any point, he certainly has two in the top 10, which is genuinely insane. The level of skill that takes is hard to articulate. On top of that, his more recent work is the better show. That may be the most impressive thing to say about Coco throughout his career. He got better! As Conan transitions into the modern media landscape we grow closer to him as audience members. Conan has to get credit for being ahead of the curve; he started a show companion podcast called "Conan O'Brien Needs a Friend" and his show "Conan" has transitioned to a 30 minute run-time with only one guest. While O'Brien may not retire as the GOAT, it's time we discuss his positioning on Mt. Rushmore.
Here's hoping that his career continues to age like a fine red hairdo.
2. "The Late Show with David Letterman" (1993 — 2015)
Honestly, this is why I had to make the distinction of "show vs personality" in the preamble of this piece. David Letterman IS the model Late Night host. He is widely considered the living GOAT (6:52 in the Norm clip for his take on the matter) and has secured the bag with Netflix after he hung up his Late Show jersey. No singular Late Night talk show changed the game more than this one. Before this, Letterman had a Daytime talk show with much of the same content/spirit about the show, but it simply was too ahead of its time.
When Letterman finally ended up with CBS on "The Late Show" (which is a long story) he revolutionized the format. He was silly, irreverent, dry, and funnier than just about anyone alive. His episodes were appointment viewing for college students in the 90s, and — get this — he even made lists!
Letterman had a rocky career, filled with backstabbing and even blackmail, but it matters that he always found a home to tell jokes. Perhaps the greatest "What if?" in Late Night history is what if Letterman got "The Tonight Show."
Bonus points for being the one dude on TV proudly repping a front-teeth-gap.
1. "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" (1999 — 2015)
For many Jon Stewart represented a voice of reason in a world that seemed to decay by the minute. The only option we had to process the horrors of the Bush Administration and the racist backlash of the Obama, was to hope Stewart had something funny to say about it all ... and he always did.
Not just funny, but hilarious. A lot can be said about Stewart's character (especially given his recent stint in securing funding for 9/11 First Responders) and how he was never afraid to hold anyone's feet to the fire. Whether Democrat or Republican, he was never here for the BS. Stewart grew cult-like fame from his appearances on "Crossfire" tangling with a younger Tucker Carlson, or his legendary 'debates' with Bill O'Reilly. No matter how morally superior Stewart clearly was to these people, above all, he was a comedian.
Often time right-wing pundits *ahem* critique satire as politically biased. Well, considering satirists aren't journalists, that's OK. Stewart always made it clear he was a comedian first. And if that statement didn't convince you, the barrage of comedic genius that would soon follow did the job. Stewart had genuine longevity on a relatively small network. He held tremendous influence in every social sphere he existed in. The roster of brilliance that came through "The Daily Show" is almost incomparable. Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Ed Helms, Hasan Minhaj, Larry Wilmore, Al Madrigal ... I mean the list of people is so successful I just got a Pilot from listing less than half of them.
Everything great about this show was due in some part to Stewart. He was an auteur who was as kind as he was cuttingly funny. I often wondered if they should just name the "Variety Show" category at the Emmy's the annual Jon Stewart Award. This show has changed the way every Late Night show presents political commentary. I hope we see more Stewart in the future. If not, I'd like to thank him for the thousand Moments of Zen.
"Space Ghost Coast to Coast" (2001 — 2008)
An incredible take on the Late Night Talk Show format, as audacious in vision as "The Larry Sanders Show." (Adult Swim)Giphy
"Real Time with Bill Maher" (2003 — Now)
Maher is faher from perfect, but there's no denying his longevity. (HBO)Giphy
"Full Frontal with Samantha Bee" (2016 — Now)
Bee is unfortunately the only woman-led show to make the list - the industry needs to be better. (TBS)Giphy
Follow Alejandro on Twitter and Instagram @AtSignAlejandro or @WhyNautsComedy for more content.