Late-night talk shows have been an important part of television history since their inception as a popular medium in the 1950s. For many years, the United States had an extremely restricted number of television stations, with only three major networks — NBC, CBS, and ABC — available nationally. This meant that they dominated the late-night talk show landscape, which a whole generation grew up watching. With the expansion of television into cable networks, 24-hour programming, and now streaming via the Internet, there is currently a greater appetite for content and many ways to find it.
These popular talk shows have produced some of the most memorable comedians, as well as some of the most entertaining hosts. Many have even been both, with their shows gaining popularity in many households throughout America since 1949, becoming one of television’s leading programs.
While the format typically includes a monologue and a series of show hosts with prominent guests, it has expanded in numerous ways, with various sponsors making their mark on the medium. Some TV hosts even decide to have no guests and instead speak directly to the audience, carrying the entire program. Now that you know how influential these show hosts can be, here are 20 of the best TV show hosts of all time.
#1 Merv Griffin
Source: The Merv Griffin Show/CBS
The Merv Griffin Show was broadcast on several networks for many years. Arthur Treacher, Griffin’s long-time friend, and mentor served as his co-host. His most famous line on the show was “… and now, here’s the lad himself, Meeer-vin!” which he would remark when the guest list for the episode was announced. Because Griffin’s show achieved such strong ratings, CBS offered him a position on one of their networks for his show. His show was so successful on NBC that it forced the cancellation of The Joey Bishop Show, but it hardly registered on The Tonight Show.
#2 Mike Douglas
The Mike Douglas Show aired nearly 4000 episodes over the course of twenty-one years. By 1967, the show had grown to the point that it was available in 171 markets and had 600 million viewers each day. There was a mix of musical and comedic performances. Douglas would start every program with a musical performance by himself.
#3 Jay Leno
In 1992, Jay Leno took over The Tonight Show from Johnny Carson. Among his many talents, Leno has previously hosted a late-night talk show. Then, in 1986, he began routinely filling in for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. After that, he became his permanent replacement, despite the fact that many people expected David Letterman to take over. This situation was later made into a book and a film. Leno held this post until Conan O’Brien made a deal with NBC to become the new host of The Tonight Show in September 2009. After that, he launched The Jay Leno Show.
#4 Larry King
Source: DIVINA MADONNA
Larry King hosted his own chat program on CNN for twenty-five years. Over the years, King would interview some of the most influential and famous people. He conducted nearly 50,000 interviews during his career. TIME Magazine hailed King the “Master of the Mic,” and TV Guide branded him “the most amazing talk show host on TV ever.” He invited every U.S. President since Gerald Ford to appear on the show. The NAFTA debate with Al Gore and Ross Perot in 1993 was CNN’s highest-rated show.
#5 Jimmy Fallon
Source: E! Online
In 1998, Jimmy Fallon got his big break on Saturday Night Live. However, Fallon has done much more than host chat programs. He is a writer, producer, and actor. From 1998 through 2004, Fallon hosted Saturday Night Live. Because of his popularity on Saturday Night Live, he was able to co-host the 2001 MTV Music Awards and the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards. Lorne Michaels hired him as the host of Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in 2008.
#6 Ellen DeGeneres
Source: USA Today
Ellen DeGeneres first rose to prominence in the 1970s. She was able to host her own show, These Friends Of Mine, which was subsequently renamed Ellen, after numerous appearances on talk shows.
When this show was at its peak, Ellen revealed to the world that she was a lesbian. As a result, the show’s rating dropped, and it was canceled. Her next talk show was canceled four months after it debuted. She was then awarded the daytime talk show The Ellen DeGeneres Show on NBC. With nearly three thousand episodes and over sixty Emmy Award wins, her talk show is clearly her most popular.
#7 Craig Ferguson
Craig Ferguson had some of The Late Late Show’s greatest ratings since it debuted in 1995. He wasn’t the most likely candidate for the job, though, because he had previously been on The Drew Carey Show. His hand puppets were his most remembered act on the show. He’d start the show with them, and they even “hosted” the 1000th episode. The event had several amusing pieces and sketches, as well as improvisation.
#8 Stephen Colbert
Stephen Colbert debuted on The Late Show in 2015, following the departure of David Letterman. Colbert’s stage was moved closer to the audience, making it more intimate than ever. He also used a more enthusiastic style than David Letterman did when he hosted the show.
Although the show included some comedy, he also intended to address current events. His guests included not just celebrities, but also business and political figures.
#9 Dick Cavett
Source: Rolling Stone
Many people are unaware that Dick Cavett was not particularly popular with US President Richard Nixon. President Nixon was outspoken about his contempt for many people in show business in 1971. He wasn’t so enthusiastic about them that he was caught on tape outlining his plot to “ruin” Cavett. Cavett was not a passionate person. In comparison to his opponents, he took a gentler approach to his show.
#10 Joan Rivers
Joan Rivers would begin each program with a monologue about the day’s show’s theme. Joan Rivers was a comedian who received an Emmy Award for Outstanding Talk Show Host in 1990. Johnny Carson was the very first guest on The Joan Rivers Show. Later on, Rivers would first appear on Carson’s show, The Tonight Show.
#11 Phil Donahue
Source: The Phil Donahue Show/NBC
The Phil Donahue Show, like many of the greats, happened by chance. The show began with a live audience discussion in a television studio in Dayton, Ohio. Donahue told the Dayton Daily News in 1996 that “in 1959, he answered an ad in Broadcasting Magazine and wound himself in the news department at WHIO Radio.” While at WHIO, he would anchor newscasts and host the call-in show Conversation Piece. Donahue came to WLWD-TV in 1967 to host the television version of the call-in show, The Phil Donahue Show.
#12 James Corden
Source: The Late Late Show/CBS
James Corden was a Broadway star before he became a talk show icon. He’d even won a Tony for his performance in One Man, Two Guvnors. CBS execs understood they needed him after seeing his performance. Even still, many people had never heard of Corden before he hosted the show. He even claimed that security once refused to let him on set because they didn’t know who he was.
#13 Tom Snyder
Source: The Late Late Show/CBS
The Late Late Show’s inaugural host was Tom Snyder. He was cast by David Letterman, who had complete control over the show. “Fire up a colortini, sit back, relax, and watch the pictures as they fly through the air,” Snyder said on the show. Snyder was notorious for his smoke-filled interviews before it became illegal to smoke on television. Snyder formerly hosted Tomorrow on NBC before taking over The Late Late Show. He hosted this show from 1973 until 1982 when he was succeeded by David Letterman.
#14 Tyra Banks
Source: The Tyra Banks Show/The CW
The Tyra Banks Show was created for all women. Banks’ daily broadcast, which debuted in 2005, addressed a variety of problems. Everything from obesity to fashion was fair game. And women looked forward to hearing Banks take on these issues on a daily basis. In addition to having Banks on the show alone, she would bring in prominent guests to provide their personal perspectives on the issues they would debate. But, in true Tyra Banks manner, she had accomplished far more than hosting a chat show. She re-signed with her modeling agency, IMG Models, a year after The Tyra Banks Show ended.
#15 Jack Paar
Source: Tonight Starring Jack Paar/NBC
Jack Paar began as a temporary host on The Tonight Show before taking over permanently in 1957, after inviting some of the show’s most intriguing guests. Paar was able to get the services of writers Jack Douglas and Paul Keyes to give the show a distinct flavor. Paar would begin each show with a monologue, but he didn’t like these sketches as much as other talk show hosts. To make the monologue more personal, the writers would provide space for Paar to improvise.
#16 Oprah Winfrey
Source: Evening Standard
For 25 seasons, Oprah Winfrey hosted her talk show. It was the highest-rated discussion program in the history of American television. Oprah intended to use the show as a forum to tackle significant issues in the real world. She wished to educate and encourage her viewers through positive experiences. Surprisingly, the show did not profit from the products or books it promoted. Because they did not profit from those activities, it aided the show’s legitimacy. People believed that everything Oprah promoted was wonderful and worth their money.
#17 Bill Maher
Source: Real Time With Bill Maher
Bill Maher began his career as a stand-up comedian. He performed his first stand-up act before graduating, and he thereafter became a comedy club regular. He appeared on The Tonight Show and Steve Allen’s Music Room, among other shows. The following year, in 1993, he debuted his own show, Politically Incorrect.
He’d use humor to mediate debates between entertainers, politicians, and journalists. However, Maher’s show was canceled in 2002 after he made an insensitive joke about 9/11. He began anchoring Real Time With Bill Maher in 2003. On this show, he covers current events with a variety of guests. He is still primarily concerned with current political issues.
#18 Jimmy Kimmel
Jimmy Kimmel began his career as a game show host in 1997. This show, titled Win Ben Stein’s Money, was broadcast on Comedy Central. He appeared on the show from 1997 to 2001. He was also on The Man Show at the time. Kimmel was able to produce numerous new shows as a result of the success of this show. Kimmel departed Comedy Central in 2003 to host Jimmy Kimmel Live! Kimmel admired David Letterman and began to emulate some of his approaches.
As a result, he rose up the ranks and gained mainstream recognition as a late-night mainstay. Although the show’s name implies that it is aired live, it hasn’t since 2004, with a few exceptions. This is due to the network’s inability to censor swear language while the broadcast was live. On nights like the Oscars, they like to keep the program live, although with a brief delay.
#19 Pat Sajak
Source: Guinness World Records
Pat Sajak’s career did not begin on television. Instead, he began his career as a disc jockey for various radio stations. While he was in Vietnam, one of the stations broadcasted Armed Forces Radio. He used to be a weatherman for a small Nashville news station. During his time there, he was noticed by a Los Angeles radio station. Merv Griffin discovered him while he was working in Los Angeles. Sajak attempted to host two different game shows prior to Wheel of Fortune.
#20 Conan O’Brien
Source: Rolling Stone
Prior to Conan, he was the host of The Late Night Show after David Letterman left. He has contributed to Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons. It took him some time to get going on Late Night. The network declined to offer him a long-term contract, so the show was shown at 12:30 a.m. O’Brien departed NBC in 2010 to join TBS, where he hosted his own self-titled show.
TBS said in 2018 that they would reduce his air time from an hour and a half to an hour. O’Brien believed that the extra time would be better spent expanding his web presence. O’Brien’s take program would be used to bring honor to real-world occurrences. He’d also invite celebrities to get to know them better.