Late night television is a night owl's guilty pleasure. From celebrity interviews to hot new musical performances and witty commentary on current events, late night hosts have kept us entertained far past our bedtimes for decades. While some hosts have come and gone, others have managed to become a permanent part of our evening entertainment lexicon. In the new Amazon flick "Late Night," Emma Thompson stars as Katherine Newbury, a late night TV host who teams up with one of her new staff writers, played by Mindy Kaling, in an attempt to save the show. In celebration of the film's debut on June 7, 2019, Wonderwall.com is looking back at the best in late night TV. Keep reading to see who made the list…
Comedian, actor and singer Jimmy Fallon once called "Saturday Night Live" home but in 2014, he was asked to take the helm of "The Tonight Show," replacing legendary host Jay Leno. Since his debut episode, Jimmy's interviewed several political leaders including Barack Obama and Donald Trump, performed on stage with some of the biggest names in music like Bruce Springsteen and Justin Timberlake, and snagged two Primetime Emmy Awards along the way.
His name is synonymous with late night television and his legacy is one that won't soon be forgotten. From 1962 to 1992, Johnny Carson hosted the premiere series "The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson." For nearly 30 years, Johnny and sidekick Ed McMahon entertained the throngs of viewers who stayed awake long enough to watch the show. Some of Johnny's most famous moments on the air included telling a voluptuous Dolly Parton he would give a year's pay to peek under her blouse and impersonating legendary country music singer Willie Nelson. On Johnny's last episode, Bette Midler sang a touching rendition of "One More for My Baby (and One for the Road)" as a sweet serenade bidding the legendary host adieu.
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Thanks to legendary TV host David Letterman, we have not one but two late night TV shows to enjoy. His first late night incarnation was "Late Night with David Letterman," which he hosted from 1982 until 1993. He wasn't done with late night TV after 1993, though. In fact, that very year, he launched "The Late Show with David Letterman," which ran until 2015, which is when he finally retired and handed over the reins to comedian Stephen Colbert. We missed David when he went off the air, but his hiatus didn't last for too long. In 2018, he began hosting his own talk show, "My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman," on Netflix. The show's second season premiered in May 2019.
His was the chin that launched a thousand episodes. In 1992, dazzling blue-eyed funnyman Jay Leno stepped in for Johnny Carson, the host of "The Tonight Show" for nearly 30 years, and made a name for himself on late night television. His tenure on the show led to a contentious time in late night TV between himself and competitor David Letterman, whom everyone believed would become the next "King of Late Night." In 2009, Jay briefly retired and passed the reins to Conan O'Brien so Jay could take a turn at primetime television on "The Jay Leno Show," but the results were disastrous. Less than six months after the swap, NBC pushed Jay's new show into late night, causing Conan to quit and Jay to return as the host of "The Tonight Show" once more. Jay spent a few more years commanding the series before officially and finally turning it over to Jimmy Fallon in 2014.
Larry King is best known for his 25 years on CNN with "Larry King Live," which wasn't actually a late-night show (he held a primetime slot). However, when Larry retired from the network in 2010, he was quick to pick up a new series, 2012's "Larry King Now," which is a late night broadcast with a similar format to his previous show. Staying true to his old-fashioned interview style, Larry mixes casual conversation with astute observation, giving us a window into the lives and minds of the leaders, celebrities and everyday people he brings on air. By the way, he's in his mid-80s and still bringing the heat.
While he might share the same first name with another late night talk show host, there is no one quite like Jimmy Kimmel. Since 2003, the irreverent comedian, producer, writer and host has been a staple on late night TV. Although his show is called "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" it hasn't actually aired live since the first season. No matter! Fans can't get enough of Jimmy's hilarity — including his on-the-street interviews, during which he questions everyday people about complex issues (with painfully funny responses), his requests for parents to videotape themselves tricking their kids into tears (mean and yet so funny), his "Mean Tweets" series and his ongoing "feud" with nemesis Matt Damon.
While many of us are too young to even recognize the name Steve Allen, he's an important figure in the world of late night television. In fact, it was Steve himself who developed the format for what we know as late night TV today. Combining wacky pranks (like covering himself in oatmeal) with popular celebrity interviews in a variety-type show, Steve cracked the code on what made late night television so much fun to watch. His original program, "Tonight Starring Steve Allen," first began as a locally-aired broadcast in New York City in 1953 before NBC picked up the series nationally in 1954 and renamed it "The Tonight Show," which Steve hosted until 1957. Later hosts include Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and finally, Jimmy Fallon, who's hosted "The Tonight Show" since 2014.
From 2007 to 2014, comedian Chelsea Handler did the unthinkable — she hosted her own late night television show, "Chelsea Lately," and proved that even a female-led after-hours series could succeed. Combining a revolving cast of celebrity guests and commentators who dished on Hollywood gossip, current events and what they ate for lunch, Chelsea's late-night offerings were both witty and hilarious, giving female viewers the representation they deserved. Although Chelsea's since moved on from the E! Network to host her own Netflix show, "Chelsea," we've still got major love for her.
Conan O'Brien is the host with the most — hosting gigs, that is! Conan has headlined some of the biggest late night shows in the biz, including "Late Night" from 1993 to 2009, "The Tonight Show" in 2010 and finally "Conan," where he's been entertaining us for the past nine years. Not surprisingly, this talented writer and comedian got his start in Hollywood as a writer for "Saturday Night Live" and "The Simpsons" before becoming one of our favorite hosts. What we love most is how Conan makes himself the butt of his own jokes (did you watch his "Origin Story" in 2015?), which never ceases to be funny.
Andy Cohen might not be the first guy who pops into your mind when you think of late night TV hosts, but that's exactly what he is and, let's be real, he does it so well. He's basically the Ryan Seacrest of Bravo TV (the dude is everywhere!) but it's his late night show, "Watch What Happens Live," that proves he can mix and mingle with the biggest and baddest celebs in Hollywood while keeping us thoroughly entertained. We love Andy's word of the night drinking game that guarantees all his viewers are total lushes almost as much as we love how little patience Andy has for letting his famous guests talk longer than him.
In 2014, former "Saturday Night Live" writer and "Weekend Update" co-anchor Seth Meyers became the fourth host of the long-running series "Late Night," which was originally conceived in 1982 by iconic host David Letterman. While Seth might have had some big shoes to fill (and so many pairs too!), he's done quite well over the past few years. Not only has he managed to keep the ratings strong, but his smart, hilarious writing (honed from his days on "SNL") has earned him Emmy nods in 2017 and 2018.
Jon Stewart didn't just host "The Daily Show" (one of the most popular late night shows in television history) but he transformed the idea of late night TV into something that was as intellectually stimulating as it was entertaining. From 2003 to 2015, Jon offered us political commentary and piercing humor that guided us through some of the biggest moments of our lives. Thanks to Jon, talking about the current political climate on late night TV is now as normal as interviewing celebrities about their next blockbusters.
Although it's only been four years since Stephen Colbert took over the "Late Show" from longtime host David Letterman, he's already proven himself to be a strong force in late night. Stephen's trademark intellectual humor and willingness to get wacky has served him well, especially as he creeps higher in the ratings (in the spring of 2019, he beat Jimmy Fallon's "The Tonight Show" as he drew bigger Nielsen ratings among young adult viewers). In 2017, Stephen hosted the 69th Annual Primetime Emmys, where he was also nominated for writing and producing his talk show. He received two additional Emmy noms in 2018.
Twenty years and three hosts after "The Late Late Show" first debuted, British comedian, actor and singer James Corden took the helm and turned the seriously late program (it airs Wednesdays at 12:37 AM) into a thing of beauty. Since 2015, the plucky host has turned himself into a late night and YouTube sensation, in big part because of his ingenious segment "Carpool Karaoke," which pairs him with a celebrity (like Jennifer Lopez, Justin Bieber, Michelle Obama or Elton John) in a car singing hit songs.
He might have only been a late night host from 1989 to 1994, but Arsenio Hall of "The Arsenio Hall Show" broke major ground while on the air. The shoulder-pad aficionado was the first African American man to host a late night show in history, which makes him kind of a big deal. With his signature "woof woof woof" call and groovy dance moves, Arsenio brought a youthful energy and much needed diversity to the late night small screen, paving the way for future hosts like Magic Johnson, Chris Rock and even Trevor Noah. Arsenio returned to the late night circuit in 2013, but that show was canceled one year later.
Love him or hate him, it's hard to talk about late night without mentioning Bill Maher. Since 2003, the sardonic and at times cynical host of the HBO late night series "Real Time with Bill Maher" has been a steady presence on screen, creating some of the biggest late night controversies to date. In 2017, Bill infamously used the N-word on air, which led to numerous calls for his resignation. While Bill apologized, many felt it was the last straw for the host who'd previously compared former One Direction singer Zayn Malik to the Boston Marathon Bomber and defended Milo Yiannopoulos' claim that laws restricting transgender people from bathroom access were safer for women and children. HBO responded to the controversy by renewing the contentious star's contract, and the TV Academy even nominated him for an Emmy.
If you don't have HBO, you're missing out on "Game of Thrones" and "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" — which basically means you're not living life to the fullest. "GOT" jokes aside, John Oliver has won our allegiance to his late night show with his hilarious blend of sarcasm and wit, giving us the right amount of political banter and safe emotional space to laugh at the current state of affairs. It's clear this British correspondent knows a thing or two about late night entertainment.
When Comedy Central announced the relatively unknown Trevor Noah would replace Jon Stewart as the host of "The Daily Show," fans and critics scratched their heads in confusion. Just who was this guy? But once the South African comedian took the coveted seat Jon held for 12 years, it was clear why he was the best possible choice for the show. Not only did Trevor bring some much needed diversity to the historically all-white late night line-up, but his impressive talent and spot-on humor has endeared him to fans. He also found time to publish a memoir, "Born a Crime," while also starring on his own Netflix comedy special, "Trevor Noah: Afraid of the Dark."
Robin Thede made history when she began hosting "The Rundown with Robin Thede" on BET in 2017. At the time, she was the only black female host on late night television. The show, which provided funny social commentary on today's headlines along with parodies and sketch comedy, was canceled in 2018 after one season. While we'll miss "The Rundown," we'll forever be grateful to Robin for paving the way for other women of color!
Women are notoriously absent from the bro's-club of late night, but times, they are a changing! In February 2016, Samantha Bee, who previously appeared on "The Daily Show," struck out on her own with the launch of her own almost-late night series, "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee." (Due to its time slot at 10:30 PM, "Full Frontal" is technically primetime, but it's so close to the 11 PM boundary of late-night, we couldn't help but include it.) Since its inception, Samantha has used her platform to make us laugh while forcing us to face contentious issues like the presidential election, women's rights and more. In 2017, she won her first Emmy and in 2018 she was nominated for five Emmy awards.
Busy Philipps brought a whole new brand of humor to her late night TV show, "Busy Tonight." The talk show, which debuted on E! in 2018, focused on "everyone's favorite unfiltered Hollywood best friend giving her hilarious and outspoken opinions on the latest pop culture stories" and featured celebrity guests and comedy segments. We couldn't get enough of Busy's show, but network execs decided to pull the plug in 2019. Busy vowed to shop her show to other networks, so here's hoping we'll get another season soon!
Although Dennis Miller's HBO late night series "Dennis Miller Live" has long been off air, he deserves a mention. The former "Saturday Night Live: Weekend Update" commentator was both brilliant and funny, making him a natural pick for his own late night series. The show ran from 1994 to 2002, and Dennis developed a reputation for saying it like it is, whether "it" was about celebrities, current events or politics. While his political leanings have shifted more to the conservative side over the years, the early days of "Dennis Miller Live" were some of the most refreshing and hilariously astute on late night television.
We were truly bummed when Chris Hardwick's wickedly funny late night program, "@midnight," ended in July 2017 after four successful years and 600 episodes. The unusual celebrity game-show-style series launched numerous hilarious Twitter hashtags and proved millennials know how to have fun after hours too. Thankfully, the Internet lives forever, so we can relive the magic for years to come. As for Chris, he still hosts a legion of after-shows on AMC, including "Talking Dead," "Talking Preacher" and "Talking Saul," as well as "Talking with Chris Hardwick," which covers a wide range of topics.