Arts & Culture


If your dream is to become a late-night talk show host, good luck.

There aren’t many openings, and the hosts tend to like their jobs.

After all, it’s good work if you can get it. Late-night hosts are paid millions to interview interesting people. Meanwhile, millions of people welcome them into their homes every night.

With “The Late Late Show” host Craig Ferguson coming to San Luis Obispo to perform stand-up — and with that whole Conan-Leno thing still hot off the presses — we thought this would be a good time to rank the Top Ten List of hosts from the past 20 years.

Some — like Joan Rivers, Magic Johnson and Alan Thicke — didn’t last long enough to make an impression. And Carson Daly, well—he’s just not funny.

Johnny Carson

Carson wasn’t the first late-night host, but he was the longest-lasting — and he set the standard that all others have emulated. After taking over “The Tonight Show” from Jack Paar in 1962, he became a fixture of late night, and generations went to bed with Johnny (so to speak).

The good: He was the first to make stars out of comics (especially if they wowed him enough to get invited to sit and talk with him). Ed McMahon was the perfect comic foil, who once gave fodder to Carson’s alcohol jokes by doing a show while obviously drunk.

The bad: You always felt sorry for the comics who didn’t get invited to the couch after their bit, meaning Johnny wasn’t impressed.

Favorite moments:

Whenever animals from the San Diego Zoo did something unpredictable; Carnac the Magnificent; the emotional second-to-last show — the last to feature guests (Robin Williams and Bette Midler).

David Letterman

Only Johnny Carson hosted late-night TV longer than Letterman, who went on air in 1982. With CBS since 1993, the former weatherman isn’t quite as popular with the college crowd as he once was, but he still has that sarcastic wit and self-deprecating humor that has influenced guys like Jon Stewart.

The good: Regular features like Stupid Pet Tricks and the Top Ten list have endured, and Dave has always been unpredictable — like when he interrupted “The Today Show” with a bullhorn. He also makes celebrities out of regular folks, like Rupert the deli owner.

The bad: A curmudgeon, he looks really unhip with younger stars. Apparently, he can’t keep his hands off the female staffers.

Favorite moments: When Drew Barrymore flashed him as a birthday gift in 1995; uncomfortable interviews with Madonna and Shirley McLaine; how he handled the first show after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Conan O’Brien

After writing for “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons,” Conan O’Brien succeeded David Letterman as the host of NBC’s “Late Night” in 1993. O’Brien moved to “The Tonight Show” in June 2009, but his tenure was short-lived. After a prolonged contract battle with NBC, O’Brien walked away with a $33 million severance package amidst rumors that he may move to Fox.

The good: O’Brien’s brilliance lies in bizarre, funny bits such as In the Year 2000 and Triumph, the Comic Insult Dog, and characters like The Masturbating Bear. Plus, the tall, lanky redhead never hesitates to make fun of his Irish heritage or appearance; his milky complexion is the subject of comedian Jim Gaffigan’s “Pale Force.”

The bad: Poor ratings and reviews plagued “Late Night” for the first three years, and audiences failed to warm to O’Brien’s “Tonight Show.”

Favorite moments: O’Brien’s eerie resemblance to Finnish President Tarja Halonen; jamming with Bruce Springsteen; the U2 episode; the Civil War-era baseball game; Conan’s concussion.

Craig Ferguson

Best known to American audiences as Mr. Wick on “The Drew Carey Show,” this Scottish stand-up comic and onetime punk drum-

mer dabbled in musical theater, television and film before replacing Craig Kilborn as the host of CBS’s “The Late Late Show.” Since taking the helm on Jan. 3, 2005, Ferguson has set all-time viewer records and ratings records.

The good: Ferguson may be the only major-network host without a backup band, but he makes up for it with puppets, musical numbers, celebrity impersonations and regular skits such as Dear Aquaman and Michael Caine in Space.

The bad: Ferguson’s edgy, experimental cold opens turn some viewers off.

Favorite moments: Ferguson’s comical feud with “The Price Is Right” host Bob Barker; the all-puppet episode on Dec. 15, 2009; his touching tributes to his parents and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Bob Costas

Most people know Costas from his career in sports broadcasting. But from 1988-1994, he hosted an interview show, “Later with Bob Costas,” which featured nonsports figures such as Bill Murray, Barry Goldwater, Brooke Shields and Pierre Salinger.

The good: Costas was always well prepared for interviews and asked meaningful questions. With no monologue or bits, interviews were much lengthier than normal talk shows, allowing more depth. When an interview went well, Costas featured the guest on back-to-back nights.

The bad: It was on way too late (1:30 a.m.), so many never saw it.

Favorite moments: Three-part interviews with Paul McCartney and Walter Cronkite.

Jay Leno

With his mammoth chin, silver mane and peculiar patois, Jay Leno has been the butt of show business jokes for years. He’s also one of late-night television’s biggest movers and shakers. The comedian first stirred things up when he replaced Johnny Carson as host of “The Tonight Show” in 1992, bumping rival David Letterman. Leno stepped down in May 2009, only to return to “Tonight” (the first show of his second tenure will be on March 15) after ratings lagged for primetime effort “The Jay Leno Show.”

The good: Leno has made his “Tonight Show” reputation with several recurring segments, including Headlines, Jaywalking and Ask the Fruitcake Lady.

The bad: After the public relations disaster known as “Lenogate,” Jay may be the most hated man in late night — right after NBC executive Jeffrey Zucker, that is.

Favorite moments: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial campaign; Colin Farrell’s stalker; President Barack Obama’s “Tonight Show” visit — the first such appearance by a sitting U.S. president.

Jimmy Kimmel

Radio personality Jimmy Kimmel made his reputation as a loutish everyman on “Win Ben Stein’s Money” and “The Man Show” before making his latenight debut in 2003 with ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” Although no longer “live,” he continues to be the only late-night host who doesn’t tape in the afternoon.

The good: Celebrity gossip and current events are popular targets for Kimmel, who frequently features his relatives ( “Uncle Frank” Potenza) and coworkers (parking lot security guard Guillermo Díaz Rodriguez) in comedy skits.

The bad: If you’re not a fan of Comedy Central’s “Crank Yankers,” Kimmel’s comedy can come across as a bit crude.

Favorite moments: Episodes directed by Quentin Tarantino and J.J. Abrams; “I’m (Bleep)ing Matt Damon”; Andy Dick misbehaving; his recent appearance on “The Jay Leno show.”

Arsenio Hall

When the late night wars were escalating, Arsenio Hall joined the fray. From 1988 to 1994, his syndicated “The Arsenio Hall Show” brought a younger, hipper, urban audience to late night. His audiences were known for their barks of approval with raised, circling fists that became a pop culture rally cry outside the show.

The good: With a greater variety of guests, Halls’ show was more accessible to different ethnicities, yet he didn’t exclude any race or age group. His Things That Make You Go Hmmm bit was so popular it inspired the hit C + C Music Factory song of the same name.

The bad: After a while, those fist pumps got annoying.

Favorite moments: Then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton played sax on the Elvis tune “Heartbreak Hotel”; when Hall interviewed “Friday the 13th” slasher Jason Vorhees.

Craig Kilborn

Before Jon Stewart, Kilborn was the host of “The Daily Show.” And when he took over “The Late Late Show” in 1999, he became the second tall redheaded late-night TV host. Pleasing his “Daily Show” fan base, Kilborn carried some of his regular features over to CBS.

The good: Those carried over “Daily Show” bits, including segments on the news and his trademark Five Questions, where he asks guests trivia-type questions, like (to Ted Danson): “I’m thinking of a 2-foot long piece of bread —what is it?”

The bad: At times, Kilborn could come off as a little smug (though nothing like Carson Daly). A former ESPN guy, his comedic chops weren’t as honed as the hosts who came from standup.

Favorite moments: Theme songs written by Chris Isaak and Neil Finn; musical guests like Yes, Joe Jackson and Morrissey.

Jimmy Fallon

A “Saturday Night Live” cast member from 1998 to 2004, Jimmy Fallon released a comedy album, hosted the MTV Music Awards and starred in the movies “Taxi” and “Fever Pitch” before succeeding Conan O’Brien as the host of “Late Night” on March 2, 2009.

The good: Who else can boast about having Grammy Award-winning hip-hop act The Roots as a house band? Fallon tends to skew younger than other latenight hosts, displaying equal comfort with video games and social media.

The bad: Fallon’s skits —Wheel of Carpet Samples and Lick It for Ten, for instance — just can’t compare to O’Brien’s “Late Night” highlights.

Favorite moments: Steve Martin and Paul Simon jamming; playing Wii golf with Tiger Woods.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune