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The Kings of American Late Night TV

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Emmanuel Alejandro
| October 8, 2021
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Call me an old soul. There’s something charming about watching television shows before the age of YouTube, particularly shows made here in the United States. They’re a time capsule of what’s happened in the past. The trends, the fashion, even the way people talked during the time are always fascinating to watch. What’s more interesting are the late night talk shows that have been in syndication for decades now. The shows are legendary, but the hosts are more famous than the shows themselves. Here are the hosts that stood out above the crowd.

“Here’s Johnny!” – The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson

Johnny Carson on set (MCT)

That catchphrase was on TVs all across America from 1962 until his retirement in 1992. Johnny Carson was the King of Late Night television on NBC’s third iteration of The Tonight Show. Much of what late night is today was based on Johnny’s show format. Without sidekicks like Carson’s Ed McMahon, there wouldn’t be sidekicks such as Andy Richter from Conan, Steve Higgins from the current Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, or even Geoff Peterson from The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Band leaders on late shows like Paul Shaffer, Questlove, and Jon Batiste all follow the legacy of Doc Severinsen, who led his own orchestra on Carson. Johnny’s format was timeless. 

Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson (The New York Times)
Johnny Carson (right) with long-time colleague Ed McMahon. (The New York Times)

In a tribute episode of The Late Show with David Letterman when Johnny Carson passed away in 2005, Letterman remarked that everyone who hosts a late night talk show wants to do their version of The Tonight Show. Sure, they can emulate him, but they can never be him. 

What was even more memorable about Carson were the sketches he took part of during his tenure on The Tonight Show. One of the most iconic recurring sketches was Carnac the Magnificent. Ed McMahon hypes up the audience as he introduces Carnac, the turbaned seer from the East, played by Carson. He walks onto the stage, always stumbling on a step before he takes a seat. He predicts the question inside a “hermetically” sealed envelope that was locked away in a mayonnaise jar at a local sporting goods store since noon that day (or something like that). He would then hold the envelope to his head and utter the answer to the question inside. He would open the envelope, blow on it to take the card out, and read the punchline. 

Here are some of Carnac’s predictions over the years:

  • Quark: Describe the sound of a five pound chicken laying a ten pound egg.”
  • An apple a day: What’s a minimum wage for a fruit fly?”
  • Blood sugar: What should a vampire cut down when he is on a diet?”
  • Sis-Boom-Bah: Describe the sound when a sheep explodes.”

Check out this Carnac sketch where he delivers one of these great punchlines:

When a prediction falls flat, Carnac would say something snarky. When Ed hands the seer the last envelope, the audience applauds knowing the sketch is ending, to which Carnac says something even snarkier.

While interviewing guests, Carson still is the star of the show as he highlights his guests and what they’re up to. Whether or not the guests were pleasant or the questions were tough, Johnny would always make the topic entertaining. The audience still gets a kick no matter what guest is on the show.

Check out Johnny with Dom Deluise in 1974 letting the comedian do his work:


“Ladies and Gentlemen, Dick Cavett!” – The Dick Cavett Show

Dick Cavett on set (ABC Photo Archives)

A former writer on Carson’s The Tonight Show, Dick Cavett hosted The Dick Cavett Show on ABC opposite Carson on NBC from 1969-1975. It was a competition, albeit a friendly one, to see who will be a ratings juggernaut. However, Carson reigned in the rating every single time. Then, while Carson stayed on one network, Cavett’s show moved to CBS in 1975 and bounced around between networks for two more decades.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono with Dick Cavett (BBC)
John Lennon and Yoko Ono were guests on the Dick Cavett Show. (BBC)

What makes Cavett one of the Kings of Late Night? While Carson was flamboyant and full of pizzazz, Cavett showed his chill side and focused more on the interview than lighthearted sketches. Instead of asking 21 questions or showing his dominance as a host, he would always be level with the guest.

As a result of this focus, Cavett breaks the late night show mold by bringing in guests that are not common to late night: legendary Spanish painter Salvador Dali, film director Truman Capote, and even film mogul Orson Welles. It was the counterculture of what was going on with late night at the time, which was more about that Carson-like pizzazz. Cavett’s interview approach was a big contrast, too. Carson would have multiple guests on to promote their stuff for a few minutes at a time, but Cavett brought in a single guest and let them be themselves and show. 

Check out below with Cavett interviewing Jimi Hendrix discussing his life as a musician taking off to stardom:

In this interview clip, you can see that Cavett brings out more of his guests with his cool and laissez faire demeanor. And the guests are comfortable to share more of themselves as the interview goes along. The guests, and even Cavett himself, often got lost in the conversation and forgot there was a show still going on!


“From New York, The Greatest City of the World!” – Late Show with David Letterman

David Letterman monologue (Getty Images)

David Letterman is what I grew up with watching late night TV. My uncle, who worked as an accountant at CBS at the time, would always joke at family dinners, “When will Dave pick up his paycheck because he doesn’t have time to pick them up? He’s that popular!” The Late Show was my lullaby to an arduous day in college and my early career. His humor always finds ways for me to laugh.

Ed Sullivan Theater during Late Show with David Letterman (Shutterstock)That’s the genius of Letterman’s hosting that made him a clear King of Late Night. He didn’t shy away from the norms of what comedy should be. He blazed his own brand of comedy to entertain the masses. And the audience would soak that all in.

That unique brand included bits like his regular visits to local deli owner Rupert Jee, who owns Hello Deli in the Ed Sullivan Theater building that was home to Dave’s show. Dave would send him out to do random tasks for the show: wait tables obnoxiously, sing a song from the movie Frozen, or even skydive! It was often when the show had run out of ideas for sketches that week that Rupert was brought along for the ride.

Here’s a clip of Rupert Jee taking a leap of faith in 2005:

While interviewing guests, Letterman would not shy away from letting his guests know what he thought of them or from asking challenging questions like his mentor Johnny Carson. If he finds the guest interesting, he’ll tag along with the guest. If he finds the guest annoying, though, he won’t hold back on how this interview is going nowhere. This interview with Michael Shannon shows what it was like when the interview went well:

Also check the video below of the infamous interview he did with Joaquin Phoenix back in 2009 where an interview seems to go nowhere:

Later on, Phoenix admitted that it was all an act and that the audience and even Letterman himself weren’t even aware of it!

I had the privilege of seeing Letterman live in 2015, and it was a spectacle to see. What’s even more interesting is how his brash comedy becomes more magnified as you see it physically in front of you instead of a TV screen. In the live audience, I got to see Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra play during the commercial breaks. And man they are really talented musicians, something you can’t fully appreciate just watching on TV! The overall atmosphere was ecstatic and full of energy. You just want to keep cheering Dave on to keep him going. Everything was kept under wraps and you’re confined to the studio throughout the taping. Security aside, though, it was a really memorable moment, and not long before his retirement that year!


“It’s a Great Day For America, Everybody!” – The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson

Craig Ferguson on the Late Late Show set (The New Yorker)

Last, I have to include one of the most off-beat and nonchalant hosts I’ve ever watched late at night. I always compare him to the Sour Patch Kids candy: he’s naughty and frisky on some episodes and a sweetheart in others. That man is Scottish comedian Craig Ferguson who hosted The Late Late Show from 2005 to 2014, replacing former host Craig Kilborn. Though he had a shorter run than all the previous hosts in this article, Ferguson left an indelible mark on late night TV.

Craig Ferguson with Geoff Peterson (CBS)
Craig Ferguson and his bony sidekick Geoff Peterson. (CBS)

Every Craig Ferguson episode feels like seeing an improv show. Every joke seemed ad-libbed, and Craig’s spontaneous humor seemed to burst out of nowhere! Even Craig himself would crack up in surprise when the bit worked!

One of these moments happened when he incorporated puppets into the show. But these were no ordinary puppets! These puppets could cuss like a sailor on rum! First was Sid, the foul-mouthed North Londoner white rabbit. Then came Wavy Rancheros, a sassy alligator from Louisiana who constantly waves at the audience and rants at the audience to start the show off right. Wavy was such a hit that he took over hosting duties for the 1,000th episode of The Late Late Show. Here’s a clip of Wavy showing his angry side:

Craig also read viewer mail as a bit in the show, and he answered it in a funny way. When he goes into a tirade is when the real magic happens in those viewer mail portions. And when he swears, there’s always a flag with the country’s language to censor it, way better than just a bleep.

As an interviewer, Craig charmed his guests. He didn’t read and follow his cue cards and ripped them to shreds. And he even got his guests involved in the show’s gags, including things like taking an awkward pause or playing harmonica to end their interview.

Carl Reiner with Craig Ferguson (CBS)
Carl Reiner (left) was a recurring guest on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. (CBS)

One of our editors, Stephanie Watson, added more insight as to why Craig Ferguson is a late show icon. She had the privilege of being in his studio audience in 2007 which taped the same day in the same CBS Studios building where the legendary Bob Barker was taping his final show as host of The Price is Right. Stef remembers that Craig’s audience was really small and intimate. She got to see some parts they taped for future episodes, too, that would air later in the week.

Stef’s favorite moment of the taping was when Craig took time to talk with the audience before the taping and then hint at those side conversations in his monologues. It was like an inside joke only the studio audience would get. She also got to see legendary actor, comedian, and writer Carl Reiner! Similar to my Letterman audience experience, Stef couldn’t leave during the “commercials” while they were taping. Fortunately, they could keep a bottle of water on hand.

James Corden and Craig Ferguson (CBS)
James Corden and Craig Ferguson

Stef’s take on seeing Craig as a host is similar to my own: his sharp wit, quick sense of humor, and warm demeanor really stand out among other late night hosts. He impressed future hosts to continue his same brand of humor and getting the guests in on the gags. His successor, James Corden, took it up a notch with his famous Carpool Karaoke, which is now a viral hit on YouTube.


Some honorable mentions:

Sharing late night fame with these legends are numerous honorable mentions whose impact still has significant weight on the television landscape. Here are a couple of my favorites:

Jay Leno: In the fourth iteration of The Tonight Show, Jay Leno had an opportunity to take over Carson’s duties from 1992 until 2009. What made Leno unique was one of his segments where he took local newspaper clippings and poked fun at them. Then he would create the punchline out of them or just let the clipping do the talking as the audience started to laugh. An interesting aspect of Leno’s interviews was his ability to find a “gotcha” moment, with varying guest reactions.

Check this clip with Hugh Grant about cheating on his then-girlfriend, Elizabeth Hurley, in 1995. Grant was brave enough to come forward about it:

Joan Rivers: The first-ever female host on late-night television, Joan Rivers was a pioneer. She gave credit for her success to Johnny Carson who gave her a shot as a guest host on The Tonight Show. Fox took notice and immediately picked her up to start her own show, The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers, in 1986. Her show lasted one season. What stood out with Rivers was her ability to tell a story through her monologues. She can take any topic and make it relevant to the audience. Her brash, no-nonsense humor clicked with the audience.

Watch this showcase of her work on The Tonight Show and her fabulous monologues:

Given all these legendary shoes to fill, what does the future hold for late night? 

Late night veteran Conan O’Brien made an online presence by creating his own podcast, Conan Needs A Friend, and conducting longer interviews much like Cavett did on television. 

Jimmy Fallon and The Roots with Ed Sheeran (NBC)
In the current iteration of The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon and The Roots often perform with their music guests, sometimes using kids’ classroom instruments. Here, they’re performing “Shape of You” with Ed Sheeran.

Jimmy Fallon keeps the current iteration of The Tonight Show powered by entertainment much like Carson’s. Fallon plays games with guests like Slap Jack in which a player who busts on a game of blackjack gets smacked by a giant foam hand. 

Stephen Colbert, now hosting The Late Show, brings his iconic political satire to the late night landscape. 

The groundwork for these modern hosts was laid by the legends. Carson, Cavett, Letterman, and Ferguson blazed the trail of late night television, and the future night lights shine bright for both traditional primetime and modern online mediums.

So which of these kings of late night would you like to see more of? What are your favorite late night hosts from other countries? Share those in the comments and let’s discuss!

Stephen Colbert selfie with David Letterman
Stephen Colbert (left) taking a selfie with his Late Show predecessor David Letterman. (KPCW)

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