Talk shows can serve many purposes. They can offer celebrity interviews, commentary on the cultural moments that have hit the zeitgeist, or just a good laugh. But the most essential piece a talk show must have is an energetic, attention-grabbing host. They must be someone that can bring in the audience and find a rhythm that makes everyone watching come back for more. It’s one of the big reasons why everyone wants a good Oscar host. We want that same feeling on Hollywood’s biggest night that we get from a variety of hosts on a weekly basis.
The hosts that can find the right balance become legends, with careers that can span decades. Whether they were getting audiences through their mornings, afternoons, nights or late nights, the names on this list showed that they could be entertaining while also thought-provoking, becoming legends of the small screen in the process.
A controversial first pick, Bill Maher is one of the most fascinating voices in talk show history. He has made a name in the industry for his constant line stepping, open forum discussions and brutal interview style. But through all the backlash, he has made some of the best political humor on television for the last 30 years.
Starting on “Politically Correct” and now on “Real Time with Bill Maher”, the host isn’t afraid of bringing up any topic or bringing on any person to his forum. Maher’s editorializations at the end of his ‘New Rules’ segment are some of the most important pieces of comedy on television. While viewers may not agree with him on a lot of issues, he fearlessly goes where others don’t on a weekly basis. Maher won’t win any popularity contests but he will continue to be the most honest voice in all of late night.
From playing a spoofed republican version of Jon Stewart on “The Colbert Report” to just being himself on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” the eponymous host has truly played both sides of the coin. While one gig involved a character and the other was his true self, Colbert was the same charming, Tolkien expert and host that audiences love. With deep, introspective interview skills and an engaging personality, all fans can do is smile when they think about Stephen Colbert.
While many in the United States find their “fun” late night host in the arms of Jimmy Fallon and James Corden, you can’t overlook someone across the pond. Graham Norton is one of the kindest yet wildest hosts on television. Always up for a good story – and a good cocktail – Norton provides his celebrity guests with one of the best experiences in all of late night. He may not be breaking the internet with YouTube videos like the aforementioned leads, but he is providing one of the most fun atmospheres on the telly to watch. His show is a full-on party at times and Norton welcomes us in with a cocktail to boot.
While not a comedian like most of the entries on this list, it can’t be denied the legend that is Larry King. King was the interviewing king on CNN for many years. He would interview just about anyone and talk about anything that came to his mind. Sometimes it felt like he just came up with topics on the spot. He even took calls from folks all around the world and spontaneity and comedy to the mix. It was like a guessing game to see which city or country the call was going to come from and if he was going to say the location correctly. Above all that, King is a gentleman and was a staple for the modern cable news shows style of conducting interviews when he hosted.
Talk about someone that has seen it all in Hollywood. Conan O’Brien went from being a writer on “Saturday Night Live” and “The Simpsons” to replacing David Letterman on “Late Night.” Following that gig he replaced Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show,” only to be replaced by Leno and kicked off “The Tonight Show” and finally earned his own show – “Conan” on TBS. O’Brien has been through hell and back again throughout his career. Yet through it all, Conan has maintained a silly, wacky tone from each show that makes him a perfect host.
He is a unique talent in that fans don’t really know why he works, they just know that he is hilarious and that O’Brien has so much fun with everyone he interviews. Plus, now that his show is only 30 minutes, O’Brien can leave fans wanting more while still bringing them the same zany entertainment night after night.
From stand up to television star, who would have thought that the voice of Dory from “Finding Nemo” would become the face of contemporary daytime talk shows. Taking the best parts of talk shows that came before her, DeGeneres was able to bring her own style and brand to afternoon TV. From her pranks, to scaring her guests and having moving moments that touch audiences, everyone has fallen in love with the comedian with the great dance moves. She makes fans forget about the complexities of the world and simplifies issues with love and kindness at the forefront. While still being a sharply funny comedian, she has slowly become one of the most recognizable hosts in television, one dance move at a time.
If audiences are lucky to stay up all night long, then they would know this man as the pioneer of late, late night television. David Letterman was a king of dye humor and playing by his own rules. He was on after Johnny Carson, so he did what none of us would do – whatever he wanted – and it worked. Once he left “Late Night”, Letterman moved to his own show, “The Late Show with David Letterman,” where he continued to play by his own rules. Always ready with a Top 10 for the day along with questions to frustrate his guests, Letterman is the best version of an antihero talk show host you will ever find.
All the late night hosts fans read about on the list looked up to one man: Johnny Carson. He was the most popular host in all of television. Carson was also the first true late night host that left a cultural footprint. People young and old stayed up as late as they could just to see his opening monologue. It was the pinnacle of someone’s career to come on “The Tonight Show” and sit down with Carson, making them a star. But above all that influence, he was as funny as anyone ever was on television. While there have been many hosts of “The Tonight Show” that have come and gone, none of them will match the original king of late night.
Oprah is the biggest name in the world and the best daytime talk show host of all time. She revolutionized what hosts could do on a daytime show. One episode she would be interviewing famous people in Hollywood, the next interviewing leaders of the world. In another installment, she would be discussing topics that audiences talked about at their dinner tables every single day. That would all be within one week of episodes.
During her time as a host, Oprah was bold, fierce and understanding. It’s hard to find someone that was as empathetic of a host as Oprah. She bought audiences cars, she new homes, and offered inspirational monologues to everyone she brought on the show. Oprah made daily event television that everyone watched. By the end of her show’s run, fans saw a host leave but the icon has remained.
When he replaced Craig Kelborn on “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart had low expectations. A decent actor that was trying to save a show going nowhere fast. And in a crazy turn of events, Stewart took a middle of the road show and turned it into the most important 30 minutes of daily television. He was the most vital man in late night. One could even make the argument he was the most important man in all of news while simultaneously wearing the hat of a comedian.
Stewart, during his time with the show, wasn’t afraid to tell the truth, calling out both sides of the political aisle. He grilled pop-stars and politicians, treating each the same in interviews. During his time, Stewart built a staff comprised of famous faces the likes of Steve Carell, Ed Helms, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert and many more. He was the voice of a generation. When Stewart left back in 2015, Stewart left a massive void in the cultural landscape. Now semi-retired, he is a living legend, enjoying life outside of television, while helping those that need it most. In conclusion, there will never be someone that can move all of us right before we go to sleep like Jon Stewart.