Late Night Television Host Power Rankings

July 2, 2012 - 8:00 pm -


The late night talk show lineup is a tough nut to crack, and once you are there, it doesn’t guarantee another guy won’t steal your nuts show. Only the best and the brightest can make it – with exception to George Lopez – and survive in the medium. The comedic timing, interviewing skills and broad likability one must possess is something only a few can muster. And yet, according to a quick – and half hearted – Google search on my part, no one has tried to rank this elite group of talent.


Sure there are the Nielsen television ratings used to determine the traditional winners and losers, but those in my opinion have become irrelevant and faulty, what with the internet and DVR. Quite frankly I am shocked a show’s future – and a host’s salary – is still largely based on these inaccurate numbers. (Note, for those budding entrepreneurs out there, find a better measurement tool for television ratings, and you will be set for life.) Anyway, ratings are too impartial for me, and monster salaries are too unfathomable for me. I prefer biased and subjective rankings. Rankings based specifically on personal feelings and emotions. And with that, I am going to attempt to determine the rightful successor to the consensus Johnny Carson King of Late Night throne.


First though, let me address some late night house cleaning items before we get to the rankings …


R.I.P. – George Lopez – Lopez Tonight – This show went for a different design/format – a lot like Leno’s failed primetime show – and it didn’t work. Lopez’ lack of interviewing skills, mixed with subpar jokes meant the show, and his late night career, were doomed even before Conan came to the network. Proof it isn’t easy to last in the late night realm without any real solid chops or intangibles.


Looking Ahead – Arsenio Hall – <Yet to be Named CBS Show> – I am very much looking forward to Arsenio’s return, even though I am still confused as to where it is going to be placed. I was young during his first run, but in watching Celebrity Apprentice, and old The Arsenio Hall Show clips on YouTube, dude has a fun and relaxed style that hasn’t been around since he left. Granted, I think overall the show won’t live up to the hype that has grown bigger than a Kardashian butt, but I see it doing modestly well and finding a niche in the market.


Honorable Mention – Craig Kilborn – The Daily Show/The Late Late Show – The Minnesota native brought us The Daily Show, and ultimately Jon Stewart. He youth-anized Tom Snyder’s Late Late Show and freshened it up, so much so that it was a solid one-two following Letterman. For whatever personal/professional/emotional reasons he left the arena however, and I have missed him ever since. Kilborn was/is a really charismatic guy, a charmer if you will, and for that he deserved an honorable mention on this list.


Honorable Mention – Jonathan Ross – Friday Night/The Jonathan Ross Show – Most of you have no clue who this is, and that is because he is based in England and you aren’t cultured as much as me. The late night go-to across the pond, and good friend of Ricky Gervais, Mr Ross is by far the best interviewer I have ever witnessed. Never do you catch him even glancing at his note cards – a talent in and of itself – which results in a natural and free flowing conversation with the celebrity guests that allows for some off the wall funny and honest moments to ensue. He would be top three on the list if I chose to go international, but since none of you know about him, I decided to stick to United States hosts; ya damn patriots.


And now, without further ado, I give you the top ten of the Late Night Television Host Power Rankings. Not to be confused of course with Letterman’s Top Ten List, because I don’t want to infringe on any intellectual property … Closed Caption where available.


10) Carson DalyLast Call – The best TRL host ever – who honestly thrived in that environment – and a damn good New Years Eve host, but a paltry talk show host. His normal style talk show was canned early for a more news magazine format, and the show just hasn’t found its wings. Due to the ridiculously late start of the program, it has managed to last longer than anyone would have imagined though. If you thoroughly enjoy finding new bands, that’s about the only reason to tune in. That, or you can’t sleep and are looking for something to put you out …


9) Jay Leno – The Tonight Show – A stand-up comedian first, a conniver second and a talk show host third. Leno doesn’t have much outside of jokes, and even those have become simple zingers at best, jokes that most anyone could come up with now on Twitter, and a lot do. His go to move is simply reading misprints in newspapers – seriously? – and his interviewing skills are on the level of a high school newspaper reporter. With two scandals now, his congeniality is non-existent. (One time, understandable, but a second makes you question one’s integrity.) The numbers for The Tonight Show are still leading the way which is befuddling to me, and makes me wonder who are the blue hairs watching and how are Nielsen numbers considered accurate?!


8) Stephen ColbertThe Colbert Report – A lot of people prefer the mystic Colbert to his lead in Stewart, but I have never understood the praise. A made up character, on a made up news show, it just seems too scripted for my taste. In general, I have always got a guarded and dirty feeling from him. Not sure if that is him hiding behind the character or if he is just a really unhappy fellow, but I prefer my late night hosts to be honest and forthcoming, something he just isn’t.


7) Jimmy FallonLate Night – Could he fawn over his guests anymore? He’s like a dog humping every single person that comes through the door. Fallon is a funny guy, nobody can dispute that, and the gimmicks and guest bits him and his staff come up with are clever. His frustratingly overbearing laugh though can’t be ignored, nor can his inability to sit still. Jimmy is ultimately a big kid, and his version of Late Night comes across a lot like a McDonalds indoor playground mixed with Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Something that just doesn’t jive with my style. Until he gets neutered and calms down a bit, I can’t watch.


This leads me to another problem I have with Fallon. He does commercials – Capital One – and at times I am forced to watch him. If you have a late night gig, you shouldn’t have to – or more specifically want to – lower yourself to that level. Yea, they may throw a bunch of money at you and it’s hard to turn down, but still, he isn’t even the number one spokesmen for their brand, that would be Alec Baldwin. While on this tirade, Leno too has resorted to this move with the new Burger King campaign. Again I say why?! Leno has more green than a rain forest and no children. Doesn’t seem like he should have any reason to sell chicken nuggets on top of his $25 M or whatever salary.


6) Chelsea HandlerChelsea Lately – An irreverent and unapologetic chick is my kind of broad, but outside of that she isn’t that strong in this realm. A round table of unknown comedians isn’t what I want to see on a nightly basis, and as a crutch, is proof she can’t carry the show herself. Her interview style isn’t so much bullying, as it is a pulpit for self promotion, which grows more and more tiresome. She got the gig, she has a bazillion Twitter followers, she doesn’t need any more support. I prefer my Chelsea on stage or at the bar.


5) Conan O’BrienConan – The Conan on Late Night, just prior to his run on The Tonight Show, was without a doubt the top of his game. He found a rhythm in the format, and kicked funny ass at it. The whole Tonight Show fiasco killed his already fragile confidence, and left a sad puppy to mope around until TBS came along to adopt him. The return of sidekick Andy Richter hasn’t helped the shaken Conan, he never did. Richter is a funny guy, but seeks adulation even more so than Conan does, which ultimately hampers Conan’s ability to get comfortable. The best part about the new show is the ginormous moon in his backdrop, so that doesn’t say much as far as the comedy. Conan’s inherent charm however works, and lands him in the 5 spot.


4) Craig FergusonThe Late Late Show – A natural talent, and quite affable. Most of his monologue is improvised on the spot, and though impressive, also hurts him in these rankings. His show lacks structure really, which takes away from the genial mood of the show. People like structure – hence all these shows go monologue, desk chat, guest #1, guest #2 and musical act. Yet, when you are watching Ferguson, you never really know if this is how it is going to go. The creative guest exits, which he has of late abandoned, were a very unique and clever way to end the segments. Also, robot Geoff is the number two sidekick on the list.


3) Jon StewartThe Daily Show – Sure he is more one sided than the view of a waterfall, but Stewart can make the most mundane of issues funny. His deadpan delivering mixed with his vulgarity makes for a hilarious highlighting of how ludicrous news and government have become. Unfortunately for me, the program now in year 13 isn’t what it used to be. Well, actually, it is the exact same thing it always has been, and that in my opinion is the problem. This format doesn’t have the staying power of a normal talk show, granted the kids over at the Emmy’s obviously disagree … The best at what they do can adapt and reinvent themselves though, and here’s to hoping Stewart can – and will – soon.


2) David LettermanLate Show – Without a doubt the most natural talent on the list, he could do a show without any effort, and unfortunately usually does. As a result he can’t be the top spot. The effort he seemingly put in during the Late Night era was lost when he lost The Tonight Show, and he has been coasting – sadly – ever since. No one can argue his friendly demeanor, nor could they dispute wishing his he was their grandfather. Dude is funny. Plain and simple.


Side note on Letterman, I find it humorous he always has the nicest and most stylish of glasses and suits, yet continues to wear white socks with everything. Not sure the point of that. I have grown to loath white socks, and find nothing more disgusting than visible foot stains.


1) Jimmy KimmelJimmy Kimmel Live – As far as talent, effort, likability and overall showmanship, Kimmel leads the late night ranks by far. Give it up to the staff he has surrounded himself with, because the bits they come up with – from Handsome Men’s Club to the YouTube challenges – are quite impressive. Kimmel grew up on Letterman, and you can see that in how he handles his show. The monologue isn’t one liner after one liner; it is more conversation, which is much more agreeable with an audience. Why ABC chooses to continue to put Nightline on before Kimmel is beyond ridiculous. Granted it does well in the numbers, it doesn’t allow Kimmel the expedited growth and exposure he deserves.


Also, does Kimmel putting his content on YouTube hurt his ratings a bit? Probably, but does it allow for bigger buzz later? Absolutely. To me this is an ingenious move that no one else has even really attempted. Handler has a number up of clips up, but hasn’t made near as much ground. You can’t ignore the fact that Kimmel’s can get celebrities to do things no one else could in these videos, and ultimately expose’s the program to the non late night crowd. And keep in mind too; Kimmel is the only late night host to have increased his ratings over the past year. A correlation? I think so … Kimmel also has by far the best sidekick in the game, in his former parking lot security guard Guillermo. I can – and have – sat on YouTube for hours getting lost in Guillermo’s hilarious red carpet and spelling bee videos.


And there you have it, the new King of Late Night – in the eyes of yours truly – is none other than Jimmy Kimmel, with an assist from his sidekick Guillermo. And for those aspiring late night hosts, take note, it helps if your first name is Jimmy and/or starts with the letter’s J or C. A pattern I just noticed, and a pattern that is kind of freakin’ me out now …

Mike ‘Box’ Elder use to make his mother stay up late on Friday nights to watch Letterman with him as a child. He also loves peanut butter in his oatmeal. Follow his pensive tweets on Twitter @mikeboxelder.


More from Box –
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An Open Letter to the HIMYM Writers
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Category - Pop Culture