A couple things bring the subject to mind. Firstly, Conan appeared as a guest on Letterman this week, and their mutual distaste for Leno was a topic of much discussion. And the Carson/Letterman/Leno affair as well as the more recent Leno/Conan/Fallon changeup are quite interesting, and readily bring comparisons to mind.
Also this week, Craig Ferguson brought his show to Scotland and blew my mind, albeit a tiny corner of my mind. He was doing an interview with Mila Kunis whilst strolling through The Glasgow Necropolis. Later he ate dinner with David Sedaris and Rashida Jones, talking about colostomy bags, karma, ghosts, whatever came to mind. No audience, no laugh tracks, no plugging of upcoming movies. The cameraman just followed Craig around as he talked to celebrities, interspersed with going to tourist sites and visiting his childhood haunts. It didn’t fit my preconception of a talkshow at all, but it was in fact what I’d much prefer talk shows to be.
I’ll now rank and comment on the most popular comedic talk show hosts currently on television and why you should or should not watch them. As a caveat, I don’t watch any of them regularly. I only watch when they have someone I want to hear from on. And when I do watch I generally only watch that interview, not the monologues or sketches. But with that in mind:
10. Carson Daly
He’s boring. There’s no reason to watch him.
9. Jay Leno
The ratings champ, but his target demographic seems to be the geriatric. But we all know how the old love to vote, so that’s probably why he’s the ratings champ. He does get the biggest stars but he’s just not funny.
Generally she is not funny. She has moments here and there, but it’s not worth sifting through the dross. This SNL parody is remarkably accurate. I have no problem with blue humor, Chelsea just forgets to include the humor part.
7. Bill Maher
Politics are much more aggravating for me than comedic, so Bill’s a hard sell. And the fact that he’s so far to the left further hinders my connection to him. But he is an intelligent person, and is at times quite funny. He is also rather pandering and far far too proud of himself, so if you’re looking for funny liberals on cable John Stewart is a much better bet.
6. Jimmy Kimmel
Jimmy has some of the best sketches in late night. And he seems genuinely amiable in his interviews. But I don’t feel like he’s as funny or interesting as those in the top half of this list.
5. Jimmy Fallon
The other Jimmy. What I like about him is he seems legitimately excited about everyone on his show. I also feel like he’s the most hip/current/in-the-know of anyone on the list. And I really appreciate his efforts to be innovative like the games he often plays, and how he uses his sketch and improv background readily.
4. David Letterman
When I think of the stereotypic talkshow host, I think Letterman. He gets big stars and while not hilarious, he is certainly funny and what you would call “a character.” And when he wants to know something, he’ll ask, and keep asking until you tell him almost like he sees himself as a journalist. Or maybe just someone that's been around long enough that they get their way.
3. Graham Norton
I’m sure no one would have expected Graham in the top 3, and most haven’t heard of him. But he’s British so scores major points with me. More importantly he has a great format where he brings out all the night’s guests at once so they can bounce conversation off each other. One of the guests is usually a British comedian so if the other guests are dull Graham can always lean on the comedian and provide entertaining conversation. This format, plus his onstage computer, plus the fact that he’s legitimately funny make for a great chat show. On the downside he is a bit campy for my taste and I don’t like the story chair thing he does most episodes, but it’s still a good watch.
2. Craig Ferguson
Craig does whatever he feels like doing. He has a robot skeleton for a sidekick. He will dedicate a week to Doctor Who even though 95% of his audience has never seen a Doctor Who episode. He’ll make famous people play the harmonica and heap praise on them if they actually know how to. He’s not Letterman or Leno so doesn’t get first pick of guests but because of that will have people like Salman Rushdie on, who honestly is a much better guest than Scarlet Johansson. Craig interviews with an odd stream of consciousness as his only guide. If you say scapegoat he’ll ask if you’ve ever eaten a goat, then if you really think they can eat metal cans, then what your favorite canned food is. It must be a bit nerve wracking for the celebrities but it is entertaining. And most importantly Kristen Bell has been a guest 23 times (likely a couple more by now.)
1. Conan O’Brien
You may have thought Craig would be #1 with all that gushing. But it turns out that his whimsy does reach a saturation point; he is whacky but eventually you see that his bizarre style does go through patterns which repeat over and over. Conan is the complete package. Yes he has his own shtick, mostly revolving around self deprecation with a hint of slapstick. But he changes and evolves and his shtick comes across more as his personality rather than a show. He allows guests to plug whatever it is that they came to plug, but he’ll try to switch things around and make them interesting. His jokes, commentary and sketches tend to be a bit wittier than his competition. Those Harvard guys. I like Craig a lot, but objectively I think Conan puts together a better show.
Honorable mentions to the best fictional hosts, Larry Sanders and Space Ghost. The semi-fictional Between Two Ferns. The almost talk shows The Daily Show and Colbert Report. And the best of daytime talk show (I'd assume) Ellen.