Do you ever feel overwhelmed by how many late night shows there are on TV these days? I know I do. Sometimes I even find myself longing for a simpler time when Johnny Carson was the only one on the air at 11:30 at night, and everyone was just OK with that. Of course, that’s when I quickly remind myself that there were probably people back in the day who longed for more options than just Carson. That’s why today’s crowded late night TV landscape is a gift. Instead of having to settle for a single host, we have the ability to choose a host who matches up more with our particular personality and sense of humor. So let’s take full advantage of that ability by taking a closer look at all of the hosts and picking the one you’d want to hang out with the most.
The Fun-Loving Optimist: Jimmy Fallon
Jimmy’s all about having fun. He loves having guests over to play Pictionary, Catchphrase, drinking games, lip sync battles, you name it, and he’ll always laugh at his guests’ jokes and thoroughly congratulate them on their achievements. He’s pretty good with kids and loves to feature their cute drawings and letters on his show. He also enjoys goofing around with his sidekick Steve Higgins, and the two of them will often randomly improvise these goofy scenes in the middle of a segment.
Overall, Jimmy’s greatest strength has to be his impressions. As a former cast member on “Saturday Night Live,” he has a lot of experience impersonating famous people, and he does it like a champ. He has a solid Donald Trump, a spot on Neil Young, a nasally Bob Dylan and remarkably accurate Terrance Howard, among many others. Sometimes he’ll even challenge his guests who are good at impressions to an impression-off, like this one he did last year with Kevin Spacey.
Yes, indeed, with Jimmy Fallon, you know you’re in for an upbeat good time; however, the thing about Fallon is, it’s probably not going to go much deeper than that. You’re certainly going to have a lot of fun hanging out with Jimmy, but it’s going to be very standard fun. If you’re looking for sharp political satire, then Jimmy’s not your guy. When it comes to joking about politics, he’s going to play it safe so that he doesn’t offend anyone because offending people isn’t fun or upbeat. He’s also not going to get very weird or off-beat with his humor because he would run the risk of alienating his audience. The reason that Fallon remains the king of late night TV is he doesn’t take any big risks with his show. So if you’re looking for a host who takes risks and regularly tries new things, Fallon is not your guy. But if you just want to have some good old fashioned fun, then watch “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” at 11:35/10:35 CT weeknights on NBC.
The Sharp-Witted Straight Shooter: Jimmy Kimmel
If Fallon didn’t sound edgy enough for you, then maybe Kimmel’s more your speed. This other Jimmy has more of a bite to him and is more willing to use that bite, even at the risk of getting himself into trouble. Last year, for example, Jimmy did a bit where he made fun of people who watch other people play video games on YouTube, and when those folks got angry at Jimmy for making fun of them, he addressed their angry comments on his show by making fun of them even more. It’s this type of behavior that can make Kimmel a controversial pick, but a lot of people still pick him because they like his honesty.
Kimmel certainly doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to making fun of how ridiculous people can be. His sharp, dry wit is on full display as he skewers political figures and celebrities in his monologues. He often invites his celebrity guests to read mean tweets about themselves in order to satirize anonymous — and often malicious — internet culture. Sometimes he’ll even use kids to point out adults’ absurdities, such as when he recently asked kids to explain why women get paid less than men. Even in casual interactions with his audience, he isn’t afraid to poke fun at things. It’s always done respectfully, of course, but Kimmel never backs down from making fun of something when he thinks it’s funny.
Of course, Jimmy’s show isn’t just about sarcastic mockery. He does have a lot of fun bits that are similar to Fallon’s, the only difference is, whereas Fallon giggles through his bits, Kimmel delivers his jokes with a straight face and a dry wit. So if that’s more of your thing, you should check out “Jimmy Kimmel Live” at 11:35/10:35 CT weekdays on ABC.
The Endlessly Opinionated Performer: Stephen Colbert
Stephen freely admits that he was a theatre geek in college. The Second City alumnus loved acting and performing so much that he was willing to play a character for 10 years (2005-2015) on his previous late night show “The Colbert Report.” Now that he’s no longer in character, he has been very vocal on his new show about who the real Stephen Colbert is and what he thinks about the world.
Nothing is really off limits on his show. He’ll joke about politics, religion, social issues, sports, strange local news and much more. And the amazing thing about Stephen is that he has the tremendous range to deliver jokes about any of those topics well. A segment he does frequently on the show called “Wheel of News” demonstrates this range as Stephen spins a giant wheel and talks about whatever topic it lands on. Even though the segment is clearly scripted, it still shows how flexible Colbert can be when it comes to picking content for his show.
Like Kimmel, Colbert isn’t afraid to go after the absurdities he sees in the world and give his opinion on what’s going on. For this reason, some folks choose to shy away from Colbert because they don’t like it when his opinion doesn’t match their own sensibilities, which is a shame because they miss out on a great show. Just because you don’t agree with his opinion is no reason to avoid watching Colbert. Personally, I don’t always agree with what Colbert says on his show, yet I still watch him because I know well written and inventive comedy when I see it.
Since Stephen’s show is still relatively new, it isn’t fully set in its ways yet, which makes for some exciting TV because Stephen is still willing to try new things. Some of the bits he tries work while others fail hilariously; either way, Colbert manages to make them funny with his quick wit and ability to adapt. If that sounds exciting to you, then you might want to try out “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” at 11:35/10:35 CT weeknights on CBS.
The Good Old Fashioned Goofball: Conan O’Brien
Conan likes to string dance. Since 1993 he’s been entertaining late night audiences at the top of his show by pretending to pull his hips up and down with invisible strings, then cutting one of the strings and rubbing his nipple. Sound strange? That’s Conan O’Brien in a nut shell.
Continuing in the grand tradition of hosts like David Letterman, Conan enjoys doing weird stuff on his show. Some of his best bits feature random intrusions by strange characters who interrupt him in hilarious ways. Conan also loves to goof around and improvise with his equally-hilarious sidekick Andy Richter. The two of them are old friends and are great at playing off of each other and making each other funnier.
What’s amazing about Conan is that, although his monologues are pretty standard, he’s actually funnier when his jokes fail because it gives him a chance to make fun of himself and ham it up for the crowd. And no one hams it up like Conan O’Brien. He thrives on making himself look like an ass for others’ amusement, and his viewers love him for it.
I think I speak for a lot of Conan fans when I say the best part of his show is his remote segments. Conan is one of the few late night hosts left who regularly leaves his studio and travels to interesting places with a camera crew. He’s recently done shows in Cuba, Armenia, Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, South Korea and, perhaps most astonishingly, North Korea. What makes these shows so enjoyable is Conan’s ability to find humor in any situation. He’s great at interacting with everyday people and bringing the funny out of them by putting them at ease with his clowning. You really just have to see this phenomenon to appreciate it, so if Conan’s congenial goofiness sounds interesting to you, watch “Conan” at 11/10 CT weeknights on TBS.
The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Seth Meyers
At first glance, Seth might not seem like the most obvious person to host a talk show. He isn’t goofy like Conan, he can’t do impressions like Fallon or perform quite like Colbert, but, man, is he good at satire! Ever since he burst onto the scene as the host of Weekend Update on “Saturday Night Live,” Meyer’s has been wowing audiences with his ability to skewer political issues with a smile on his face. So it should really come as no surprise that the strongest segment on his late night show has become his “Closer Look” segment, in which he takes a few minutes to satirize a single topic or issue.
Although Seth’s strong point is satire, he also tries to keep his show light and goofy. You can definitely tell that he’s been influenced by O’Brien since many of his comedy bits are Conan-esque in that they feature strange characters interrupting the show to talk to Seth. However, these bits don’t always land as well on his show as they do on Conan’s. Part of the reason for this might be that Seth’s writers just aren’t as good as Conan’s at writing these sketches, but I think it also has to do with the fact that Seth’s understated style just doesn’t work very well for these types of sketches. Meyers has also tried his hand at a few remotes in the two years he’s been on the air, but once again, his subtle delivery that works so well behind the desk just doesn’t translate well on the street. But you can’t fault him for trying.
There are some light elements of Seth’s show that do work, such as his banter with his occasional band leader Fred Armisen. He has also differentiated himself from the late night pack by featuring his parents and brother on the show every now and then. These family segments are fun because they show off a different, softer side of Seth that we don’t really get to see when he’s doing his satirical bits.
Overall, Seth is a nice guy with a startling ability to humorously critique a political issue. If that sounds interesting to you, then you should check out “Late Night with Seth Meyers” at 12:35/11:35 CT weeknights on NBC.
The Self-Deprecating Singer: James Corden
James didn’t think his show would succeed. In the weeks leading up to its premier last year, Corden was quoted as saying, “It’ll be canceled in a heartbeat; believe me.” Now, whether or not he was jokingly saying this doesn’t matter. The fact remains that James Corden is really good at making fun of himself, and that makes him really endearing to late night audiences. His viewers love bits like the fake emotional speech he gave during his 50th show because they demonstrate that he doesn’t take himself or his show too seriously.
It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a good singer. While Fallon and Colbert both dabble in singing on their shows, Corden has made it a central theme of his by often inviting musical guests like Adele, Justin Bieber and One Direction to sing with him from the passenger seat of his car in his massively popular “Carpool Karaoke” segments. These bits are not only great because of the singing talent on display, but also because of some of the hilarious escapades Corden has gotten into with his guests, such as staying at a cheap motel with Coldplay’s Chris Martin and buying cowboy boots with country star Carrie Underwood. It’s always impressive to see how well Corden can hang with these vocal juggernauts.
What’s also nice about James is he brings a British sensibility to the largely Americanized late night landscape, and he has a hilarious band leader, Reggie Watts, with whom he’s developed a good rapport. The only thing that people might find off-putting about Corden’s show is how similar it can feel to other shows. He does play a lot of silly games like Fallon and film a lot of remote segments like Conan; nevertheless, his unique voice still manages to shine through those borrowed formats. So if you like self-deprecating British dudes with good singing voices, you’ll probably love “The Late Late Show with James Corden” at 11:35/10:35 CT weeknights on CBS.
The Outsider Perspective: Trevor Noah
Trevor had big shoes to fill when taking over as host of “The Daily Show” for Jon Stewart, who had hosted the program for 17 years. And while it’s debatable as to whether or not he’s even remotely filled those shoes in the few months he’s been there, one thing’s for certain: he brings an interesting perspective to the show. Originally from South Africa, Noah looks at American politics as an amused outsider and gives his candid views on the proceedings in a way that is both funny and refreshingly insightful.
Like what he has to say or not, you have to admit that Noah’s outsider voice is valuable in a media landscape that is as self-involved and insular as America’s. Trevor has tried frequently to dispel with some of this insularity by featuring segments on the program about his home country of South Africa, as well as other African countries, and comparing what’s going on in those countries with what’s going on in America. The similarities are fascinating.
Of course, it’s also important to note that Noah has a background in standup comedy, which gives him the proper comedy credentials to back his unique perspective. His delivery style is refreshingly straightforward, with a hint of mischievous sarcasm lurking underneath, and it will be interesting to see how he will develop as host of “The Daily Show” as he gets more acclimated to the job. Who knows; maybe in a few years, fans will be revering Trevor like they revered John Stewart! You never know.
So if you’re looking for a new host with an outsider perspective on American politics, be sure to check out “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” at 11/10 CT weeknights on Comedy Central.
The Master Counterpoint: Larry Wilmore
Ever since he got his own show at the beginning of last year, Larry has been taking full advantage of the platform to give the black perspective on the pressing issues of our time. He’s not afraid to go after the mainstream media and point out their hypocrisy with uncompromising bluntness and sharp, biting satire. This has made Larry a popular resource for late night viewers who admire him for saying what other hosts might not have the stones to say.
One interesting thing about Wilmore’s show that differentiates him from the field are his panel discussions. For these segments, Wilmore will invite other comedians, journalists and television personalities on the show to discuss the issues of the day. This gives his show a very “cable news” type of feel, which is strangely appropriate because cable news networks are one of the main things Wilmore and his guests make fun of during these segments. Segments like these make “The Nightly Show” the perfect “underground news show” for those who feel shortchanged by the media landscape above ground.
Although Wilmore will not always make you laugh out loud (indeed, he’s sometimes more painfully honest than funny), his voice is one that needs to be heard in this crowded late night landscape. Even if you don’t always agree with what he has to say, he will still make you consider perspectives on issues that you may not have considered on your own, and that is valuable in and of itself. So if you’re looking for a host who will really challenge the establishment, check out “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore” at 11:30/10:30 CT weeknights on Comedy Central.
The Woman on a Mission: Samantha Bee
In case you hadn’t noticed, there aren’t many female late night hosts, which is a crying shame. Thank goodness for Samantha Bee. Although her show is still in its infancy (it premiered February 8, 2016), it has already been making waves in the late night pool with its fierce journalistic voice. It’s very clear that, like Wilmore, Samantha Bee has a lot she wants to say about the state of America, and now that she’s got this soapbox to shout it from, she’s not going to quiet down any time soon.
One of the most exciting aspects of Samantha’s show is her remote segments. In the short time she’s been on the air, Samantha has already visited with Syrian refugees and Donald Trump supporters, and in both cases, she’s managed to satirize certain perspectives Americans have about both groups. These pieces really show off Bee’s strong comedic voice and will no doubt make viewers excited to see what more Samantha has for us down the pipeline.
Obviously, it’s great to have a host that gives women a voice in late night, and here’s hoping that more female comedic talents will get a chance to host their own shows in the not so distant future. For now, Samantha is doing a fine job of representing the female comedy community with a strong journalistic late night show that only promises to get stronger in the future. “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” airs at 10:30/9:30 CT Monday nights on TBS.
The Unflinchingly Dull: John Oliver
John will not apologize to Donald Trump for having a “very boring” show. Instead, he’ll freely admit that his show doesn’t quite dish out the excitement like other late night shows do and then revel in the dullness. You see, John Oliver is unlike other hosts in that he takes his time and really dives into issues that other hosts might shy away from, such as net neutrality, Scottish independence and civil forfeiture. And by “take his time” I mean that he dedicates the majority of each of his shows (15-20 minute segments) to a single topic and really explores that topic, while making plenty of silly jokes along the way. In other words, John is about as anti-Fallon as they come, in that, whereas Jimmy’s show is all about fun without much depth, John’s show is all about depth with bits of fun sprinkled in.
Don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t mean that Oliver’s show isn’t enjoyable to watch. On the contrary, John makes it enjoyable with his trademark British wit and his willingness to go the extra mile for his show. This willingness has manifested itself in some newsworthy stunts, including starting his own church to prove just how easy it is for fraudulent churches to get tax exemptions, getting people to wear outrageous costumes to New York Yankees games in protest of their elitist ticket policy and, perhaps most astonishingly, going to Russia to interview Edward Snowden about government surveillance. Clearly, John Oliver isn’t afraid to take some risks for the sake of his show!
“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” is a great option for anyone who likes topical late night shows with funny hosts who go more in-depth on issues that really matter. If that’s you, then you should let John impress you with his dullness at 11/10 CT Sunday nights on HBO.
The Angry Liberal: Bill Maher
To be honest, I’ve tried to avoid mentioning that most of these talk show hosts lean on the liberal side politically because I don’t really think personal politics should factor in when choosing a talk show. However, with Bill Maher it’s just not possible to avoid the elephant in the room.
Bill freely admits on his show that he is speaking from a liberal point of view, and even if he didn’t freely admit that, it shouldn’t be that hard for viewers to figure out where the man is coming from. His show regularly features fierce attacks against the right and passionate rally cries directed towards the left. Bill will often beg his liberal viewers to stand together in opposition of what he sees as a conservative epidemic that threatens to ruin this country. Maher is also very anti-religion and speaks about this belief very plainly on his show as well. So, to put it simply, if you are religious and tend to be more conservative in your political beliefs, then “Real Time with Bill Maher” is not the show for you. I’m not saying that religious conservatives shouldn’t at least check out Bill’s show (after all, interacting with other viewpoints can be a great way to better understand one’s own beliefs); however, what I am saying is that Bill isn’t the best host for religious conservatives because they are clearly not his intended audience. Best to leave Maher to audiences that are more liberal and atheistic.
However, even atheistic liberals might not particularly enjoy Maher’s style of humor, since it comes from a place of anger more than anything else. There’s not much nuance to Bill’s jokes because he doesn’t have to be nuanced when he’s preaching to the choir. He knows exactly what his viewers want to hear and he tells it to them in a blunt manner, and they laugh at his bluntness — that’s pretty much the extent of it. Now, you may say I’m being too harsh on Bill Maher with this critique of his humor formula, but I’m just calling it like I see it (just like Bill does on his show). So if you are an atheistic liberal and you want to hear Bill Maher tell you exactly what you want to hear on a nightly basis, check out “Real Time with Bill Maher” at 10/9 CT weeknights on HBO.
The Off-Beat Comedian: Scott Aukerman
Perhaps none of these talk show hosts appeal to you. Perhaps you think the talk show format is stale and you’ve seen it all before. Well, my friend, I can guarantee that you haven’t seen a host quite like Scott Aukerman before.
Scott helms the off-beat hipster parody talk show “Comedy Bang Bang!,” which sends up all of the tropes of the talk show genre in an exceptionally weird fashion. Scott loves to ask his celebrity guests how they balance work and family, as well as strange questions that frequently lead to strange altercations, such as an armed standoff with Andy Samberg. He also enjoys chatting with his band leader, who used to be Reggie Watts until James Corden snatched him away. Then rapper Kid Cudi took over for a while, and when the show returns this June, “Weird Al” Yankovic, the legendary kind of parody music, will be the new band leader. Scott always gets along well with his band leaders, so I’m sure he and Al will have some good times together, but then again, you never know with this crazy fake talk show.
What makes Scott’s show so great is that, unlike all of these other talk shows that are limited by the rules of talk show convention, “Comedy Bang Bang!” can be whatever the heck it wants to be as long as it’s funny. The show frequently features goofy parodies, strange Andy Daly characters, talking couches, hilarious one-liners, cop-swaps, ludicrous anti-humor, messed up meta-humor, a murderous orphan boy and much more. So if you yearn for pure, free-flowing, off-beat comedy, check out Scott Aukerman’s “Comedy Bang Bang!” when it returns this June on IFC. All four of its previous seasons are also available on Netflix for your viewing pleasure.