Late night television is constantly evolving. The old guard has officially ceded to the next generation of hosts, with David Letterman, Jay Leno, and even Jon Stewart each having stepped aside. The latest in late night has done little to break out of its “boys club” mentality, with women still finding themselves conspicuously absent from major networks. But that doesn’t mean progress hasn’t been made, both in terms of diversity and the formatting of the genre.
The classic variety show made famous by the likes of Johnny Carson, Letterman, and Leno found itself dying off in the last decade. With new hosts though came new life, from everywhere from Comedy Central to CBS. Various tweaks and changes brought the genre into the 21st century of Internet virality, leading to a renewed popularity for virtually everyone in late night. We’ve ranked this collection of fresh talent for you, as a demonstration of just how far things have come in just the last year.
10. Seth Meyers, Late Night on NBC
SNL alum Seth Meyers is relatively new to the the Late Night desk, but that hasn’t stopped him from coming out swinging as the replacement of the promoted Jimmy Fallon (more on him later). His show has included less of the wild games and random celebrity appearances that have come to define the new-look for late night TV, opting instead for a decidedly more straightforward approach. Because of this, it’s given Late Night something of a ceiling, albeit one that Meyers has performed admirably in.
9. Larry Wilmore, The Nightly Show on Comedy Central
Larry Wilmore had some enormous shoes to fill when The Nightly Show slotted in to replace The Colbert Report. While viewership has seen something of a nosedive with the insanely popular Stephen Colbert’s departure, it hasn’t been for lack of effort on Wilmore’s part. More than most anyone, his show digs deep into social and societal issues for an honest and refreshing commentary on the political climate of our country.
8. Trevor Noah, The Daily Show on Comedy Central
Trevor Noah is another example of the “big shoes to fill” camp, having come in as Jon Stewart’s replacement for The Daily Show. Noah’s run so far has seen its fair share of ups and downs, as the young host has struggled at times to find his own unique voice. He’s not helped by constant comparisons to Stewart, making it difficult to stand apart from his predecessor. Even so, his appeal as something of an outsider to the U.S. political scene is evident, and there’s plenty of room for growth as Noah gets more acclimated to his seat at the Daily Show news desk.
7. James Corden, The Late Late Show on CBS
Having replaced the incomparable Craig Ferguson on CBS’s The Late Late Show, James Corden has made the job entirely his own. More than any other late night host, Corden doubles down on his own unique musical talents for lengthy sequences of car karaoke you won’t see anywhere else. Corden is an accomplished Broadway performer and singer in his own right, making it that much more impressive to see him utilizing those talents in the late night genre.
6. Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Kimmel Live on ABC
Jimmy Kimmel has proven himself to be the king of the late night viral video, having launched a variety of series that have spread across the Internet like wildfire. From “Celebrities Read Mean Tweets” to his infamous prank war with close friend and fellow celebrity John Krasinski (above), he’s been one of the driving forces behind bringing talk shows into the mercurial realm of Internet culture.
5. Conan O’Brien, Conan on TBS
Conan O’Brien’s career has been nothing short of a rollercoaster. He started out on the writing staff of Saturday Night Live, eventually moving over to The Simpsons before assuming a place behind the desk on Late Night (now occupied by the aforementioned Seth Meyers). After a brief promotion that saw him replace Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, flagging ratings had NBC trying to bring Leno back in a show that would be aired directly before O’Brien’s. This in turn led to a less than amicable exit to TBS, spawning Conan.
O’Brien’s new show ended up standing on its own two feet as a perfect example of what the talented writer and comedian was capable of. Leaning heavily on cutaway sketches, amiable interviews with guests, and clever writing, Conan quickly became one of the most popular late night talk shows on television, forever proving its titular host’s mettle.
4. Samantha Bee, Full Frontal on TBS
Samantha Bee may be the only female host in late night, but that’s not her only claim to fame. Her work on The Daily Show made her into one of the most talented and incisive correspondents out there. Those skills made her perfectly suited to host her own series, and so Full Frontal With Samantha Bee was born. Bee’s show is all about bucking the norm: She doesn’t use a desk (preferring to stand and address her audience), she doesn’t bring on guests to fluff the runtime, and she’s not afraid to hold peoples’ feet to the fire politically. Late night may be the sausage party the above trailer makes it out to be, but with Bee’s help, it won’t be that way for long.
3. Jimmy Fallon, The Tonight Show on NBC
Leno later reassumed his role as the host of The Tonight Show, and then stepped aside for good in 2014. Jimmy Fallon then stepped in as a worthy replacement, delivering a show that’s helped reinvigorate the late night genre entirely. His version of The Tonight Show has been defined by amazing musical routines, exciting games with celebrities, and the occasional story of wild nights spent out on the town in New York City. All told, Fallon made the transition from Leno feel seamless, and in a lot of ways improved on the show in a massive way.
2. Stephen Colbert, The Late Show on CBS
Landing on CBS as the successor to the legendary David Letterman, Stephen Colbert walked in the door as an already-established legend himself. Here we had a performer who had already won a Peabody Award, universally lauded for his incisive and insightful political commentary on The Colbert Report. For his role as the newest host of The Late Show, he finally was able to truly be himself, rather than the conservative parody persona that made him famous on Comedy Central.
As Colbert has found his footing on network television, we’ve been treated to his unique brand of insight, only this time, it comes with a healthy dose of genuine emotion. He’s made a point to retain a fair amount of the political commentary aspects of his past success, speaking from his own actual thoughts and opinions, rather than wrapping it in five layers of irony. It’s no surprise that less than a year after the fact, he’s already become a part of the late night elite.
1. John Oliver, Last Week Tonight on HBO
What can you say about John Oliver that hasn’t already been summed up somewhere else? Oliver’s abilities as an investigative reporter have turned him into one of the most important and influential journalists in the world, and HBO has been the perfect arena for his exceptional talents. During his run on Last Week Tonight, he’s covered hot-button issues like standardized testing, drone strikes, and prisoner re-entry, all culminating in his masterful interview with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden (above). No single host has managed to affect society in nearly the same way as Oliver, and for that, he occupies the top spot on our list.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickNorthwest