The world of late-night talk shows is going though a period of major transition. David Letterman just stepped down after 33 years, Jon Stewart is months away from ending his stint at The Daily Show and Chelsea Handler is bringing her show to Netflix, challenging some basic assumptions about the way these programs are presented. We figured this was a good time to poll our readers and get their picks for the greatest hosts in TV history. Here are the results.
Whoever voted for Magic Johnson must have been screwing around. He's one of the greatest players in the history of the NBA, but his three-month stint as the host of The Magic Hour wasn't exactly a career highlight. It's hardly his fault: The man simply had no background in comedy. It would be like putting David Letterman on the Cleveland Cavaliers and expecting him to compete. That said, the show did give Howard Stern some amazing material to mock over the radio. On July 2nd, 1998, Stern actually appeared on what surely stands out at The Magic Hour's greatest episode. It's the sort of thing that YouTube was invented to preserve.
Dick Cavett has hosted many talk shows over the years, but his most famous ran on ABC from 1969 to 1975. It competed directly against The Tonight Show, but the two programs were very different. Cavett taped in New York and was far more interested in booking interesting guests than chatting up A-list stars or filming goofy comedy bits. He also embraced rock & roll in a huge way, sitting down with John Lennon, David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix. David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, the Jefferson Airplane and Stephen Stills all appeared days after Woodstock. None of this led to huge ratings, and in 1975 Cavett's show was cancelled – though the host later moved to PBS, USA and eventually CNBC.
Once again, it seems like some people weren't taking this poll very seriously. We doubt that even Chevy Chase himself would defend his five-week stint as the host of Fox's The Chevy Chase Show. It's arguably one of the biggest fiascos in the history of television, right alongside AfterMASH and Cop Rock. That said, Chevy Chase is a very talented man. National Lampoon's Vacation, Spies Like Us and Fletch are some of the funniest movies of the 1980s, and he practically invented the fake news game with Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live. But he simply wasn't suited for the job of a late night host. Ratings were anemic, and the show was cancelled after a little over a month.
When Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show in 1999, his career wasn't exactly in the best place. His brief run as the host of MTV's The Jon Stewart Show didn't exactly set the world on fire, and movies like The Faculty and Playing by Heart weren't about to make him into a major Hollywood star. But he was amazing on The Larry Sanders Show, and the folks at Comedy Central were very wise when they chose him to succeed for Craig Kilborn. It took a couple of years, but he eventually turned The Daily Show into one of the funniest programs on television and a great platform for authors, congressmen and even presidents to speak directly to younger viewers. We're crushed that he's stepping down in August.
Decades before David Letterman and Conan O'Brien took their feuds with network overlords public, Jack Paar was waging his own war against NBC. It was 1960 and the host learned that the network was going to censor the bathroom abbreviation "W.C." from a joke. With tears in his eyes, he looked right into the camera: "I am leaving The Tonight Show,'" he said. "There must be a better way of making a living than this." Three very uncertain weeks later he was back. "As I was saying," he began, "before I was interrupted. . ." Paar quit the show for good in 1962, but during his five-year run he spoke with everyone from John F. Kennedy to Zsa Zsa Gabor. He even showed footage of the Beatles a month before they were on Ed Sullivan. He was a true pioneer whose influence on the talk show genre is almost immeasurable.
Jimmy Fallon has proved many of the doubters wrong ever since taking over for Conan O'Brien on NBC back in 2009. Despite Lorne Michaels' firm belief that he was the best man for the job, the former Saturday Night Live star was dismissed by many as too green for the big desk. Once again, Lorne was proven right, and the show became a monster hit. Last year, Fallon took over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno. Along the way, he managed to obliterate his competitors in the ratings and create a stunning amount of viral videos. Many critics have ripped into him for making guests play charades and engage in lip sync battles, but the ratings speak for themselves. Even the most jaded person has to admit his Saved by the Bell reunion was absolutely amazing.
Before David Letterman, Johnny Carson and even Jack Paar, there was Steve Allen. Allen practically invented the late night talk show when he became the first host of The Tonight Show in 1954. It was the birth of the opening monologue, the desk and even the celebrity interview. Over 60 years later, this model has somehow persisted. Allen left after just three years, but it was an extremely formative time for the medium and his influence cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, in his later years he aligned himself with the Parents Television Council and pushed to get people like Howard Stern thrown off the airwaves. He was also a very vocal critic of rock & roll, despite featuring many of the early stars on his show.
For all that NBC did to destroy Conan O'Brien, you have to give them credit for agreeing to put him on the air in the first place. After all, he was once a completely unknown Simpsons and Saturday Night Live writer that Lorne Michaels tapped to take over for Letterman at 12:30. Ratings were very weak and the critics were harsh, but NBC stuck by their guy and let him find his footing. By 1996, he was just about the funniest thing on television. He was the natural choice to replace Jay Leno as the host of The Tonight Show, but we all know how that went. It's hard to replace somebody when that person doesn't actually leave. Thankfully, Conan landed safely on TBS and seems in no danger of getting the axe in the foreseeable future.
The overwhelming flood of tributes to David Letterman is proof that he is one of the most beloved figures in the history of television. His accomplishments don't need to be repeated for the umpteenth time, but suffice it to say that he ushered in an entirely new form of comedy. To comedians of a certain age, watching Letterman in the 1980s was like being a young musician and listening to the Beatles. He gave them the tools to work with, and it's impossible to imagine the modern-day scene without him. Jay Leno may have gotten better ratings, but there's a reason he doesn't appear anywhere on this list. In the end, Dave won the late night war. It wasn't even close.
If David Letterman had voted in this poll, he would have opted for Johnny Carson. The comedian took over The Tonight Show for Jack Paar in 1962 and stuck around for three decades. During the first 18 years, the show ran for 90 minutes. That's an absurd amount of television to churn out every single week, but somehow Johnny made it work. Unlike previous Tonight Show hosts, Carson didn't see the role as a stepping stone to something higher. He realized the show itself was the ultimate prize for any TV personality, and he used the platform to give everyone from Roseanne Barr to Garry Shandling to Joan Rivers a national audience. Carson has been off the air for 23 years, but The Tonight Show remains the most valuable real estate in late night television due to his legacy.