A showdown of late-night talk shows

late-night talk shows

When was the last time you watched a talk show from start to finish, in real-time? You probably can’t remember. But, when you do watch the show clippings that pop up on your feed, how many of them are actual conversational interviews? With the decline of real-time TV viewership, late-night talk shows have to entice audiences through social media platforms. A great way to do this is by creating entertaining segments with celebrities. I mean, who wouldn’t want to watch Ryan Reynolds soak his host with a water gun? 

With junkets covering most of the promotional aspects of an upcoming film or album, artists find themselves drained and tired of talking by the time they get to the TV studio. So, talk shows, in an attempt to preserve the element of surprise, focus on the entertaining aspect of their guests’ personalities, rather than limiting themselves to the promotion. Additionally, with hour-long programmes now turning into bite-sized clips on social media, late-night talk shows understand that they need to pull all the stops. That’s why late-night TV, on the whole, has grown beyond charming anecdotes recounted by famous people. It is a curious landscape now: a beautiful mixture of entertainers and intelligentsia. And both serve their own purposes. Here are my favourite late-night talk shows:

1. The Graham Norton Show

First episode aired: 2007

Style: UK’s Graham Norton often receives high praise from his guests for hosting the best show they’ve ever attended. His signature multi-seating red couch for guests may have become individual (and distanced) red chairs post-COVID, but Norton’s ability to open sparkling conversation remains unchanged.  The conversations are pretty spectacular because the ideas and personalities in this late-night talk show are so diverse. In addition, the spotlight shifts so well that the guests feel very much at ease and at their performative best.

Best Segments: In ‘The Red Chair’, Norton and his guests judge an audience member who sits on a red chair and relates an anecdote. Should the story seem dull at any point, Norton (or one of the celebrities) proceeds to flip the chair on its back with a lever. 

Memorable moment: Ed Sheeran unexpectedly meets his childhood friend on the Red Chair.

My rating: 4.75/5

2. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

First episode aired: 2015

Style: Colbert borrows from his experience at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report to deliver witty political commentary. Grammy-winning Jon Batiste and his band lend Colbert the support and backup he needs. Stephen’s nerdiness regarding musicals and The Lord of the Rings and his ardent love of his wife Evie lend him the relatability that intellectuals sometimes lack.

Best Segments: Colbert’s best segments include ‘First Drafts’ where his wife Evie reads out ‘first drafts’ of seasonal greeting cards. Another favourite is ‘Meanwhile…’ where he covers unusual news reports with his signature tongue-in-cheek humour.

Memorable moment: Interview with Nicki Minaj, where she rapped about him impromptu!

My rating: 4.75/5

3. The Daily Show with Trevor Noah

First episode aired: 2015

Style: When Trevor Noah took over Jon Stewart’s widely popular Daily Show, he was relatively unknown in America. Like most veterans of Stewart’s show, his show also focuses on political commentary, but with the fresh, outsider perspective of a non-American. In addition, Noah travels worldwide and does stand-up comedy shows whenever the show is on hiatus. Consequently, he has managed to keep his creative and comedic juices flowing. 

Best Segments: In ‘Between the Scenes’, Noah answers questions from his audience between the show’s segments.

Memorable moment: The ‘Between the Scenes’ segment in which Anna Kendrick playfully usurped the host. 

My rating: 4.75/5

4. Late Night with Seth Meyers

First episode aired: 2014

Style: With his background as head writer and former host of ‘Weekend Update’ on Saturday Night Live, Meyers is an expert in political satire. He generally has a cool-guy vibe until someone mentions comics, at which point he immediately channels his inner geek.

Best Segments: Meyers has some great writers, notably Amber Ruffin (who now has her own show on Peacock). ‘Jokes Seth Can’t Tell’, ‘Really?! With Seth and Amy’, ‘A Closer Look’, and ‘Corrections’ are all witty segments. However, ‘Amber Says What’, written and performed by Ruffin, definitely takes the cake for how she recounts topical news in a zany style.

Memorable moment: Amber Ruffin’s recap of the 2022 Oscars

My rating: 4/5

5. The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

First episode aired: 2014

Style: Jimmy Fallon’s golden retriever energy set him apart from his predecessors at the onset of his career. His show is light and entertainment-focused, punctuated by his sidekick Steve Higgins’s quick humour. Fallon also has the best band on late-night talk shows—The Roots.

Best Segments: Fallon is most famous for his celebrity game segments. ‘Hashtags’, ‘Think Fast!’, ‘Try Not to Laugh Challenge’, ‘Whisper Challenge’, ‘Box of Lies’, ‘Wheel of Musical Impressions’, “Ew!”, ‘Thank You Notes’, ‘Egg Russian Roulette’, and ‘True Confessions’ are all fan-favourites.

Memorable moment: The interview segment where Kevin Hart played a comically nervous wreck before Robert Irwin’s party of wild animals

My rating: 3/5

6. Jimmy Kimmel Live! 

First episode aired: 2003

Style: Since Kimmel is firmly based in Los Angeles, his show sometimes features guests who drop by before their movie premieres. With his Mexican-American sidekick Guillermo Rodriguez, he hosts a fun show. He has all the best Hollywood guests, except for Matt Damon, of course, whom he despises, as the running joke goes. However, the show is not actually live.

Best Segments: Kimmel’s best segment is ‘Celebrities Read Mean Tweets’, which is a great way to get his guests to react to the slander they’re faced with online. Another popular segment is ‘I Told My Kids I Ate All Their Halloween Candy’, where people send Kimmel videos of them telling their children they ate the candy they had collected on Halloween. Of all the shows, Jimmy Kimmel Live! probably has the most bystander involvement. He also conducts polls and quizzes around Los Angeles for comedic effect. 

Memorable moment: Kimmel’s moving monologue about his son’s health and the need for more inclusive insurance in America

My rating: 4/5

7. The Late Late Show with James Corden

First episode aired: 2015

Style: James receives and seats his guests in a manner very similar to Graham Norton. His show, like Fallon’s late-night talk show, places great importance on music. Along with Reggie Watts and the band, he makes his fellow Brits feel right at home in sunny LA. 

Best Segments: Corden’s segments include the hugely popular ‘Carpool Karaoke’, where Corden and the guests belt out hit songs on the highway. Another fun game, ‘Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts’, features exotic contents you must ingest if you do not wish to divulge the true answer to a question. This segment recently came under fire for negatively representing certain ethnic foods.

Memorable moment: ‘Carpool Karaoke’ with Adele, where both guest and host put their vocals through the hoops to render a harmonious on-the-move performance.   

My rating: 4/5

Late-night talk shows will always be a cherished genre for their wit and humour. But perhaps the main reason for their longevity is their openness in format. These shows have evolved from simple sit-down conversations to diversely engaging segments. And that’s how primetime television is made!

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