Late-Night Hosts as Late-Night Guests, Ranked
You’d think late-night talk show hosts would make amazing guests. After all, they get to sit across from the best (and the worst) night after night — who better to know what it takes to dazzle from the guest couch? But of course, some of the Jimmys make better visitors than others. Here then is our definitive ranking of late-night hosts moonlighting as late-night guests.
James Corden on ‘The Tonight Show’
Corden and Jimmy Fallon have their charms, but the two of them together bring out each other’s worst traits — namely, treacly fawning over one another. In this sycophant special, Corden gushes over Fallon’s talents: “I’m so happy to be here! I’ve wanted to be on this television show since the second you started hosting it. I don’t know if I would have ever hosted my show if it wasn’t for watching you do this show. … I’m thrilled to be on The Tonight Show. I mean it from the bottom of my heart.”
That’s diabetes-inducing, but it gets worse when Fallon sends back the syrup: “You’re a phenomenal actor! Everyone, watch Mammals on Prime Video. … You’ll be sucked into it! Even the last three seconds, I’m like ‘Oh my God!’ You are fantastic, buddy.”
Trevor Noah on ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live!’
“We never get to be guests,” Noah tells Kimmel, so this is his big chance. And he’s fine. Seriously, this is a solid talk-show appearance with funny-enough tales about Oprah and Donald Trump. It’s just that the former host of The Daily Show feels like just another talk-show guest, pre-interviewed and pre-produced to deliver YouTube-able anecdotes. Noah is a funny comic, but as a guest, he’s not particularly memorable.
Seth Meyers on ‘The Tonight Show’
Similar to Noah, Seth Meyers is an affable interview. He knows the rules, comes equipped with the requisite amusing stories, and is quick with the comeback. But unlike other hosts higher on this list, he’s not trying to subvert the talk-show format, nor is he particularly hilarious. He’s just likable. It doesn’t help that Meyers’ show follows Fallon’s, making this particular segment reek of corporate synergy.
Jimmy Fallon on ‘Late Night with Conan O’Brien’
Well, this one’s interesting. It’s one of Conan’s very last 2009 shows in his post-Tonight Show slot before he moved up an hour and took over for Jay Leno (cough — temporarily). Of course, there was no going back to his old Late Night show because here was his successor, Jimmy Fallon, ready to leap into Conan’s still-warm chair.
This is a more likable Fallon than today’s version, noticeably nervous and not overdoing it with manufactured laughs. O’Brien’s prickly approach is a better counterpunch to Fallon’s style than, say, the Corden/Fallon pairing above. Even as O’Brien moves to the prime late-night slot, he’s throwing punches at their NBC bosses and one-upping Fallon’s microphone joke by sucking it up his nose. Hard to remember now, but people sort of liked Fallon when he arrived on Late Night. O’Brien is great at bringing out Fallon’s inherent silliness without letting it sink into pandering sweet talk. Well, not too much — Fallon does start in with the “you’re the greatest!” talk about halfway through the segment. Unlike Corden, however, O’Brien has no time for that bullshit.
Jimmy Kimmel on ‘The Howard Stern Show’
Your mileage may vary, but I’m kinda charmed by Kimmel’s hero worship of Stern. It’s a peek into Kimmel’s true sensibility, the former Man Show host who wishes he could still be joking about sex, beer and little people. That won’t fly on ABC right after your local news, but as a Stern guest, Kimmel can let his freak flag fly. This is a good reminder, too, that early in his Jimmy Kimmel Live! era, the Stern superfan hadn’t yet slimmed down and grown his suave beard. Here he is talking about all the girls he can have sex with now that he’s a big star. Where’s Adam Carolla when you need him?
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on ‘CONAN’
Why don’t more talk-show hosts do this? A quick, profanity-laden comedy bit instead of a desk interview that sounds like everyone else? Keep your segment-sized anecdotes and give us stupid cameos anytime.
David Letterman on ‘Late Night with Conan O’Brien’
Months into Conan O’Brien’s tenure as NBC’s new David Letterman, the actual Letterman dropped by for a visit, throwing punches at the corporate overlords as if he’d never left. Noting that fat naked guys were running around the building (apparently, a reference to a comedy bit earlier in the show), Letterman quipped, “Well, the executive talent at GE really hasn’t changed much.”
Letterman admits that watching O’Brien’s show was “a little difficult,” having so much personal ownership of the Late Night with… franchise that made his career. Letterman was so stupid, he said, that he’d watch O’Brien and think, “Geez, I wish I had a show.” (He’d started his new CBS show months earlier.)
Complimenting O’Brien on the high quality and volume of the comedy he was producing, Letterman creates his own passing-the-torch moment, not unlike Carson doing the same for him a few years earlier (see below). The O’Brien compliments don’t last for long, however: “How did you get this job? Win a theme-writing contest?”
Howard Stern on ‘Late Night with David Letterman’
Back in the day, a Stern appearance on a late-night talk show was an event. He famously hated Jay Leno, so he saved his best for Letterman. On this 1986 appearance, we get a slice of everything that made the original Howard Stern show stand out from the Morning Zoo dreck on the radio dial — he was self-aggrandizing, brutally honest to the point of being cruel and completely disrespectful to everyone who paved the way for him (specifically, Don Imus and Johnny Carson). 1980s Stern was the anti-Fallon, going out of his way to make people uncomfortable, even people he liked such as Letterman. Talking about Lesbian Dial-A-Date and bestiality wasn’t your normal NBC fare back then — Stern felt unpredictable and dangerous, two traits guaranteed to make a talk-show appearance memorable.
Joan Rivers on ‘The Tonight Show’
How good a talk show guest was Joan Rivers on The Tonight Show? She turned her killer appearances into becoming Carson’s permanent guest host, then became the first woman to lead her own late-night show. (Unfortunately, that led to a long-running feud with Carson, but that’s another story.)
In this clip, Rivers is appearing in the author slot, usually reserved for someone hawking a book (indeed, her Enter Talking was just out in stores). But no dry literary talk here — Rivers starts in with the one-liners and doesn’t let up for 12 minutes. Every sentence out of her mouth is a punchline. “With age comes wisdom,” she tells Carson. “You don’t need big boobs to be feminine. Look at Liberace.”
Johnny Carson on ‘Late Night with David Letterman’
Used to be, the host of The Tonight Show mattered. It was a career maker for Steve Allen, Jack Paar, and of course, Johnny Carson. And with Carson set to retire, everyone assumed the throne would be turned over to the man who followed him on late night for years, David Letterman. That ain’t how it worked out, though. Read Bill Carter’s The Late Shift if you really want all the deets, but the TL;DR version? Jay Leno got the gig.
But that didn’t mean Leno got the respect. Letterman moved to CBS with The Late Show, and less than a year later, he booked a special guest. Carson never appeared on Leno’s Tonight Show, but here was Letterman introducing Carson, who took a seat behind Letterman’s desk to a massive ovation. According to Jason Zinoman’s Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night, “Carson had made it clear which late-night host he preferred and provided a satisfying coda to the drama of the late-night war: David Letterman was the favorite son.”
It was Carson’s last-ever TV appearance, although he occasionally sent Letterman jokes just to stay in practice.
Conan O’Brien on ’Late Show with David Letterman’
It’s not that we like dunking on Jay Leno… Well, maybe it is like that. The middle-of-the-road Tonight Show host somehow bamboozled two late-night greats out of a job, so when Leno gets held accountable? We’re here for it.
So was Letterman, so damn happy to see Conan land on his feet after Leno’s screw job: “I was delighted by everything that happened except for you losing your job.” Letterman calls Leno’s take-back of The Tonight Show a “felony,” obviously still hurting over what had happened to him years earlier. Conan admits he never had much in common with Leno, seeing as he personally didn’t own vehicles manufactured before 1904.
It’s a spite party, and everyone’s invited. When it comes down to it, what’s more late-night fun than that?