The late-night ground is shifting, and with the 2016 election less than a month away – and wilder than ever – the shows are particularly relevant.
Now that legends of late night like David Letterman and Jay Leno have moved on, others are quickly rising or trying to figure out their place: Stephen Colbert, in a move from Comedy Central to Letterman’s CBS spot; Trevor Noah, the still-newish millennial face of “The Daily Show”; and perhaps most notably, Samantha Bee, whose acerbic, bawdy, and pointedly feminist weekly take on the news on TBS feels connected to Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” tenure. Larry Wilmore, after struggling to find his audience, was sadly canceled by Comedy Central.
There are the other hosts of course, like Jimmy Fallon and James Corden, whose work only occasionally touches on political satire, yet they’ve amassed passionate followings for their antics like “Carpool Karaoke” and “Lip Sync Battle.”
But which of the late-night shows is most worth your time? We watched all of today’s major players, focusing on the comedy-centric programs, and assessed the best and worst.
Here are the best and worst in late night, ranked:
13. “Last Call with Carson Daly” (NBC)
Carson Daly’s very late offering, “Last Call,” feels like the gig that best fits the former ’90s MTV veejay. He’s come out of his shell on “The Voice” and shows his chipper side in the morning for the “Today” show’s Orange Room. But “Last Call” allows him to use strange camera angles, don his leather jacket, and give bands some exposure. From performances to interviews, the show plays with artsy technique and effects. It’s not for everyone, but that’s probably why it’s at 1:35 a.m.
12. “@midnight with Chris Hardwick” (Comedy Central)
- Comedy Central
Perhaps the first late-night show catering to millennials, “@midnight” combines the internet’s most trending topics with comedians to create a hilarious half-hour of television. Chris Hardwick is the perfect mix of geek and jokester as the host, not overshadowing the comics but also holding his own. If you are tired of the traditional late-night format, give this a try.
11. “Real Time With Bill Maher” (HBO)
Sometimes on a Friday night you need to vent, and over on HBO there’s no one better to give you that release than Bill Maher. His venom is usually directed toward the Republicans, but in this current climate of gun violence and presidential hopefuls he has enough contempt for everyone. Sometimes his guests can’t get a word in, but on the right night when there’s a good mix of topics to discuss and guests who aren’t scared by Bill, it can be a lot of fun.
10. “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” (Comedy Central)
- Comedy Central
There’s no getting around the fact that when Trevor Noah started, he looked like a kid in his first suit. The new “Daily Show” host is still green – the South African comedian had made a scant few appearances on the show before replacing Jon Stewart. But with most of the same staff in place, the writing remains extremely sharp, and Noah has gradually gotten more sure-footed (though his interviewing could use work), even relying on his South African identity to sharpen his humor.
9. “Late Night with Seth Meyers” (NBC)
Seth Meyers went into the “Late Night” gig with the force of “Saturday Night Live” behind him. Lorne Michaels produces the talk show, too. If you believe that Meyers was the best news reader of recent “SNL” history, then you probably get a kick out of seeing him behind the desk for the show’s first half. And while Meyers isn’t always the smoothest interviewer, he has become essential for “A Closer Look,” his quick-witted deeper looks into political turmoil or other newsy topics.
8. “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” (NBC)
Though Fallon replaced Jay Leno on the top-rated late-night show, and continues to deliver stellar ratings, he shares little with either his predecessor or Leno rival David Letterman. Fallon eschews many of the old standard bits and sit-down interviews in favor of involving celebrities in random games. They can be twee, but when they work, they really work, showing off more of the celebrities’ natural personalities than rehearsed anecdotes ever would (just watch Channing Tatum lie).
Fallon is also an endlessly delighted host. He fawns all over his guests, telling them how much he loves them and their work, which can grow tiresome. It also started an uproar when critics thought he was way too easy and playful with Donald Trump. The seriousness of the presidential election may not be the optimal time for his style. Still, he has the pull to get the biggest guests of any late-night show, which makes for reason enough to watch.
7. “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” (HBO)
- Comedy Central
Oliver may have decamped from “The Daily Show,” but it’s fair to assume that many of Jon Stewart’s most die-hard fans have drifted over to the English comedian’s HBO program. Presented in a weekly format, “Last Week Tonight” allows Oliver to unpack a complex, highly important political subject with the same kind of dry wit that made Stewart beloved – though it can also sometimes come off as smug. If you didn’t already understand what civil forfeiture is, he’ll get you up to speed and make you smile.
6. “The Late Late Show with James Corden” (CBS)
The choice of Brit James Corden to replace Craig Ferguson on CBS’s “Late Late Show” was puzzling to some at first. But really, that time of the night is a good chance to test out new talent, and he has proved his worth to the network and then some. The comedian is clearly comfortable as a song-and-dance man. He’ll take any opportunity to show that off. His regular “Carpool Karaoke,” which has had on everyone from Britney Spears to Michelle Obama, is being spun off into its own show.
Like on some British talk shows, Corden interviews multiple guests at the same time. That can make for some messy conversations when you really want to hear someone out. But it also can bring some great moments when all the stars are aligned, as when he improvises a song about scary clowns with Stevie Nicks. That’s not something you see on every (read: any other) late-night show.
5. “Watch What Happens: Live” (with Andy Cohen, Bravo)
It’s hard to find anyone who’s having a better time on his or her show than Andy Cohen (sorry, Jimmy Fallon). The Bravo executive has turned himself into the emcee of all things Bravo with the wrap-up episodes of its “Housewives” franchise. But now he has combined that lack of fear to ask the embarrassing question with his good nature to make “Watch What Happens: Live” into a must-see. And it’s even more fun when his guests are a little tipsy on the free booze they are given.
4. “Conan” (TBS)
Conan O’Brien, along with Bill Maher, has been around longest on this list (each started his first late-night show in 1993). And for better or worse, it shows. O’Brien works the most loosely with his material, which allows for ingenious asides and bits of explosive physical comedy that make “Conan” stand out. It is often laugh-out-loud funny. But the show’s writing is not always the sharpest, and O’Brien can occasionally seem bored with the task of interviewing his second-tier guests.
3. “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” (CBS)
Stephen Colbert’s switch from his satirical conservative persona on “The Colbert Report” to a more traditional late-night format on CBS (taking over for David Letterman) raised all kinds of questions: What would actual Colbert be like, and would he be as funny?
It turns out “The Late Show” gives Colbert the freedom to perform all kinds of hosting styles, breaking free of the shackles associated with the gig and playing to his diverse strengths. He frequently launches into characters for sketches at the top of the show to lambaste political news. But then he can also give sobering, thoughtful interviews, as he did with Joe Biden. Not quite everything on Colbert’s new show works, and sometimes he seems a bit uncertain in his natural, less intense, real Colbert mode. But he’s still a one-of-a-kind comedic talent when it all comes together.
2. “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” (TBS)
- “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee”/TBS; YouTube
The latest cable move in late night is the weekly format. Seemingly inspired by John Oliver’s popular Sunday HBO show, Samantha Bee (a veteran of “The Daily Show”) has started picking apart the week’s biggest issues and calamities with her no-nonsense humor Mondays on TBS. The lone woman on late night, she’s also willing to explicitly bring gender into the picture in ways that are biting and gutsy, as when she called out House Speaker Paul Ryan with the P-word heard round the world after the leaking of Donald Trump’s vulgar “Access Hollywood” tape.
It’s a show that would make Jon Stewart’s old “Daily Show” proud, but one that speaks to a different era. “Full Frontal” is truly helping to remake late night, and Bee is the perfect person for the job.
1. “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” (ABC)
- ABC/Randy Holmes
Jimmy Kimmel seems to be having the most fun of any of today’s late-night hosts, which means we have fun watching it, too. He’s a prankster who relishes in the stock in trade of the classic late-night shows, the man-on-the-street interview, asking regular people absurd questions that get absurd answers, and starting a possibly staged feud with Kanye West. And he’s been lucky with his guests, getting the cast and filmmakers of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “The Hateful Eight” to join for the party, and able to offer a few scoops. He’s also not afraid to get confrontational with the year’s presidential candidates.
Kimmel does it all, and he does it well and funny – which is pretty much the most you can ask of a late-night host.