The television talk show genre has evolved and changed since its first iterations in the 1950s and 60s, some offering comedy and humor, others providing thought-provoking conversations. But all talk shows depend on the host to set the tone and engage the audience.
Johnny Carson will be forever known as the king of late night television. His 30 years as host of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson serves as an achievement — both in longevity and artistically — for current and future talk show hosts to emulate.
Carson reinvented the monologue, scored with clever skits and memorable characters, and became loved by Americans young and old. He had a gentle, self-effacing style and knack for making guests feel comfortable and interesting.
Nearly every major talk show host of the last 20 years includes Carson as both an inspiration and an influence. He died in 2005.
Beloved internationally and the sovereign of a media empire that includes television, film, radio, web and social media, education, and more, Oprah Winfrey is one of those celebrities who’s first-name-only famous.
Her eponymous show appealed to women in a way few others did at the time, launched a book club that helped catapult books to the top of best-seller lists, and was responsible for introducing other talk show celebrities such as Dr. Phil McGraw.
Oprah started as an on-air television reporter in Chicago, then launched her own local talk show in Chicago in the mid-1980s. She now has her own network and slate of shows, and frequently tops most-influential and most-powerful lists.
The Oprah Winfrey Show ended in the summer of 2011, but Winfrey has continued to build her empire, appearing in and producing movies and remaining active in media.
Phil Donahue is credited with creating the audience-participation format talk show. His show ran for 29 years, ending in 1996. Donahue tackled controversial topics on his show, setting the stage for many of the cable talk shows that exist today. He provided a platform for people like consumer advocate Ralph Nader and is cited by Oprah Winfrey as a major influence.
The heir apparent to Johnny Carson’s late-night crown, David Letterman was the talk show host that talk show hosts yearned to be, almost the anti-Johnny Carson. He had a cranky and irritable persona but introduced new ideas in his time slot immediately following The Tonight Show, including his Top Ten lists and Stupid Pet Tricks.
The network gave Jay Leno The Tonight Show hosting duties when Carson retired. Letterman was angered by the decision because he thought the job was his and decided to leave NBC. He was welcomed by CBS with his own show in 1993, which ran opposite The Tonight Show until 2015 when Stephen Colbert took the reins.
Letterman launched a new talk show titled My Next Guest Needs No Introduction on streaming platform Netflix in 2018.
Steve Allen was Tonight’s first host, and his run on the show (from 1954 to 1957) set the stage for nearly every talk show to come. Allen is considered the originator of the talk show monologue, sketches, and audience interaction. So it’s reasonable to consider Allen, the father of the modern-day talk show.
Because Allen was so popular with viewers, NBC gave him his own prime-time talk show. Rather than quit the Tonight Show, Allen hosted both programs simultaneously, sharing hosting duties with Ernie Kovacs during his final 1956-57 season.
Allen died in 2000.
You can’t talk about talk shows without talking about Dick Cavett. The man hosted chat fests for more than 50 years, and his namesake program, The Dick Cavett Show, has appeared in various forms on ABC, CBS, PBS, USA, CNBC and TCM in daytime, late night and prime time. He wrote a blog for The New York Times and is the author of Talk Show.
Merv Griffin made daytime talk show television what it is today. He began his career in 1948 as a big band singer, the crooner behind the hit song I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Cocoanuts. Success pushed him into the television business, and Griffin worked as a game show host and guest host for Jack Paar on The Tonight Show.
Many thought he would succeed Paar, but that job went to Johnny Carson. Instead, Griffin hosted his own daytime talk show. The Merv Griffin Show, which debuted in 1965 and ran — in fits and starts — for 21 years, ending in 1986. He also created the hugely popular game shows Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy.
Griffin died in 2007.
Jon Stewart’s Daily Show influenced the political discourse like no other talk show.
His version of The Daily Show (he was its second host, inheriting the desk from Craig Kilborn in 1999) was a must-stop for political campaigners – right- or left-wing – and Stewart provided intellectual discourse and probing questions that rivaled Sunday morning political shows.
Stewart left the show in 2015, handing off hosting duties to Trevor Noah. The Daily Show is responsible for launching the careers of other late-night television stars, including Samantha Bee and Stephen Colbert, and the acting career of Steve Carell, all of whom were “correspondents” on the show.
Kimmel, who started as a standup comedian and co-host of The Man Show on Comedy Central, has won multiple Emmys, including for his self-titled late-night show on ABC.
Jimmy Kimmel Live! debuted in 2003, and has carried on the cranky everyman humor of David Letterman, whom Kimmel cites as his main influence. Kimmel’s show has become known for his use of social media, including YouTube videos and skits involving celebrities. The show has a long-running joke involving actor Matt Damon; the show runs out of time before Damon can appear, and Kimmel apologizes (the two are actually friends).
Kimmel has spoken about personal issues on his show as well, including the medical condition of his son Billy, born with a congenital heart defect.
Ellen DeGeneres is perhaps best known for being one of the first actresses to come out as a lesbian on TV. She made the announcement on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1997, and her character Ellen Morgan on the sitcom Ellen also came out (to a therapist character played by Winfrey).
DeGeneres’ daytime show debuted in 2003 and features a largely female studio audience. DeGeneres is known to dance her way on stage as the show opens. She’s also known for surprising her guests and conducting contests during the show. To younger fans, DeGeneres is known as the voice of the forgetful fish Dory in the animated films Finding Nemo and Finding Dory.