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Best of America Volume 4 - Ranking the Best Hosts of Late Night TV

Patrick Crawley |
April 4, 2011 | 3:09 a.m. PDT

Senior Sports Editor

Conan O'Brien, genius comedian. (Creative Commons/mrlaugh)
Conan O'Brien, genius comedian. (Creative Commons/mrlaugh)
When I was growing up, David Letterman ruled late night. My friends and I didn't watch anybody else. Letterman was the king.

He had the best guests, the best monologues, the best skits and the best musical guests. Nobody was doing what he was doing. He was untouchable.

Dave was our go-to guy throughout junior high and high school (the mid-to-late 90s). We didn't even consider watching Leno. He was the other guy.

Leno was okay, but Dave was on another level.

That's changed now. Somewhere between high school and graduate school (an 11-year stretch for me), Letterman's reign at the top ended.

Health and family issues took their toll on him -- not to mention all those in-house romances. He's still good, but it's nothing like back in the day, which creates a void at the top.

Late night's expansion into the realm of cable has created a diverse mix of hosts -- Leno, Conan, Kimmel, Jon Stewart, Jimmy Fallon, Craig Ferguson, Stephen Colbert and George Lopez (I know, I'm sorry, I promise never to mention him again) -- but nobody's been good enough to grab the crown.

With that in mind, I watched a full week of talk shows last week in an attempt to crown a new king of late night. I analyzed the hosts based on categories such as best monologue, best musical guests and best sketch, and used that info to rank them 1-7.

[Quick note: I'm excluding the political shows, Stewart and Colbert, based partially on content (they don't follow the traditional talk show format) and partially on personal bias (I think they're funny but the schtick wears on me after a while).]

The results may surprise you. 

Here's the best of America, late night talk show edition:

Best monologues: Conan O'Brien

A Conan monologue is never pretty. It's always funny, though. Physically, there's nobody better. Not in late night anyway.

If Conan flubs a line or a joke falls short, he goes into contortionist mode, screwing up his face and throwing his arms into T-Rex hunting position. It's the perfect trick. You completely forget he messed up in the first place.

Last week, the go-to move was a full body spin. He used it all night. Botch a joke? Do a spin. Forget a line? Do a spin. Quiet audience? Do a spin.

It was perfect. He even used it in the middle of an interview with Kaley Cuoco.

Of course, Conan's monologues are funny without the physical stuff (that's just used for mistakes). He has a great staff of writers and, as a former writer himself, delivers his lines really well. Combine that with a quick wit (word of advice, audience members: don't try to go toe to toe with Conan; he will mess you up) and you have the best monologue-ist in the business.

And, no, I'm not just saying that just because he's Irish. My analysis goes beyond (pale) skin deep.

You're right. That was awful.

[Cue full body spin.]

Best sketches: Jimmy Kimmel

Sorry, Jaywalking. This one's easy. Kimmel has given us a murderer's row of sketches over the years: Handsome Men's Club, I'm F***ing Ben Affleck, Josh Groban Sings Kanye Tweets, Tom Hanks' Toddlers and Tiaras. He's so dominant, it borders on unfair.

His sketch lineup is like the 2009 Yankees. The other late night hosts shouldn't even pitch to him anymore.

With the exception of Conan -- I really like the webcam diary series -- nobody comes close in this category. In fact, I think we should move on. I have a feeling Leno's head is about to explode.  

Best interviewer: Jay Leno

Speaking of Leno, he's a tool -- he couldn't carry his 10 p.m. slot with that group of second-rate comedians he created, so he ran Conan out of NBC and took back his old 11:05 slot back; he's about as cool as a Hollywood studio head (and just as ruthless too)  -- but, let's face it, he's the best interviewer in the business. He prepares like crazy, remembers personal anectdotes from previous interviews and coaxes the best stories out of his guests.

He's like a big-chinned, gray-haired Oprah. He even tried to launch a magazine called "J," but they had to abandon the idea midway through. James Franco kept trying to smoke it.

If Letterman is the loose cannon uncle of the late night dinner circuit and Fallon is the manic cousin, Leno is the kind aunt. He always knows what to say to put people at ease. His guest chair is equal parts therapy couch and elementary school safe zone.

His affable nature is a gift (one he's used to build a 4 million-viewer audience).

When Vin Diesel made an appearance on Leno's show last week, he said it was like visiting an old friend, which is how I imagine many of Leno's guests feel.

Whether it's a manufactured effect or not is anybody's guess. But perception is reality, and Leno is winning the battle of perception to the tune of 600,000 viewers a night.

Best band: Jimmy Fallon

C'mon. It's The Roots. I'm a hip-hop guy. Of course I'm going to choose Fallon. In fact, when his show debuted in 2009, Questlove and co. were the only reason I gave it a chance. What? The Roots are on late night TV? Yeah, I'll watch that.

Not only are The Roots a talented backing band, they also have a top flight front man in Black Thought. Think about it. When's the last time you saw an MC in his prime performing every night on TV? Never, right? But that's The Roots and Black Thought. They could be releasing platinum albums every year if they wanted to. Instead, they play Fallon's show five nights a week. It's great.

Paul Shaffer may be a Grammy-nominated solo artist and the composer for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but even he can't match The Roots' versatility. I'll put it this way: Would the bands on Letterman or Conan be able to pull off a medley of Rebecca Black's Friday with Stephen Colbert, Taylor Hicks and a rap verse (from Black Thought)? I don't think so.

The Roots rule. End of story.

Best musical guests: David Letterman

This is a subjective choice, obviously, but really there's only one right answer. Picking your favorite show for musical guests is like picking your favorite Baldwin brother (Alec). Or your favorite American Idol judge (Simon; yeah, I know he's gone). Or your favorite flavor of Drumstick (easy, vanilla caramel).

Sure, there are other choices, but one clearly stands above the rest.

Each of the late night shows has a different musical feel. Leno prefers fluff bands (Good Charlotte, Dierks Bentley and Los Lonely Boys all made appearances last week). Kimmel sticks mostly to younger acts and indie bands (Young the Giant was on recently). And Fallon dips most often into the world of hip-hop (which, obviously, I'm a fan of).

But nobody puts together a better mix of musicians than Letterman. One night he'll have the Foo Fighters on the show. The next night it'll be Nas and Damian Marley. The next night it'll be The Black Keys. It's a revolving door of great music.

I'm often bored by his monologues these days (and I have no idea where he's going in half his interviews), but I'm rarely disappointed in Letterman's musical selection. He knocks it out of the park almost every time.

Best gimmicks: Fallon

This used to be Letterman's specialty. Rupert and the Hello Deli, shooting things out of cannons, the Top 10 list. He used to be an innovator.

Not anymore, though.

Now it's all about green-screening dictators faces on members of the audience and making fun of shirts that look like the tablecloths at an Italian restaurant.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Fallon is organizing games of dodgeball in the elevator bank and dousing audience members in caramel apple dip in a bit called Models & Buckets (Deal or No Deal meets Nickelodeon...genius). He's also challenging guests at beer pong, Pop-A-Shot and audience Skee-Ball.

Week after week, he comes up with new ways to entertain his audience, which is why if I had to choose one late night show to attend in person, I'd pick Fallon's.

His audience seems to have the most fun of any show in the late night circuit. Between the band and the gimmicks, I don't know how you could leave that set and not have a good time. It's like a really well-secured house party. I half expect Kid n' Play to show up every night.

Most entertaining overall: Kimmel

With that said (and this is a huge "with that said"), most people who watch late night TV don't watch in person. They watch in their beds or on the couch or the next day on their computers at work. They're a passive audience. They want an all-around entertaining show, which is why, despite the strengths of the shows mentioned above, I like watching Jimmy Kimmel Live the most of any late night show.

Sure, Kimmel has factors working against him -- his show starts at midnight while Leno and Letterman start at 11:35; he's younger than the old guns and therefore appeals to the shallower side of the 18-49 demographic; and he's perceived as a joke by some because of his stints on The Man Show and the Kevin and Bean show on KROQ -- but what really matters is the show, and his show is the most fun to watch.

Conan may have the best monologues (again, the physical comedy thing), but Kimmel is second best (if not third, depending on how you feel about Craig Ferguson's delivery). His writers are terrific, he delivers jokes well and he incorporates YouTube clips better than anyone around.

He's also great with guests. He remembers personal anectdotes like Leno, but he's more self-deprecating, which makes the atmosphere more fun.

When Danny McBride came on the show recently to promote his medieval comedy Your Highness, Kimmel wore a full suit of armor.

The armor came with a big, silly helmet, which Kimmel also wore. He could hardly hear because of it and it made him look silly, but he kept the helmet on for the whole interview. (Later the horse McBride rode in on took a dump on set, adding to the hilarity.) That's something you probably wouldn't see on The Tonight Show. Leno cares too much about his image to do something like that.

Later in the week, Kimmel had Jake Gyllenhaal on the show. Gyllenhaal became fixated with Kimmel's "wide' tie and wouldn't shut up about it. Rather than avoid the ribbing, Kimmel played into it. During the commercial break, he took a pair of scissors and cut the tie just below the knot, making it look even more awkward. The result was a funny bit.

Therein lies Kimmel's biggest asset: He loves what he does and he's not afraid to roll around in the mud with his guests to get a laugh.

If that means wearing a plastic helmet or cutting a tie or kissing Charlie Sheen on the lips, so be it.

Kimmel's a seasoned professional (unlike, say, Fallon at this stage in his career), but his ego is smaller than Leno and Letterman's, which allows him to pull off edgier, potentially more embarrassing material.

It's this duality that makes his show so terrific.

He knows what he's doing, but he's not afraid to take risks or make a fool out of himself, and his audience loves him for it.

Leno and Letterman come out ahead in the ratings by an average of about 2 million viewers a night, but if you gave me a choice, one late show for a whole year no exceptions, I'd pick Kimmel every time. He just has more fun, and, as a result, I have more fun too.


Using Kimmel as a barometer, here's how I rank the hosts:

7. George Lopez - Guests are okay, but his jokes aren't funny and I can't stand his set. I wish he would go away.

6. Craig Ferguson - He's funny, but I get tired of his antics and his delivery. Others like him a lot, though. There's a wide margin between him and Lopez.

5. Jimmy Fallon - I like how creative he is. He comes up with really innovative bits. I could see him coming into his own in a few years.

4. Jay Leno - He is what he is. Karma will come around sooner or later.

3. David Letterman - The old wizard. He pulls out his tricks every fourth or fifth day just to remind everyone he still has them. For instance, his interview last week with James Franco was terrific.

2. Conan O'Brien - Funny monologues, funny sketches, good with guests and his cartoon cameo on Young Justice has me in stitches every time. Losing Andy Richter would make this a much funnier show.

1. Jimmy Kimmel - For all the reasons I mentioned above. He's the best.


Best way to give back this week: The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research

My cause consultant says what better way to celebrate late night TV than by helping the man who brought us Back to the Future, one of the best late night TV movies of all-time. Makes sense, right?

Parkinson's is a disorder that affects one in 100 people over the age of 60. Michael J. Fox has it, and so do an estimated 5 million people worldwide (a million of whom live in the U.S.).

What makes Parkinson's frustrating is that it's a movement disorder. It degenerates the neurons in your brain that control functionality, causing you to lose partial control over your body. Imagine trying to change the channel away from Leno if your fingers aren't doing what your brain is telling them to do. Not fun times, right?

A million people in America deal with that frustrating reality every day.

To help them, donate to the Fox Foundation by visiting the website and clicking on the "Make a donation" link. Hopefully with our help they can find a cure soon.

Until next week...


Best of America is a weekly pop culture/sports column written by senior sports editor Patrick Crawley. Send feedback or suggestions to him by email or follow him on Twitter, @BasketballFiend.

Recommendations for cause of the week are welcomed at @aTouchofAir.



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