Aren't you excited? A totally trivial list of the top 3 shows/hosts in 5 different categories, picking from a genre of no more than a dozen total shows. So while 2009 was the year that talk shows seemed to dominate the airwaves (Really? 3.5 hours of talk every night on NBC? Really!?), it's still a pretty limited game, especially in late night.
Since I do watch almost every night of almost every show on late night television, it seems, I like to think I'm a bit of an authority on the work of comedic talk shows. So who better to come up with a list (that holds little clout) of what was the best of the decade's final year?
Hopefully, this list will actually just serve as a venue for you to give YOUR take on the year's best. If my opinion matters in any way at all, then yours certainly does, too!
But first, here's one man's take...
This should come as no surprise to longtime ShowbizMonkeys.com visitors. Even though it doesn't quite have the same bite as the ol' Late Night show, Conan's move to The Tonight Show has proven to be consistently the best hour of late night comedy on television. And it shows no signs of slowing down, even if the ratings aren't as strong as NBC would like. Creatively, any comedy fan can see continued improvement in the show, including the little things like moving Andy from his podium to the couch after the first commercial break.
Close behind are the Comedy Central giants, who had a stellar 2009 despite having to make political comedy WITHOUT George W. Bush in office. And while Saturday Night Live has suffered a bit without the looming election it had in 2008, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and the many writers on both shows have continually delivered the goods, night after night. Plus, to The Daily Show's credit, I think they've finally found a staff of Correspondents that can arguably rival the years when Colbert, Steve Carell, Ed Helms, and Rob Corddry ran things.
No interviewer within the "classic" late night talk show set-up has done more research and seems more interested in the guests than Strombo. Sure, there's Charlie Rose over at PBS, and our good friend Kevin Pollak online, but stuck in the relatively traditional format (one or two interview segments bookended by commercials), none of the other hosts come close to George. However, there are others who are great for other reasons.
Ferguson just sits and has conversations with his guest, free of cue cards or pointers. Sure, he often doesn't know very much about who he's talking to, but it makes for interesting conversation and pretty great television. It's even better when he has close friends on (and he's made quite a few over the years, both in his early days in the UK and then during his rise up on TV and in films). Seeing two people just sit and talk about whatever is only really interesting if the people are entertaining, and thankfully, Craig is.
Colbert, on the other hand, has to be ultra-prepared, as he has to improvise in character based on his guest's responses. This scenario often results in some of the funniest (and times awkward) moments on his show. The interviews may be short, and they may often be one-sided (though if the guest is willing to play along, they're certainly afforded the opportunity to retort), but they're almost always brilliant, much like Stephen himself (the comedian, not so much the character).
Craig is simply the best. He goes out every night with some ideas of what he will talk about, but with no cue cards or script. He just has a conversation with the camera and the in-studio audience about whatever is on his mind that night. He obviously has some pre-planned jokes or lines to get to, and I'm sure he has a general "end point" figured out, but he's consistently funny without having to resort to punch lines.
However, that's not to say that jokes aren't good. The art of joke-writing is still alive, and thanks to a great monologue-writing staff led by the hilarious Brian Kiley, Conan O'Brien has some great zingers every night. But what separates him from the rest of the conventional joke-tellers is the way he handles the ones that don't go so well or get weird reactions. His best monologues are the ones that end up going off the rails for one reason or another.
David Letterman rounds out the Top 3. While many say Jay Leno's strength is his jokes, I have to disagree -- he may come at you with a ton of them, but they very rarely get even a chuckle out of me. Maybe I'm too young to find him funny?
This one may be a bit of an upset. I love the writers at The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien. They're brialliant. I could point out who most of them are. I've even met a few of them and interviewed one. But at The Tonight Show, things more often than not veer towards spectacle, and more time is alotted to the interviews, leaving less of an opportunity for the great writing that would've put Late Night on top of this list in 2008 (had it existed). The show is moving towards more sketches these days, so this could be their award again in 2010.
Instead, the two Comedy Central shows take the writing crown for 2009. Number one is Colbert and his staff, who have to write four shows a week around a fake pundit, manage to do so with such brilliant attention to detail and occasional bits of extreme silliness. Plus, the way they continue to come up with great ongoing bits and medling schemes (like the 2008 Presidential Run, the push to get a NASA treadmill in space named after Colbert, and decided to fund the U.S. Olympic Speedskating Team) makes them almost legendary with their ideas. All Jon Stewart and his staff do is consistently make us laugh every night, while effectively pointing out all that is insane in the world of the the 24-hour news networks and the U.S. political system.
A perhaps surprise 3rd place finisher is Fallon's new Late Night show. Late Night with Jimmy Fallon is staffed with some great comedy writers like A.D. Miles and Anthony Jeselnik, who write enough strange, weird, and off-the-wall absurd comedy pieces to counter-act the insanely boring and unentertaining audience participation segments such as "Lick It for 10" and "Cell Phone Photo Challenge" (thank the Lord for "Wheel of Carpet Samples", the only audience segment really worth watching -- especially when it was co-hosted by the legendary John Cleese!).
This one is actually quite hotly-debated. After Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show Band" with Doc Severinsen left the airwaves, the crown naturally slid over to the great Paul Shaffer and his new CBS Orchestra over at The Late Late Show. Then Conan emerged as the host of Late Night in 1993 with Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band drummer Max Weinberg and a tight jazz septet, and for years "The Max Weinberg 7" was considered by many to be the most talented band in late night, being so proficient in everything from rock to jazz to funk, and everything in between (just ask Jeff Goldblum).
But when Jimmy Fallon announced that legendary hip-hop group The Roots would be joining him on Late Night, the whole game changed. Long-considered one of the most talented bands in the world PERIOD, Fallon immediately started introducing them as "The Greatest Band in Late Night", and he isn't wrong. They're so unbelievably skilled, and not just in hip-hop and its related styles. Plus, ?uestlove is so inventive with the songs they play the guests out to.
While the Max Weinberg-led Tonight Show Band is still a solid group (now an octet), and nobody can deny Schaeffer's legendary status, The Roots now take the cake here.
That's it for this year! So what do you think? What did I get right? What was I way off on? Let me know who your favourites were in 2009, and what some of your most memorable late night moments of the year were. I've got tons of my own, but I'm curious to hear yours!
Paul Little is the founder and Managing Editor of ShowbizMonkeys.com. When not interviewing his favourite musicians and comedians, he can also be found at The Purple Room in Winnipeg, where he is Artistic Director. (@comedygeek)
I pretty much agree, except the Wheel of Carpet Samples makes me embarrassed for ol' Jimmy. But I keep hearing rumours about Leno taking back over Tonight? Travesty! Get him off my television! Anyone who says his strength is his jokes knows nothing of funny.
Paul Little says...
Yeah, I'll likely be doing a LOT of talking about what's going on at NBC in Sunday's late night listings. It's pretty much pure insanity right now!
Paul, I'm sorry but I must protest the #1 best overall Late Night Show. I love Conanza but The Tonight Show has just not been as good as Late Night with Conan O'Brien was, and definitely not as good as Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Jimmy has taken over my late night watching love and devotion.
I hope we can still be friends.