The top 10 legends of late night


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The late night comedy talk show format is an institution nearly as old as television itself, one of the few that remain from those heady early days of visual media in every home. A brightened-up version of that same style is used for all sorts of daytime shows as well, but there’s some enduring charm about comedians set loose during the waning hours of the day, or more dangerously, the wee hours of the morning. For the most part, it can be a grind, but there’s always that sense that anything can happen when writers get slaphappy or guests go far off script – all of which takes a strong personality to emcee the proceedings and bring it all together. Here are ten of the most legendary late night hosts ever to grace the small screen.

1. Steve Allen

You have to start with the man who started it all. In 1953, this intellectual musical-comedy showman joined NBC and started “Tonight,” a 1.5 hour talk-variety show with future “Match Game” host Gene Rayburn as his announcer which he based on a local New York show he’d been doing. Everybody doing the late night talk show schtick owes a debt to Allen and his innovations, not to mention his talent for wordplay. On the first show, he made a joke about the length of the broadcast, quipping “I want to give you the bad news first: this program is going to go on forever…” Little did he know how prescient he was – nearly 60 years later, it’s still on the air, and his declaration that it was not a spectacular, but rather monotonous is eerily apt these days.

2. Jack Paar

In 1957, Allen left “Tonight” to work on his Sunday evening variety show competing with Ed Sullivan, and in July of that year, Paar became the new host, and the tone shifted into something else until 1962. With Hugh Downs as his announcer, Paar’s show was more cerebral, as he was not really much of a showman. He was a conversationalist and a storyteller with a penchant for getting particularly emotional – he once walked off the show in mid-broadcast for about a month after a joke he told was censored. He had public feuds as well, with people like Ed Sullivan and noted muckraker Walter Winchell. Eventually, the workload was too much for Paar, and he moved to prime time, handing off the show to one of his guest hosts –a guy you may have heard of.

3. Johnny Carson

The reigning king of late night for 30 years, Carson set the standard and inspired an entire generation of comics to prove their worth to him, because if you could get a stand-up spot on his “Tonight Show” and get the rare call to come chat with him at the desk, your career was made. He defeated all comers, survived all sorts of changes in popular culture, and he’s still the model everyone else aspires to be. He could take the lead and be hilarious if need be, and he was never hesitant to lean back and play straight-man or support – whichever made his guests come off the best. His monologues were the last thing a grateful nation wanted to hear before going to sleep each night. You just can’t touch this guy.

4. Dick Cavett

This wry intellectual got his start by slipping monologue jokes to Jack Paar while working as a gofer for TIME Magazine, and Paar then brought him on board as a talent coordinator for “Tonight.” He left the show not too long into Carson’s reign to try his hand at his own show – and while his late night effort lasted only five years on ABC, but enough wild controversy and strikingly strange things happened to merit a legendary status. Be it Salvador Dali throwing an anteater into Lillian Gish’s lap, or Norman Mailer getting drunk and having it out with Gore Vidal, or Marlon Brando post-Oscar-rejection, or a Vietnam war debate with John Kerry that earned the ire of President Nixon – hell, a man even died on stage with him once. Through it all, his clever wit has served him well.

5. Tom Snyder

The time slot after “The Tonight Show” was opened up in 1973, when Snyder’s “The Tomorrow Show” began. He preferred a pared down style with no audience, band or any of the usual trappings. Instead, he would just have a guest on, sit down and have a long, in-depth conversation full of actual human moments rather than scripted banter. He was John Lennon’s last televised interview during the whole deportation debacle, and he was “Weird Al” Yankovic’s first television appearance ever – not to mention his notorious moments with both Johnny Rotten and with KISS. Eventually, the show was canceled to make way for David Letterman’s new show, but Dave always idolized him, and once he moved to CBS, he brought Snyder in as the first host of The Late Late Show in 1995. His laugh could bowl you over, and his sentiment would make you think, and he’d always tell us to “fire up a colortini, sit back, relax, and watch the pictures, now, as they fly through the air.”

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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