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Ranking the Acting Careers of Late Night Talk Show Hosts

Talk Show Hosts Acting Roles

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Late night hosts are no strangers to acting. They have to sell monologue jokes, appear in sketches, and pretend to find their guests interesting. But, from time to time, they all want to step out from behind the desk, and stretch their talents as far as a sitcom their producing or a former writer’s movie project will let them. Here’s a look at many of our favorite late night hosts playing parts other than themselves.

19. Larry Wilmore, The Nightly Show

Before taking over the post-Colbert slot, Wilmore served as The Daily Show‘s Senior Black Correspondent. But he also had a deep career in Hollywood as a writer and creator of shows like Bernie Mac and The PJs. He’s also turned up in brief acting roles as everything from a racial sensitivity trainer on The Office to a cop on The Facts of Life.


18. Chris Hardwick, @Midnight

Hashtag game guru Hardwick is of course no stranger to game shows, having cohosted MTV’s Singled Out during the ’90s. He’s also done a few acting roles, mostly voiceover work on shows like Sanjay and Craig and Back at the Barnyard.


17. Jay Leno, The Tonight Show

America’s favorite least favorite late night host struggled for years trying to find the right fit for his talents. It helps explain why he would hide in a closet, eavesdropping on NBC execs, in an all-out attempt to win the coveted Tonight Show desk in 1992. This acting thing just wasn’t working out.

After cycling through a collection of bit parts on sitcoms like Good Times and Laverne & Shirley, his nadir happened in the form of a supposed buddy cop comedy with Pat Morita called Collision Course. When the pitch for your movie is Rush Hour on a budget, starring, “two law men as different as hots dogs and sushi,” you’d be desperate for a new gig too.


16. David Letterman, The Late Show/Late Night

David Letterman would be the first to tell you he’s no actor. He wasn’t even the best standup of his era, leaving that distinction to comics like Richard Pryor and a surprisingly edgy (in the ’70s, at least) Jay Leno. Outside of his revolutionary, legendary work on NBC’s Late Night and CBS’ The Late Show, he’s mostly popped up as himself in films like Man on the Moon and Private Parts. But there have been times when he’s stepped outside of his comfort zone. The first seems to be as a bit player on an episode of Mork and Mindy, where you can sense his wry humor fighting to break through.

But most famously, he appeared in the cult classic box office bomb Cabin Boy, written by and starring his former writer and protégé Chris Elliot. It would prove to be the last bit of real acting he would do,  unless you count voicing a depressed dog on Spin City acting.


15. James Corden, The Late Late Show

When he recently took over The Late Late Show, Corden was an unknown to most Americans. But besides starring as The Baker in Into the Woods, Corden had quite the acting career in the UK on shows like The Wrong Mans and Horne & Corden. He also played Smithy on the hit show Gavin & Stacey, which he cocreated with Ruth Jones.


14. Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Kimmel Live!

Jimmy Kimmel came about his late night career through a less traditional route — he was a morning DJ for a series of radio stations, before landing a hosting gig on the Comedy Central game show Win Ben Stein’s Money. (See, people tried to win money from Ferris Bueller star/former Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein and — it was the late ’90s. We were more easily entertained back then.) This of course led to a cohosting gig on The Man Show and future talk show glory. Outside of a cameo on his then girlfriend’s The Sarah Silverman Program, he mostly stuck to hosting gigs. The one exception was his voice work for Crank Yankers, a prank call show he produced in the early 2000s. He voiced two of its characters, the confused old man Elmer, and celebrity assistant Terrence.


13. Conan O’Brien, Late Night/The Tonight Show/Conan

Conan O’Brien has built a career on the back of his brilliant writing. In fact, it was a shock when he was handed the keys to Late Night in 1993, because no one has ever seen him perform much of anything, outside of extra work in the occasional SNL sketch.

But his unique blend of irreverent madness would slowly build a dedicated fan base. It was in these years, while still hosting Late Night, that he seemed to regularly pop up on friend’s television shows, from Spin City to Andy Richter Controls the Universe and 30 Rock.


12. Jon Stewart, The Daily Show

Jon Stewart has earned a place on the Mount Rushmore of late night hosts, but he went through a lot of lean years to get there. Back in the ’90s, as he struggled to front a show that would stick, he helped pay the bills with his acting work. For anyone who watches him these days, they know he takes great joy in mocking his big screen efforts. Still, while he never disappeared into his roles, he always did a serviceable job in movies like Half Baked, Death to Smoochy and Big Daddy. Jon, stop being so hard on yourself. Could be worse. You could’ve starred in Collison Course.


11. John Oliver, Last Week Tonight

John Oliver has only recently broken onto the late night scene, but he’s made a big impression. But before he headlined his own show, he was still a comedian looking for work. Outside of The Daily Show, he’s probably best known for his long-running role of Professor Duncan on Community. And, of course, a cameo in The Love Guru as Dick Pants that’s best left forgotten.

10. Chelsea Handler, Chelsea Lately

Chelsea Handler had a sputtering acting career before creating her own late night hit on E!, Chelsea Lately. Since then, she’s popped up on Web Therapy with Lisa Kudrow, and Are You There, Chelsea?, a short-lived NBC series based on her book of the same name.


9. Scott Aukerman, Comedy Bang! Bang!

Mr. Aukerman hosts IFC’s own spin on a late night talk show, Comedy Bang! Bang!. But before developing this long running podcast for TV, he popped up in a who’s who of famous comedians’ projects. Many of them, he produced as well. From The Birthday Boys to Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Sarah Silverman Program to Austin Powers in Goldmember, Scott has been a player in underground comedy for nearly two decades. Even after all of that, he’s perhaps best known for being a writer and performer on HBO’s Mr. Show, which changed the game in comedy.


8. Arsenio Hall, The Arsenio Hall Show 

Arsenio Hall’s acting career may have burned quickly, but it burned bright. For one shining moment, he was a part of the biggest comedy one-two punch of the 80s. As Semmi, Prince Akeem’s loyal, scheming servant, he held his own against the hottest movie star in the world, Mr. Eddie Murphy. A talk show would get in the way of his acting career, but not before he’d get to voice the character of Winston in over 92 episodes of The Real Ghostbusters.


7. Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report

One could argue that Stephen Colbert was acting for his entire run on The Colbert Report. What could possibly be harder than playing “Stephen Colbert,” blowhard conservative, for 10 years straight? Here was a part that lived in the real world. That interacted with sitting Presidents. It’s a feat unlikely to be duplicated. But it certainly wasn’t his first brilliant performance.

After launching his career at Chicago’s legendary school of improvisation, Second City, he and longtime collaborators Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello created the sketch show Exit 57 for Comedy Central. That was quickly followed by the cult hit series Strangers With Candy, on which many viewers got their first taste of Colbert’s signature humor. Unless they remembered him from The Dana Carvey Show, that is.


6. Seth Meyers, Late Night

Seth Meyers is only beginning his late night run, after a long and successful career at Saturday Night Live. Like many a host before him, he realized that his talents lay in just being himself. That’s why we saw less of his SNL characters, like DJ Jonathan Feinstein and Boston Powers, over time, and more of him behind the desk at Weekend Update.

He also put together a forgettable collection of bit parts in big studio movies, like the terrified expectant father in New Year’s Eve, and a sleazy agent in American Dreamz.


5. Jimmy Fallon, The Tonight Show/Late Night

Where to start with young Mr. Fallon? He was a popular SNL cast member in the early 2000s, but had just as many detractors for his unrelenting habit of breaking during sketches. His foray into film, after leaving the show, was an unmitigated disaster, rife with bomb after bomb. (The only people who saw Taxi and Fever Pitch were Blockbuster employees on break.) But he’s turned it around, using his nice guy comedy to win over late night audiences, and has become one of the most powerful men on TV.


4. Craig Ferguson, The Late Late Show

Craig Ferguson started his career in a series on punk rock bands, including one with current Dr. Who Peter Capaldi. Soon realizing he was the funny one in the band, he found his way to comedy, and began booking work on BBC. One early part was on the cult hit Red Dwarf.

That led to American work, and perhaps his best-known role as Mr. Wick, Drew’s boss — and at one point, husband — on The Drew Carey Show.

Between Drew Carey and the Late Late Show, Ferguson had a string of popular films that he wrote and starred in. (You might remember Saving Grace, aka that old people smoking pot movie your grandma liked.) In more recent years, he’s guest starred on shows as diverse as Web Therapy and Hot in Cleveland. And with his talk show wrapped, he’s signed to star on a new ABC network pilot, The King of 7B. For a host who made his mark with his effortless personality, he’s also one of the more talented actors on this list.


3. Zach Galifianakis, Late World With Zach

Yes, Zach Galifianakis had a late-night talk show. You’re forgiven if you don’t remember Late World with Zach, which ran briefly on VH1 in the spring of 2002. But for those of us who were lucky enough to catch it, the show was an early showcase for Zach’s offbeat humor and musical stylings. Sadly, no one ever heard from him after VH1 dropped the show for repeats of I Love the ’80s.


2. Greg Kinnear, Talk Soup/Later

After hosting Talk Soup and Later (the NBC show that eventually became whatever Carson Daly hosts now), Greg Kinnear was on the verge of becoming a major player in late night comedy. Instead, he walked away, booking parts in movies like Sabrina and As Good As It Gets, earning an Oscar nomination for the latter. He has continued to work steadily in film for the last two decades, appearing in movies as diverse as Little Miss Sunshine and Auto Focus.


1. Joel McHale, Talk Soup

Perhaps the most proficient actor/late night host this side of Greg Kinnear, Joel doesn’t just pop up on a show here and there. He’s anchored the long running, seemingly unkillable sitcom Community through more speed bumps than a Greendale Community College loading zone and appeared in films like Spider-Man 2 and Merry Friggin’ Christmas.

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Inauguration Alternative

Bill Murray On Repeat

It's a movie "Murray-thon" all-day Friday on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs courtesy of GIPHY

Democrats, Republicans and Millennials agree: 2017 is shaping up to be a spectacle — a spectacle that really kicks into high gear this Friday with the presidential inauguration. Not only will the new POTUS swear in, but all the Country’s highest offices will be filled. It’s a daunting prospect, and to feel a little anxious about it is only normal. But if your anxiety is snowballing into panic, we have a solution:
Bill Murray.

He’s the human embodiment of a mental “Happy Place”, and there’s really no problem he can’t solve. So, with that in mind, how about we all set aside reality for a moment and let Bill take the pain away by imagining a top-shelf White House cabinet filled exclusively by his signature characters. Here are a few hypothetical appointments for your consideration…

Secretary of Defense:
Bill Murray from Stripes

His incompetence is balanced by charm, and dumb luck is inexplicably on his side. America could do worse.

Secretary of State:
Bill Murray from Lost In Translation

A seasoned globetrotter steeped in regional traditions who has the respect of the whole wide world. And he kills Costello in karaoke, which is very important.

Press Secretary:
Bill Murray from Ghostbusters

“Cats and dogs, living together. Mass hysteria.” Dude knows how to brief a room.

Secretary of Health and Human Services:
Bill Murray from What About Bob.

A doctor-approved people person who knows that progress is measured in baby steps.

Secretary of Energy:
Bill Murray from Groundhog Day

Let’s be honest, this world is going to need a lot of do-overs.

Feeling better? Hold on to that bliss. And enjoy a healthy alternative to the inauguration brouhaha with multiple Murrays all Friday long in an IFC movie marathon including Kingpin, Zombieland, Ghostbusters, and Ghostbusters II.

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Home Run

Hank Azaria Gets Thrown A Curve Ball

Brockmire Premieres April 5 at 10P

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection

Unless you’ve somehow missed every episode of the Simpsons since 1989, then surely you know that Hank Azaria is one of the most important character actors of our time. He’s so prolific and his voice is so dynamic that he’s responsible for more iconic personalities than most folks realize. Basically, he’s the great and powerful Oz — except that when you pull back the curtain the truth is actually more impressive. And now Hank is coming to IFC to bring yet another character to the TV pop culture hive mind in the new series Brockmire. Check out the trailer below.

Based on the following Funny or Die short and co-starring Amanda Peet, Brockmire follows the story of imploded major league sportscaster Jim Brockmire as he tries to resurrect his career by calling plays for a floundering minor league team in a podunk town.

The series is written by Joel Church-Cooper (Undateable) and produced by Funny or Die’s Mike Farah and Joe Farrell, meaning that there’s funny in front of the camera, funny behind the camera–funny all around. Sounds like a ball to us.

Brockmire premieres April 5 at 10P on IFC.

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Car Notes

Portlandia On People Who Can’t Park

Portlandia returns tonight at 10P on IFC.

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If flagrant bad parking takes nerve, then retaliatory note writing takes neuroses. Watch Fred and Carrie take passive aggression to next level in Car Notes, the new Portlandia web series presented by Subaru. The first episode is yours right here and now, and you can see every installment of Car Notes anytime online, on the IFC app and on demand.

Portlandia returns tonight at 10P on IFC.

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