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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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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.