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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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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…