Ranked: The Best Talk Show Hosts of All Time, From Past to Present

The world of talk shows has definitely seen changes since they started in the 1950s. The first ever television talk show was hosted by Joe Franklin, an American radio and television personality. And NBC’s The Tonight Show has been on the air since 1954! And although its hosts have come and gone, it’s still the longest-running talk show to date.

Throughout the years, there have been all kinds of talk shows, providing audiences with entertaining comedy and humor, while others delivering thought-provoking conversations. But when it comes down to what makes people decide whether or not to watch a show, and also which one to choose (considering the competition), it all comes down to one factor: the host.

Nothing makes or breaks a talk show more than the host of the show. The host is the bread and butter of the one-hour program. Consider the difference between Johnny Carson, Oprah Winfrey, and Howard Stern. Exactly. Different hosts, different vibes. These are the talk show hosts that have graced our television screens, day and night, funny or serious, controversial or not. And yes, we’re saving the best for last!

35. Joan Rivers – Short Lived Yet Impactful

Before she became the shameless opinionated commentator of the do’s and don’ts of celebrity fashion on the red carpet, Joan Rivers was a pioneering stand-up comedian who made it big after appearing on Johnny Carson’s show.

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Rivers’s tagline was, “Can we talk?” and she was enthusiastic when interviewing all her guests. The Fox network gave her The Late Show With Joan Rivers, making her the first female late-night talk-show host.

34. Jerry Springer – Stirring Up Controversy

Whether you were a fan or not, Jerry Springer hosted one of the most memorable talk shows of all time. Compared to his competitors, Jerry’s show was one of the more passionate and sensational ones.

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He covered many topics, from the trivial to the outrageous. We all remember his show for the out of control guests who were apt to screaming at each other. It may now be seen as cliché, but at the time it was one of a kind.

Next, a show that is both insanely popular yet highly criticized!

33. Dr. Oz – Pseudo Science for the Masses

Mehmet Oz, the Turkish American TV personality and cardiothoracic surgeon is better known as Dr. Oz. own professionally as Dr. Oz. He became famous as a regular guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show. And when Oz went on to start his own show Second Opinion with Dr. Oz in 2003, Oprah was his first guest.

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He’s an advocate for alternative medicine, but while he may be been criticized for giving non-scientific advice and promoting pseudoscience, he is still loved by many Americans who watch his show in an attempt to learn something positive and take their health in their own hands.

32. Ricki Lake

Ricki starred in Hairspray, which earned her quite a bit of fame, but she’s best known for her talk show Ricki Lake which debuted in 1993 and lasted until 2004. When the show premiered, Ricki was only 24 years old, and was thus credited as being the youngest person to host a syndicated talk show at the time.

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In 2012, she starred in her second talk show project The Ricki Lake Show, but it only lasted one season. Regardless, she won her first Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Talk Show Host in 2013.

The next talk show host was at his peak in the mid-90s. Want to guess who it is?

31. Montell Williams – A Long-Running Daytime Host

Montel Williams is best known for hosting the long-running daytime talk show The Montel Williams Show, which aired from 1991 to 2008. After being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999, he founded the nonprofit MS Foundation.

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Williams received a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Talk Show Host in 1996. Ratings for his show were highest in the 1996–97 season.

30. Kelly Ripa – Kathie Lee’s Successor

Kelly Ripa has become a household name for almost 20 years now and is one of the most powerful images of daytime TV. Ripa has co-hosted Live with Regis and Kelly, as she replaced Kathy Lee Gifford. She and Regis had great chemistry together and stayed co-hosts until he retired.

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Regis was then replaced by Ryan Seacrest. And when talking about the difference between her co-hosts, the main thing was that Regis never spoke to her off-camera, while she and Ryan are close friends and share many off-camera conversations.

You definitely remember the next female host, who was as opinionated as she was focused on helping others!

29. Rosie O’Donnell – A Loud-Mouthed Do-Gooder

Comedian and actress Rosie O’Donnell created, hosted, and produced The Rosie O’Donnell Show which premiered in 1996, lasting 6 seasons. The show five Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Talk Show.

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During the show’s run, O’Donnell wrote her first memoir, “Find Me”, and developed the nickname “Queen of Nice.” She also become known for her philanthropic efforts. She used the book’s $3 million advance to establish her For All Kids foundation and promote other charity projects. She even encouraged celebrities on her show to take part in them.

28. Sally Jesse Raphael – Red Glasses and All

Sally Jessy Raphael is famous for her talk show program Sally (which was originally titled The Sally Jessy Raphael Show). Raphael became a talk show icon partly due to her oversized red-framed glasses, a trademark that happened by accident.

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During her first broadcast news job, on her first day on the job, she tripped and broke her glasses. With only minutes before the show’s taping, she ran to the nearest store to find a replacement pair. And the only pair that matched her prescription was cheaply made, with red frames. The studio execs didn’t like them, but the audience seemed to think they looked good, so she kept wearing them from then on.

The next host is known for her food show!

27. Rachael Ray

Rachael is one of Oprah’s protégés, in which she became known for her regular guest. She then moved on to create her own daily talk show Rachael Ray. She’s also on three Food Network series (30 Minute Meals, Rachael Ray’s Tasty Travels, and $40 a Day).

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Ray’s shows have won three Daytime Emmy Awards while she was nominated for 8 and didn’t win. She’s a staple in the food game and people just love to watch whatever she has up her sleeve.

26. Barbara Walters – The Respected Lady of Prime Time

Barbara Walters was a widely respected broadcast journalist, best-selling author, and iconic TV personality. In 1997, Walters created a hugely successful talk show for ABC, 20/20, and it’s still on the air after leaving the show. She then starred as a co-host on The View, but retired in 2014.

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She partially retired from prime time TV at the age of 73, after 25 years of conducting interviews for 20/20. It came as a shock to many when she retired from TV completely, as people have been so used to seeing Walters on their TV screens for most of their lives.

If you think of a late night host who caused raised eyebrows among the late night gang, who comes to mind?

25. Jay Leno – With Fame Comes Consequences

Jay Leno may be one of the most popular late night talk show hosts, but with fame, comes consequences. His spot on The Tonight Show cost him some drama among the group of late night hosts. And it’s because he made some rather cut-throat moves.

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First, he shoved David Letterman in 1992 in order to “inherit” The Tonight Show from Johnny Carson (who actually preferred Letterman). Then he passed the torch to Conan O’Brien in 2009, only to come back a few months later. Because of all this, Jay Leno isn’t the most admired by many comics. But Leno became a sort of comfort blanket for many Americans, like a comedy chamomile. He was affable and funny without being too clever. Hey, he managed to stay on the screen for 22 years! He’s on this list, but at the bottom. We appreciate his contribution, but there were better hosts that stole the show.

24. Dr. Phil – America’s Favorite Psychologist

This is another talk show that receives as much love as it does scorn. Dr. Phil, contrary to some rumors, is actually a licensed psychologist who really does have a lot of experience. He also got his start on the Oprah Winfrey Show. His show has been running for 19 years now, if that makes a difference.

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While he may be seen as sensational, he really does aim to provide help to each and every one of his guests. He doesn’t claim to have 8-minute cures, it’s just that a TV show is limited in the amount of air time it has.

The next talk show host was known as the frat boy of late night!

23. Craig Kilborn – The Frat Boy Host

Kilborn steered The Daily Show through its first cycle as a silly, pop-culture-obsessed show. TV Guide called it “TV’s hippest half hour.” With Kilborn, the debate has always been over whether he’s a frat-boy or if he was pretending to be one for the show.

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Kilborn said, “It’s a character I play,” but it was often difficult to be sure. In 1997, the network suspended him for a week after he made some unwholesome jokes on air.

Next, a loud-mouthed edgy host who is probably most known for her red carpet commentary!

22. Larry King – Keeping it Simple

One of the most iconic talk show hosts was as predictable as can be with his Brooklyn accent and red suspenders. King joined CNN in 1985, when it was in its early stages, and as he became the biggest star on cable TV, helping raise the network to distinction.

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King interviewed everyone, including eight presidents, and King was known to keep it simple with short, clear questions. He retired from Larry King Live in 2010, saying the greatest question an interviewer could ask is, “Why?” Turns out, King received much appreciate only after he was replaced by his successor, Piers Morgan.

Next in line, a famous talk show duo. You definitely remember them!

21. Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford – The Husband and Wife Kind of Duo

Now for some talk show hosts that accompanied us in the daylight hours, better yet the early morning hours. Regis and Kathie Lee were known for their mindless but good-natured back and forth kind of banter.

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The show was on the air for 12 years, but the two were each seasoned talk show hosts. Regis was Joey Bishop’s sidekick on a short-lived talk show in the ‘60s, and had been co-hosting a version of the morning talk show since 1975. Kathie Lee joined him in 1988 and the show was renamed Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee, becoming a staple of the coffee-in-hand mornings.

20. Merv Griffin – A Business Man in the TV Business

In 1969, CBS launched its first late-night talk show to compete with the almighty Carson. And they chose Merv Griffin, who already had a hit afternoon show. He only agreed to do it if he got paid double what Carson was getting. He was shocked when CBS agreed.

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Three years later, Griffin was fired by CBS, but he went on to launch his own talk show, which ran until 1986 and made him a TV king. Did you know that he created Jeopardy!? He even composed “Thinking,” the show’s famous theme song). He also created Wheel of Fortune, acquired a hotel empire, and made a fortune estimated at $1 billion.

You might know the next host for her “devilish side”!

19. Chelsea Handler – Embracing Her Devilish Side

Chelsea Handler was on the list of Time’s 2012 100 most influential people in the world. Handler is a rare breed of hostess and she’s no stranger to reality TV. She was a member of the all-female cast of a hidden camera reality series Girls Behaving Badly. She also appeared on Weekends at the D.L., The Bernie Mac Show, My Wife and Kids, and The Practice.

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But Handler is best known for hosting her late-night talk show Chelsea Lately on the E! Network. She’s notorious for her insult comedy and taste for satire. Handler is also an author and has written 5 books. She’s been quoted saying, “I’m a devilish kind of person, but I embrace it. I don’t try to fight it. It’s proven very well for me.”

18. Arsenio Hall – A Hip Hop Host

Aresenio Hall and his popular hit show were something of a phenomenon. Not only was it the first national late-night show hosted by an African-American, but one from the hip-hop generation. He wore his sunglasses and even had Bill Clinton playing the saxophone with the band.

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Arsenio became a late-night favorite from 1989 until 1993, when Letterman took over CBS’s 11:30 slot and basically stole Hall’s audience. A year later, his show was canceled.

Remember Politically Incorrect? The host moved on to host his own HBO show.

17. Bill Maher – A No-Nonsense Kind of Guy

Here’s another comedian turned talk show host that has been more successful on his late night shows than his stand-up. Bill is pretty much polarized by viewers. They either love him or hate him, and for the same reason – he has a no-nonsense attitude and isn’t afraid to speak his mind.

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Before his booming HBO show Real Time, he was seen on Politically Incorrect, another open-minded talk show that aired in the 90s before it got cancelled for its controversy related to the hot-button topics and bickering guests.

16. Jack Paar – Something of a Basketcase

Paar became the host of The Tonight Show in 1957, known as the first king of late night. His appeal “was danger.” He would do everything from cry on-camera, to speak about politics, argue with critics, and even threw actor Mickey Rooney off the show. And this was in the 50s don’t forget!

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Paar said himself, “I wanted it to feel like theater,” talking about his hour and 45 minute-long show. But his show lasted less than five years. One night, Paar walked offstage during his own show, leaving his announcer to finish the remaining hour and 16 minutes! Controversial, yet one of the best.

15. Tom Snyder – Arrogant but Memorable

Tom Snyder had a late-night one-on-one interview show called Tomorrow. It was a cultural benchmark of the ‘70s. You might even remember Dan Aykroyd’s impression of Snyder on Saturday Night Live. Snyder was somewhat of a caricature: tall, arrogant, big sideburns and a comb-over that began just above his right ear.

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But his uncompromising personality seemed to fit the late hour. He valued his own opinions more than his guests’ and laughed the most at his own jokes. NBC eventually cancelled his show and replaced him with Letterman. At a press conference, when Snyder asked Dave for advice, Letterman said, “Do something about the hair.”

14. Phil Donahue – The Man Who Inspired Oprah

Oprah once wrote “If there had been no Phil Donahue show, there would be no Oprah Winfrey show,” which clearly makes Donahue an influential figure in daytime-TV history. The Phil Donahue Show ran nationally from 1970 to 1996 and went over important social issues.

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Donahue took the concerns and interests of women seriously, which was quite refreshing in a rather male-dominated era. He was the first talk-show host to seek questions from his studio audience for his guests.

The next host, at #13 was as impactful as Carson was.

13. Dick Cavett – As Influential as Carson Was

Dick Cavett was famous for his aloof conversations. He was considered to be as influential, even as popular, as Johnny Carson. Cavett worked for Carson and Merv Griffin before ABC gave him a show in 1969.

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He was “noted for low-keyed humor and sophisticated barbs.” And unlike most other late night hosts, he wasn’t apolitical. He definitely stirred up controversy when he had the chance.

12. Craig Ferguson

Scottish-born comedian had been hosting The Late Late Show for less than three weeks when Johnny Carson died. From 2005 until 2014, Ferguson was considered one of the best hosts on late-night TV due to his blend of intelligence, honesty, swagger, and wit.

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He was quoted as saying, “If late night is a club, I don’t want to be a member.” he said. Ferguson was handpicked by a man named Peter Lassally, a TV legend who produced Carson and Letterman.

The next host is considered one of the more sensitive ones!

11. Jimmy Kimmel – The Sensitive One

Kimmel is now a host, comedian and writer, but he was in high school when he started exploring his talent for hosting. He did Sunday night interview shows on UNLV’s college station. He then was a morning drive co-host of The Me and Him Show at a radio station in Seattle.

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Kimmel eventually hit the jackpot with the release of his late-night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live! in 2003 on ABC. And it’s actually the longest running late-night talk show in ABC’s history in 15 years. Kimmel is seen as quiet, sensitive, perceptive, and a bit shy – qualities that are both his strengths and weaknesses.

10. Larry Sanders

Garry Shandling starred on HBO’s comedy talk show The Larry Sanders Show. Shandling was no stranger to talk shows; he was a sitcom writer, a stand-up comedian, and appeared a number of times on The Tonight Show which landed him a gig as one of Johnny’s recurring guest-hosts in the ‘80s.

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The show debuted in 1992 and was amazingly nominated for 56 Emmys during its six-year run. Sadly, Shandling passed away in March of 2016. And he will forever be remembered as one of comedy’s greatests.

Next, he retired from late night after a long-running successful take on satire.

9. Jon Stewart – the King of Satire

Jon Stewart replaced Craig Kilborn, the original host of The Daily Show, in 1999 and remained the host until 2015, when he retired and was replaced by the current host Trevor Noah. In 1999, Stewart was known as the fake replacement talk-show host on The Larry Sanders Show.

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As it turned out, Stewart was way funnier when he wasn’t pretending. He became the political satire king of late night. His “fake news” show offered more analysis and courage than any other TV program, making Americans laugh with his blank stares, double takes, and openmouthed, wide-eyed outrage. He even won the Thurber Prize for American Humor.

8. Jimmy Fallon – The Next Generation

SNL producer Lorne Michaels explained his decision for making Jimmy Fallon the sixth host of The Tonight Show: “I thought the smart move was to drop down a generation.” Fallon (a former SNL cast member and comedian) has said, “I never do anything sneaky or try to make guests look bad.”

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Fallon is another loved or hated kind of host. And although he seems incapable of having a conversation without giggling through it, he’s actually revived late night. Fallon’s interviews are excuses to get A-list celebs to do fun and ridiculous stuff. And say what you will about the rather childish host, his ratings speak for themselves at about double that of Jimmy Kimmel’s. And those A-listers seem to enjoy coming to that sofa.

Next, the #7 spot goes to America’s favorite Brit!

7. John Oliver – Making a Dent

John Oliver is somewhat new to the talk show scene with his show Last Week Tonight, but he has made quite a dent. The show premiered on HBO in 2014 in the shadow of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. And funnily enough, Oliver was on Stewart’s show and even hosted it for 8 weeks in 2013, when Stewart was filming a movie).

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Oliver’s show isn’t just a comedy talk show, it’s an intelligent and investigative comedy-news program. Oliver has a way of being completely entertaining and informative at the same time. It’s no surprise he’s considered one of the best.

6. Stephen Colbert – Extremely Smart at Playing Dumb

Colbert now hosts The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, but before that he was the host of Comedy Central’s highest rated news parody series, The Colbert Report. That show was where he received his breakthrough fame by playing the character of Chuck Noblet on the series Strangers with Candy.

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Most of all, Colbert is hilariously funny, who loves to play dumb, regardless of being extremely smart. His show has just taken over the No. 1 ranking among adults 18-49, beating The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

And now for the top 5! With memorable moments from the show.

5. Ellen DeGeneres – One of the Queens of Talk Shows

It’s debatable who should be named the Queen of Talk Shows – Ellen or Oprah. It’s a tough one because both are (were) hugely influential and powerful icons of the screen. On The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Ellen in her tailored menswear and sneakers, dancing with her audience, enjoying games and comedy bits, and giving away prizes like it’s going out of style won her the hearts of the nation.

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“Most comedy is based on getting a laugh at somebody else’s expense, and I find that’s just a form of bullying,” she’s explained, and she’s really stuck to that on her show. Ellen is truly one of the best that ever graced the screen.

Ellen DeGeneres – Memorable Moments

Of the many episodes she aired, there are countless moments that viewers love and will have a hard time forgetting. Take, for example, when Ellen announced her engagement to Portia de Rossi live in 2008.

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In 2008, the Supreme Court of California overturned a ban on gay marriage, and Ellen decided to take the opportunity to officially announce her engagement to then girlfriend Portia de Rossi. The two met in 2004 and dated for three years before the engagement. The couple married that same year.

Next, the definite Queen of daytime talk shows. Of course you know who it is!

4. Oprah Winfrey – The Queen of the Talk Show World

Oprah hosted The Oprah Winfrey Show for 25 years, from 1986 to 2011. And to give you an idea of her impact, here are some numbers: she gave away 276 Pontiac G6 cars to audience members, 65 Oprah’s Book Club selections, and 7 show hosts whose appearances on her show helped them launch their own TV careers.

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Those hosts are: Dr. Phil, Gayle King, Dr. Oz, Suze Orman, Iyanla Vanzant, Rachael Ray, and Nate Berkus. By the way, he estimated net worth is $2.9 billion. I think she needs to introduction. The woman changed the history of daytime talk shows. Period.

Oprah Winfrey – Memorable Moments

Oprah’s show is another one that has too many moments to count. But if you had to name one episode, which would it be? You’re probably having a flashback of watching Tom Cruise jump on her couch, right?

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Who can forget when the actor decided to jump up and down on Oprah’s yellow couch, claiming how he couldn’t help himself over his love for his then girlfriend, Katie Holmes. Oprah’s face was full of genuine shock.

3. Conan O’Brien – 23 Years and Going Strong

Conan O’Brien is by far one of the best. He’s a true comedian and comic writer. He’s written for The Simpsons and HBO’s Not Necessarily the News. He’s hosted Conan since 2010, but he used to host Late Night with Conan O’ Brien before that, having almost been cancelled due to poor reviews.

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Once Conan really started connecting with his audience, the show became one of the most amazing transformations that TV had ever seen. By 2005, the show had an average viewership of 2.5 million. Conant also hosted The Tonight Show on NBC. His clever and witty personality and ease with talking to his guests and remaining always funny has made him the highest paid talk show host. With the retirement of David Letterman, O’Brien became the longest-working of all current late-night talk show hosts in the nation, at 23 years.

Conan O’Brien – Memorable Moments

When Conan’s controversial seven-month stretch ended on NBC’s Tonight Show, he said a genuine and humble goodbye that won him even more love from fans. He said: “This is the best job in the world. I absolutely love doing it, and I have the best staff and crew in the history of the medium. I do not regret one second of everything that we’ve done here.”

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“I have something to say to our fans,” he said holding back tears. “You made a sad situation joyous and inspirational. So to all the people watching I can never thank you enough for your kindness to me.”

Next, the #2 spot goes to….

2. David Letterman – Johnny’s Successor

Letterman ended up taking Carson’s throne with Late Night with David Letterman and hosted the show for an astounding 33 years. You could say Letterman is a comedy veteran. The comedian, writer and producer made his debut in 1982, transforming the essence of late night TV.

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His last broadcast was in 2015, after hosting 6,028 episodes. In 1996, Letterman was ranked 45th on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time. And the show came in 7th on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. Letterman has recently turned to Netflix as the host of the series My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. Letterman has been a key influence for many hosts, including Conan O’Brien, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and Seth Meyers.

David Letterman – Memorable Moments

It’s tough to name just one, but let’s say one of the most memorable moments from Letterman’s show was when Drew Barrymore jumped up on his desk when she appeared as a guest in 2005.

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At the time, Drew was 20 years old and her rather youthful enthusiasm and daring personality left Letterman surprised to say the least. It was his birthday, and as her present, she danced on his desk and ended it with a splash… or shall we say flash?

And the best talk show host ever is…

1. Johnny Carson – The Irreplaceable Host

When Jack Paar left The Tonight Show, NBC offered the role to Carson, who was a comedian in his late 30s who at the time was hosting a game show. He actually turned their offer down, saying, “People said, ‘Nobody will ever replace Paar.’” Ironically enough, people now say that about Johnny.

Johnny Carson hosting the ‘Tonight Show’ on NBC. Photo by Getty Images

“For a whole generation, he kind of established the model of how cool guys behaved,” said David Letterman. In the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, there was no competition. If anyone challenged Carson, they didn’t make it. For 30 years, Carson was the center of American culture.

Johnny Carson – Memorable Moments

To illustrate how influential he was, Letterman said this in his on-air eulogy of Caron in 2005: “Everybody else who’s doing a show, myself included, we’re all kind of secretly doing Johnny’s Tonight Show.”

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In terms of memorable moments, it might just be the last episode of the show when Carson was clearly emotional. His friend and regular guest Bette Midler took the stage to sing “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road).” There must have been many teary-eyed viewers, both in studio and at home.