In the world of late night, the hosts hog most of the spotlight. It’s the hosts behind the desk that get the credit when a show does well in the ratings or produces a viral video, but a captain is only as good as his or her crew and Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, and Conan O’Brien wouldn’t be where they are without the help of some funny men and women who played supporting roles on their talk shows. We’re talking about the writers and actors who put it all on the line to give us zany, outrageous, memorable sketches and bit characters that have stood the test of time and added comedic clout to the heroes of late night and their respective shows throughout the history of the genre.
Here’s an ode to some of the comedic geniuses who got their start after midnight and what they’ve done in their careers since their big breaks.
Brian Stack – Conan
Brian Stack got his start in comedy at Chicago’s Second City and used skills honed there to carve out a specialty in oddball characters who earned laughs by poking fun at themselves while also carrying some pretty tragic backstories. “The Travelling Salesman” is probably the most popular example. Sporting an old-timey accent and trying to sell Conan everything from shoe trees to root beer and, of course, some bad jokes, Stack’s salesman also dropped deadpan remarks about the death of his father at the hands of a hooker and his 400-pound illiterate wife’s proclivity for sleeping with prison inmates. Stack also ushered in other bit characters like The Slipnutz, The Interrupter, and Artie Kendall the Ghost Crooner — a dead singer who offended Conan with his sexist, bigoted lyrics.
Stack’s now writing over at The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and he’s still churning out some great characters like Cartoon Trump – an animated rendition of the POTUS. The bit has been so successful that Showtime ordered a 10-episode series starring Cartoon Trump to be produced by Colbert.
Geoff Peterson (Josh Robert Thompson) – The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson
Most late night talk show hosts like to have a sidekick; a warm body they can riff off. Unless you happen to be Craig Ferguson. The former host of The Late Late Show was able to indulge his Terminator fantasies and have a skeletal robot named Geoff Peterson stand beside him during his tenure on CBS thanks to a deal he made with Mythbusters star Grant Imahara, who designed Peterson to be the kind of openly gay robot sidekick any host would be lucky to have. As for who really put the spark of life into Geoff, that would be comedian Josh Robert Thompson.
Armed with a metal mohawk, Mardi Gras beads, a Price Is a Right name tag, and an oversized suit, Geoff was usually amicable and mild-mannered unless Kristen Bell came on the show (or Ferguson made fun of his mobility problems). He may have died because of a skydiving accident, from choking on a bird’s foot, or from a methamphetamine overdose. He may have also gone home with Ferguson when the show ended.
A stand-up comedian and voice actor who has appeared on numerous episodes of Family Guy and Robot Chicken, Thompson has continued with his career, also voicing the role of Skull on Skylander’s Academy. He’s also gone on the road to partner with Ferguson while on tour.
Chris Elliott – The Late Show with David Letterman
Chris Elliott’s version of late night wasn’t vain or flattering, it was ugly, idiotic, and a bit crude which is why the guy was labeled a genius by people that worked with him during his time on The Late Show with David Letterman. Elliott played sketch characters like the deranged Marlon Brando who liked to crack wise and do something called “The Banana Dance.” He played conspiracy theorists that yelled threats to the show’s host from backstage. He even played a guy who lived under the seats in the studio, promising to make Letterman’s life a living hell.
After Elliott left Letterman he launched the low-rated but beloved sitcom Get A Life, starred in Cabin Boy, appeared in guest spots on shows like How I Met Your Mother, and starred in Schitt’s Creek. He can presently be seen beside Will Forte on Last Man on Earth.
A.D. Miles – The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon
Miles helped Fallon take the throne Jay Leno left behind and transformed his seat behind the desk into viral video-making machine, continuing the work they started during Fallon’s run on NBC’s 12:30 show, Late Night.
Fallon specializes in sketch bits that have a Saturday Night Live feel and Miles, as head writer of the show, often played along. His most memorable role is Gary, the totally uncool stepdad to Fallon’s prepubescent teenage gossip queen Sara who overuses the word “Ew!” As Gary showed, Miles was good at playing the straight guy to Fallon’s eccentric personalities.
Earlier this year, it was announced that Miles was leaving The Tonight Show and pursuing a career in TV writing and acting. His first stop was as head writer on the revived Gong Show, but Miles has a lot of experience in front of the camera, often working beside David Wain and Michael Showalter in Wet Hot American Summer, Role Models, and The Ten.
Miles’ relationship with Fallon continues, however, as the two are working on an animated feature film.
The Dancing Itos – The Tonight Show with Jay Leno
During the height of the O.J. Simpson trial, Leno and his writers crafted a sketch that involved a dance troupe of Judge Ito look-alikes doing a dance number.
Nito Larioza, Tym Buacharern, Danny Lee, Hoang Ho, and Michael Gregory served as the dancers in the troupe and they continued along in in their careers after Ito banged the gavel for the final time. Larioza went on to do stunt work in films like Avatar and Inception; Buacharern is a makeup artist whose work can be found on Ryan Murphy’s Feud and films like Dreamgirls; and Gregory is an actor whose credits include HBO’s Oz.
The Upright Citizens Brigade Gang – Late Night With Conan O’Brien
Amy Poehler, Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts, and Matt Besser all hailed from the Upright Citizens Brigade, then a New York-based comedy troupe. They found work on Late Night with off-the-wall sketches and bizarre bit characters like Poehler’s Stacy, Andy Richter’s Conan-obsessed sister.
The Upright Citizens Brigade went on to star in sketch show of the same name on Comedy Central for three seasons and Poehler, obviously, went on to do big and funny things on Parks and Rec and in film. Meanwhile, Besser has guest starred on Modern Family, Fresh Off the Boat, and Community, Roberts has made frequent guest appearances and currently works on Teachers, and Walsh is currently serving as the White House Press Secretary to Selina Meyers on Veep. The four also went on to be major players in the comedy scene by fostering the next generation of improv comedians with the UCB theater in New York and LA and programs that count Aziz Ansari, Donald Glover, Chris Gethard, Kate McKinnon, and Elle Kemper as alums.
Ross The Intern – The Tonight Show with Jay Leno
One of the best things Jay Leno ever did during his tenure on NBC was to introduce audiences to Ross Matthews a.k.a. Ross the Intern. Ross sported high-pitched voice, a love of celebrities, and the ability to call Scarlett Johansson a bitch and make it seem like a compliment. The guy was all of us attending fancy awards shows and getting starstruck by the likes of Oprah Winfrey. He was a pure, precious cinnamon roll that didn’t belong in the tough, cruel world of late night which is why Miller graduated to hosting E!’s red carpet coverage and Ru Paul’s Drag Race.
Jon Glaser — Late Night with Conan O’Brien
Jon Glaser put on a master class in how to be, well, a d*ck on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, playing a gum-chewing prick dressed like Ronald McDonald, a man who could ruin any moment just by uttering the word “pubes,” and a fisherman who ended his segments by throwing a box of fish sticks at his indulgent host. But Glaser could also bring to life wacky characters in sketches that, on paper, seemed too strange to garner laughs. The Wrist Hulk was a guy who had incredible Hulk-like powers, but only in his wrist. Dave “Tiny hands” Gordon was a man who struggled through everyday tasks because of his abnormally small hands. Kim The Witness Protection Comedian was talented in celebrity impressions but had to wear a mask and use a voice modulator to protect his identity, so all of his impersonations sounded the same. These characters could’ve flopped, but somehow, Glaser made them work during his time on Late Night.
Glaser took some of his eccentric characters with him to Adult Swim where he’s had two series find success — Stroker And Hoop and Delocated. He also lent his voice to a bunch of animated shows including Archer. And of course, his recurring roles on Girls (as a recovering addict) and Parks and Rec (as Leslie Knope’s pervy fellow councilman) stand out on his list of accomplishments. Most recently, Glaser hosted Jon Glaser Loves Gear for TruTV.