Which Talk Shows Were The Most Relevant To The Real World In 2016?

Though its relevancy is often questioned (in part because of a disproportionate amount of coverage vs. the size of its classically assessed viewing audience and in part because of its woeful record of diversity), late night comedy does matter. These hosts weigh in on the issues of our time and occupy our minds with silliness that somehow manages to hold our attention — which is no easy task when there are distractions everywhere you look. To put it more succinctly, if we’re clicking on it and if we’re watching any part of it, then it’s relevant.

But how much does it matter and where does it go from here?

The 2016 election proved that when late night hosts speak, we listen, but the end result definitely opened these shows and their hosts up to criticism. Are they political talking heads in disguise? Is their ability to humanize a hazard? How much authority can they claim when their oft-shouted warnings are ignored?

This list isn’t going to answer those questions because we’re all still watching as late night starts to define itself in the age of Donald Trump. What we are trying to do here is look at where these hosts are in this moment when it comes to their ability to reach an audience and effect culture. This isn’t about who is best or most popular, it’s a power ranking in the truest sense.

10. Real Time With Bill Maher

Bill Maher can come off as an abrasive and sometimes unpredictable voice when compared to the more polished, more optimism-tinged well-meaning liberal talk show hosts that fill out the rest of this list. And that’s good. Different is good and beyond that, proper respect needs to be paid to someone whose issues-based approach to comedy predates the Jon Stewart-led Daily Show and the revolution it inspired. But while Maher’s fire still burns blue (in every way) and while Real Time often finds a way to be thought-provoking, it doesn’t dent the zeitgeist like Last Week Tonight or Full Frontal.

Maher’s show is a capital “T” talk show where discussion drives the bus. It’s not a moving thinkpiece. It’s not built to go viral, just to incite consideration and discussion. And for that old-timey approach, it lands in last place on a list that is, once again, focused on impact, not quality.

9. Jimmy Kimmel Live

Kimmel does a fine show that rarely strays from the time-honored late night formula and he certainly brings a little bit of an edge that a lot of other hosts are willing to sand down. Of the three late night interviews that Donald Trump endured during the campaign with Fallon, Colbert, and Kimmel, his was probably the least embarrassing.

Kimmel, like Maher, is also a bit of an underrecognized pioneer, particularly in the field of viral content. “I’m F*cking Matt Damon,” for instance, was one of the first true late night web success stories. Other splashy efforts have followed over the years but wins of that scale haven’t been as common and a lot of his staples like Liewitness News and Mean Tweets feel like they’re growing stale.

Ultimately, Kimmel’s show has a lot of merit but not a lot of heat, at least not when compared to the others on this list.

8. Conan

Late night’s most senior host (in terms of on-the-job-experience) is also one of its most adaptable. Conan O’Brien has, at this point, fully transitioned from his wildly creative and sophomoric show on NBC in the ’90s and 2000s to a more grounded but still loose show on TBS.

Conan sometimes courts viral relevancy with segments like Clueless Gamer and an ever-increasing collection of remote segments (which are sometimes episode-length and set in exotic locales like Cuba) that aren’t afraid to mine laughter from the host’s awkward interactions with regular folks.

While O’Brien can get real when the time is right, though, most of his political material lacks bite and the show, itself, comes off as solid but not spectacular on most nights when O’Brien doesn’t leave the studio.

7. The Late Show With Stephen Colbert

It pains me to rank Stephen Colbert this low. This is the former host of The Colbert Report, one of the most muscular late night shows of the current era. With his selection as David Letterman’s heir came expectations that he would bring a level of refined silliness and bold truthiness to network late night. He was, to sound clichéd, the chosen one for people who maybe aren’t into Jimmy Fallon’s cotton candy vibe. And to a degree, Colbert has delivered, but it hasn’t been a resounding success (his audience is about half that of Fallon’s), and it hasn’t been as consistent (in tone and quality) as his old show.

The comparisons are probably as unfair as they are inevitable, but they aren’t going away anytime soon. The much-celebrated character of Stephen Colbert is buried within the amiable and charming Stephen Colbert, a late night host who is often trying to project brightness and fun even though we know, from past experience, he’s tormented and annoyed by the world’s darkness. I don’t know how Colbert gets to a place where both sides shine equally on a consistent basis, but until he does, he’s going to struggle to hold people’s attention night after night. The flashes will come and they will continue to be glorious, but for now, Colbert is a curiosity more than a force of nature.

6. The Daily Show With Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah would have ranked lower had this been written a few weeks ago, but his interview with Tomi Lahren and his interview with President Obama gave us some fresh moments to ponder. As observed by Alison Herman over at The Ringer in her recent article on Noah’s shift, we may be witnessing a conscious effort to try and establish his version of The Daily Show as a more hard news alternative. That’s a thrilling possibility to consider, not because the previous version of the show was bad, but because it had started to feel less special.

5. Late Night With Seth Meyers

Seth Meyers has garnered high praise for his unrelenting, fierce, and very funny criticism of Donald Trump. But he has also, in his brief-ish time on the air, earned accolades for his abilities as an interviewer on a diverse range of topics. Additionally, Late Night has featured an incredibly talented collection of writers and side players (including Conner O’Malley and Amber Ruffin), and Meyers’ Weekend Update-esque monologue/desk bits like A Closer Look manage to feel weightier than the competition’s, even when focusing on human ridiculousness instead of politics (an entirely different kind of human ridiculousness).

With all that in mind, clearly, Meyers is in an interesting place in that he has the ability and track record to downshift away from a strong political focus if it stops working for him. And that’s always possible because, at some point, you have to assume people just get exhausted and beg for a break. Others in Meyers’ weight class, like John Oliver and Samantha Bee, don’t have that luxury. They’re ride or die.

Right now, Seth Meyers has people’s attention. It’s just a matter of what he wants to do with it.

4. Jimmy Fallon, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

Late night’s traditional ratings leader needs to be placed in a somewhat high position on a list whose purpose is to assess relevancy, but it’s fair to wonder if Fallon is settling in for the long back nine of his time as Tonight Show host. The stunts and games still get a response, but do they feel as fresh as they once were?

The enthusiasm is, impressively, still there every night, but it’s becoming a target for mockery, and the backlash that sprang from Fallon’s interview with Donald Trump demonstrated that he is starting to turn into a divisive figure in the way that Jay Leno was when he became the popular-unpopular guy that comedy nerds loathe and Nielsen families adore.

3. The Late Late Show With James Corden

I have a pretty clear preference for weightier late night comedy (as you may have noticed from reading this) so I can’t pretend to be a big fan of Fallon’s or Corden’s. But I have a lot of respect for what they’re able to do and, at present, Corden seems to be at the top of the pile when it comes to less issue-driven late night shows. He may be following Fallon’s example, but there is no late night segment as popular as Carpool Karaoke right now. It just takes over and its genius is in its relatability (to the act, not the actors, of course) and its simplicity. Corden is unlocking a side of the world’s biggest pop stars that no other show can and it’s transfixing.

If that was all Corden offered, he’d probably be somewhere in the top 3 or 4 on this list but the overall construction of his Late Late Show is pretty impressive as well. Forgiving a monologue that still feels forced (Corden isn’t really a stand-up comedian), the interview segment is the most enjoyable in late night even though it’s all very light. Adopting a model where multiple guests come out at once — in the way that Graham Norton does his show in the UK and in a way that has roots in the old days of late night — keeps things loose and allows the show to stand out from the pack. It’s just a conversation, not an interview. And if you just love to hear pretty people say mildly clever things while laughing, the appeal is endless.

Corden has also, from time to time, embraced experimentation with his setting and the format of the show, though he doesn’t do it nearly as much as he should. Corden’s appeal comes from its freshness. If Carpool Karaoke starts to feel like a slog and the show starts to feel like its going through the motions then it will lose its luster in a way that I feel The Tonight Show has. True late night power is about establishing a brand and then staving off the rot that follows. Like a shark, Corden (and these other hosts) need to keep moving and keep challenging themselves lest people get bored and lose interest.

1. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver / Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (tie)

John Oliver is a Harry Potter-looking Brit who meticulously builds his case, layer by layer, like a country prosecutor taking aim at hot topics and underrepresented issues while fueled by righteous outrage and a need to shine a spotlight on hypocrisy. He does this with such wonkish delight, skill, and charm, that full episodes (or very nearly) wind up going viral, displacing the rule that says viral late night success stories only happen when something is frothy and brief.

Samantha Bee possesses late night’s most forceful voice and she uses it to get to the beating heart of every issue that she trains her focus on, calling bullsh*t at the top of her vocal range while hitting her audience in the gut. And she does this while simultaneously eliciting loud laughs with her sharp sarcasm. And then she uses the skill she developed in a decade doing field reports on The Daily Show as a longform comedic storyteller to round out her show.

Both Oliver and Bee are going to be of comfort to people bewildered by the Trump administration’s actions in the way that Jon Stewart was on The Daily Show during the Bush administration. The question is, is that enough?

Last Week Tonight and Full Frontal were baptized in the fires of this election and they really have nowhere to go but straight at the new administration as an opposing megaphone. That’s a thrilling prospect for people who are engaged in the never-ending thrash of politics, but it may not be for everyone and both Bee and Oliver may see their reach recede a touch. For now, though, despite an election result that runs counter to their emphatically presented POV, when Bee and Oliver speak, people listen and they share.

It’ll be interesting to see how this next year changes that and late night, on the whole. What will this list look like in a year? Time will tell, but for now, the state of late night is good…ish, but certainly not as strong, or influential, as these hosts may have thought prior to the election.