This has been quite a week for late night TV, as Stephen Colbert finally made his splash (and a damn big one at that), while he also hosted an impactful interview with Vice President Joe Biden. And today, there’s a large pool of players in this game with diverse attributes that fuels our dedication to each tribe. From Fallon to Conan to Colbert, we all have moments from these shows that we type into YouTube to watch regularly. So we got to thinking, what are some great late-night talk-show moments?
Our staff had some monumental moments…
The Jon Stewart we know, the one who we said goodbye to last month, came of age on Sept. 20, 2001. That was the first Daily Show after the events of 9/11. It was the first time the host showed that he had another gear besides “funny.”
The gear was called gravitas.
I was a 22-year-old teacher who had just moved to Brooklyn. September 11 had been my third day of teaching. I had to share the news with students, all just a few years younger than me, and for weeks, I’d been in shell-shock. If memory serves, Leno and Letterman were already back and had handled it well. But Stewart, beginning with that one very earnest question, “Are you okay?” was the man who found words for what I was feeling.
I cried watching him that night. I’ve cried re-watching the clip every year since. I’m crying having just watched it again right now. I don’t know of a more powerful moment on television.
On May 8, 2007, The Late Show with David Letterman put their Jamba Juice sponsorship money to great use by renting a bunch of costumes (mostly Spider-Man costumes) for an absurdist bit called, “How Many Guys in Spider-Man Suits Can Fit Inside a Jamba Juice?” I was staying up late watching whatever would broadcast on the 17 TV channels we had (and I had an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time). There were some Conan bits in the early to mid-’90s that made me laugh harder, but none were as memorable to me as watching the confused patrons of a New York City Jamba Juice share the space with 18 Spider-Men, one Superman, Moses, and a few other special guests.
As a horny teenager in the era where the only nudity to be found on TV was inverted and scrambled, I nominate the time Drew Barrymore flashed David Letterman. The year was 1995, and it was Letterman’s 48th birthday, so Drew decided to give him what she claims was a completely spontaneous birthday dance, complete with top-lift. I think this was the first side boob I’d ever seen on network television, and the vision was burned into my hormonal mind for weeks afterwards. Did Drew Barrymore bring the flash mainstream? I don’t know, but it certainly seemed to kick off the era of Girls Gone Wild, where showing your boobs for the camera became a “thing.”
The best moment in recent memory was Jay Leno making the tactical blunder of inviting Jimmy Kimmel on his show during the whole Tonight Show power struggle, and Kimmel taking the opportunity to essentially trash Leno and his disingenuous line of BS about the situation on his own show for five straight minutes. It’s even better because Leno, ever the professional on stage, just takes it.
Back in 1997, Courtney Thorne-Smith appeared on Conan having just ended her run on Melrose Place to make a movie with Carrot Top. In retrospect, this was not the best career move for Thorne-Smith; however, it was a fantastic opportunity for Norm Macdonald to send the interview completely off the rails. The result was television magic.
Most of us probably have a list of favorite late-night talk-show moments, and all our lists will undoubtedly include Robin Williams. It was impossible for the man to not be funny whenever he was given the reigns at The Tonight Show, The Late Show or any other program he appeared on. Yet, my favorite moment will always be his first time guesting on Johnny Carson’s program in 1981. It’s definitely the leather pants.
It isn’t a specific moment, and I don’t have a clip to point to, but at some point, Craig Ferguson said “f*ck it” and transformed from just another late-night talk-show host to a punk-rock comic who didn’t give a damn and did his show his way. It’s uplifting to watch someone at the height of their game push back against structure and the perception of what they’re supposed to be. It’s magical to see someone push the envelope and not be so careful on air. Dancing horses, talking robots, and no bullsh*t — Ferguson accomplished what few in late night can, but what all should attempt: He was an original and there is still a void.
Don Rickles was the best guest on any talk show, ever. When he and Carson (and sometimes Sinatra) got together on air, it was craziness in the best of ways. Alongside Robin Williams, Rickles had the quickest comedic jabs in the business. And when he and Carson went head to head, it was talk-show gold.
I’ve watched a lot of Letterman, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him as uncomfortable as he was when Crispin Glover showed up -– in that outfit, including those ridiculous shoes –- and completely dominated the interview. Letterman didn’t know what to do, and Glover pulled his “I can punch, and KICK” line, which leaves me doubled over laughing every time. There are lots of great late-night moments, but none quite as delightfully weird as this one.
Got a favorite late-night talk-show moment? Let us know below (YouTube clips welcomed).