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Top 10 Greatest Talk Show Hosts of All Time


Sure, it's a hefty title: Top 10 Talk Show Hosts of All Time. But it's hard to argue with this list, though you're more than welcome to. Every host is here because they either contributed something unique to the genre or became a legend by finding a place in our hearts and minds.

What stands out on this list is the lack of female hosts. Only two made the list - Oprah and Rosie. Oprah for her general queen of all media-ness and Rosie for single handedly reviving the daytime talk show formula made famous by Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett.

Hopefully, that trend will change - and this list will change to reflect it.

1. Johnny Carson

Johnny Carson Poses In Front Of Portraits
NBC Television/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Johnny Carson will be forever known as the king of late night television. His 30 years as host of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson serves as an achievement - both in longevity and artistically - for current and future talk show hosts to aspire. Carson reinvented the monologue, scored with clever skits and memorable characters, and became loved by Americans young and old. Nearly every major talk show host of the last 20 years includes Carson as both an inspiration and an influence, including David Letterman, current Tonight Show host Jay Leno and former host Conan O'Brien.

2. Oprah Winfrey

Christopher Polk/Getty Images

Beloved internationally and the sovereign of a media empire that includes television, film, radio, web and social media, education, and more. She has her own network and slate of shows. She's been called "the world's most powerful woman" by Time magazine and Life pinned her with the title "the most influential woman and the most influential African-American of her generation." The magazine even included her in a list of the "100 people who have change the world." The list included Jesus Christ and Mother Theresa. And there are just way too many accolades to list. What's amazing is .. this all started with one little talk show, launched in Chicago 25 years ago and ending in the summer of 2011.

3. Jack Paar

Former Tonight Show host Jack Paar
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You'll find a lot of Tonight Show hosts on our list, if only because the early Tonight Show was such a prolific innovator of the genre. Jack Paar followed Steve Allen. Perhaps most famously, Paar abruptly quit The Tonight Show after one of his monologue jokes was censored by NBC. He left right after delivering his monologue the following evening, leaving his announcer, Hugh Downs, to fill in for the remainder of the program. He eventually returned a month later, delivering the famous line, "As I was saying before I was interrupted … I believe the last thing I said was 'There must be a better way to make a living than this.' Well, I've looked - and there isn't."

4. David Letterman

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

The indisputable heir apparent to Johnny Carson's late night crown, David Letterman is the talk show host talk show hosts yearn to be. Much has been made of Dave and his departure from NBC after the network gave Jay Leno The Tonight Show in the early 90s. And though Tonight regularly rocks the ratings, the show hasn't had the same power and clout that it did under Allen, Paar and Carson. Would it if Letterman moved from his Late Night spot to Tonight? Probably. It's all water under the bridge now, and Letterman is the stage you'll find today's biggest stars and musical acts. Expect there to be as much hullaballoo over Dave's eventual replacement when he decides to hang up the suit and tie as there was over Carson's replacement. After all, that's the way it should be.

5. Steve Allen

Steve Allen, original host of The Tonight Show
Hulton Archives/Getty Images
Steve Allen was Tonight’s first host and his run on the show (from 1954 to 1957) set the stage for nearly every talk show to come. Allen is considered the originator of the talk show monologue, sketches and audience interaction. So, in a very big way, we could consider Allen the father of the modern day talk show. Because Allen was so popular with viewers, NBC gave him his own prime time talk show. Rather than quit the Tonight Show, Allen hosted both programs simultaneously, sharing hosting duties with Ernie Kovacs during his final 1956-57 season.

6. Dick Cavett

Dick Cavett, talk show host for more than five decades
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You can't talk about talk shows without talking about Dick Cavett. The man hosted chat fests for more than 50 years, and his namesake program, The Dick Cavett Show, has appeared in various forms on ABC, CBS, PBS, USA, CNBC and TCM in daytime, late night and prime time. He writes a blog for The New York Times and is the author of Talk Show. Slate writer Clive James calls Cavett "a true sophisticate with a daunting intellectual range, Cavett was the most distinguished talk-show host in America, if sophistication and an intellectual breadth were what you wanted."

7. Merv Griffin

Merv Griffin made daytime talk show television what it is today - at least in the format Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O'Donnell like best. The talk show host began his career in 1948 as a big band singer, the crooner behind the hit song I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Cocoanuts. Success pushed him into the television business, and Griffin drew smiles as a game show host and guest host for Jack Paar on The Tonight Show. Many thought he would succeed Paar, but that job went to Johnny Carson. Instead, Griffin slid behind the desk of his own daytime talk show. The Merv Griffin Show debuted in 1965 and ran - in fits and starts - for 21 years, ending in 1986.

8. Jon Stewart

Getty Images/Brendan Hoffman

The youngest addition to our group, but still one of the most influential. Jon Stewart and The Daily Show have influenced the political discourse like no other talk show before it. Some give him credit (or blame) for quashing the careers of more than one cable news pundit. And his nightly guests have evolved from celebrities promoting their latest entertainment to scientists, activists, senators and presidents. His show is a must-stop for political campaigners - right- or left-wing - and Stewart provides intellectual discourse and, often, probing questions that would rival Sunday morning's political shows. To top it all off, the man is downright funny and incredibly likable. Which is probably his most secret weapon of all.

9. Rosie O’Donnell

Jason Kempin/Getty Images

For some, Rosie O'Donnell is a lightning rod of controversy, churning up debate via her blog and her causing a ruckus with her year-long stint as co-host of The View. But in 1986, when her daytime talk show The Rosie O'Donnell Show premiered - and was an overnight success - Rosie was dubbed "The Queen of Nice". In fact, her throw-back show (as in throw-back to the honest and entertaining talk shows Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett presented) won the hearts of millions because the other daytime fair at the time was rough, tumble and often mean-spirited (The Jerry Spring Show, Maury, The Sally Jesse Rafael Show). The success of her show helped launch Ellen and brought a new sensibility to afternoon talk shows. She'll return, with the new Rosie O'Donnell Show on Oprah's new network, OWN.

10. Arsenio Hall

Angela Weiss/Getty Images
Before The Arsenio Hall Show and its popular host Arsenio Hall appeared in 1989, most programmers thought launching a talk show against Johnny Carson's behemoth Tonight Show was a fool's game. But then Hall showed them all how it was done. His trick? Reach the audience Carson was missing: Generation X and the teens who wanted their MTV. Hall's laid back style - no suit, jazz band, friendship with superstar Eddie Murphy - and bountiful charisma and charm won everyone over. Unfortunately, Carson's departure from Tonight, which resulted in Letterman's departure from NBC, led to Hall's cancellation (among other factors). Many of the stations that ran Hall's syndicated program dropped the show in order to carry the Late Show.

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