year in culture 2012

2012’s Best Moments in Late-Night Television

Photo: Clockwise from top left: NBC; Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images; Jason Merritt/Getty Images; ABC; CBS

With the Internet, DVDs, and increased cable competition, one would think late-night talk shows would go the way of shows about dodos. Yet even though ratings are far smaller than they were in Carson’s dominant days, there are more late night talkers than ever: Ten (mostly) nightly shows with ten diverse senses of humor, be it political, goofy, sarcastic, old-school, or devilish. To celebrate them all, I picked the best clip from every show: one each, presented alphabetically by show title. There is Fallon singing barbershop, Kimmel pranking children, Handler showering with Sandra Bullock, and much more.

Chelsea Lately

No late-night host other than Chelsea Handler would have Sandra Bullock’s first time on their show be spent naked and in a shower. Bullock is just committed enough and Handler is just uncommitted enough for the clip’s faux-seriousness and aggressive self-deprecation to really work. It’s abrasive but lovingly so.

The Colbert Report

It’s hard to pick one Colbert moment, as what is most impressive is his ability to live that character night in and night out. However, his super-PAC was his most ballsy and comically dastardly idea yet. Sure, just having a PAC and raising a bunch of money was funny, but when he put Jon Stewart in charge of it, things got really real. In this clip, Colbert and Stewart are figuring exactly how much coordination they can have without being considered legally coordinating. There was no clearer (and funnier) case made against the BS of the super-PAC system than this.


When late-night hosts take their shows on the road, good things come out of it. Kimmel did a week in Brooklyn, Craig Ferguson went to Scotland, The Daily Show went to the party conventions, but this might’ve been the best clip out of all of them. Conan did a week in Chicago and used that opportunity to send the nicest person (Jack McBrayer) and the meanest “dog” (Triumph) out in the world to a famously confrontational hot dog restaurant. Triumph’s intense vitriol is perfectly paired with McBrayer’s extreme aww-shucksness. They should always eat together.

The Daily Show

It should come as no surprise that The Daily Show had tons of great segments in this election year. None, however, as trenchantly captured the truth about the state of American politics than “Finger Pointing Blame Game,” a segment shot at both parties’ conventions. (Though Wyatt Cenac’s take on the Wisconsin recall election came close.) The moment when Jason Jones yells at an Obama supporter about the evils of finger-pointing, only to have the Dem misinterpret it as encouragement and wave his own finger while shouting “Republicans, stop finger-pointing,” is nothing short of brilliant.

Jimmy Kimmel Live

It was a huge year for Kimmel: He hosted the Emmys and the White House Correspondents Dinner, he had a fun week of shows in Brooklyn (where he got to interview his idol, David Letterman), and it was announced his show will be moving to 11:30 to go against that very idol and Jay Leno. There are a lot of things that got him there, but maybe more than anything, Jimmy Kimmel Live made its name pranking little kids. So when he hooked children up to a fake lie-detector, hilarity expectedly ensued. Silly kid, trying to pretend he likes school.

Late Night With Jimmy Fallon

There are times when it seems like Fallon has a new sketch or segment go viral every week. Tom Hanks’s Full House slam poem, black Simon & Garfunkel, and, of course, “Downton Sixbey” were all super great; however, it is the reggae barbershop quartet that best represents Fallon. It’s earnest and silly and just plain fun. Comedically, it shows how he and his writers are great at focusing on the key joke of a segment and making sure not to add anything superfluous to it. It’s just a happy good time.

The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson

Craig Ferguson is at his best when playing it fast and loose. So, nothing could’ve been a greater comic gift for him than having the electricity surprisingly go out in his studio. He got to just lean back and make goofball jokes with a robot sidekick. The happy ending of the story is that a couple months later Ferguson moved into a bigger, better, electronically functioning studio.

The Late Show With David Letterman

Back in October, Hurricane Sandy forced Letterman to do a couple shows without an audience. We wrote about the one he shot while the storm was in process: “Without an audience in the studio, they were only trying to crack themselves up. That’s the same vibe the show put out in 1982: Here was a host determined to do what he thought was funny, not what was expected of him by the format he was handed.” The episode was a true classic.

The Tonight Show With Jay Leno

It’s easy to make fun of Leno, but at least he’s smart enough to get out of the way when a guest like Louis C.K. comes on the show ready to plow through bits. By a minute in, Leno might as well not be there, because C.K. is just doing his stand-up material, which is always welcome on television.

Watch What Happens Live

Watch What Happens Live is a party. Often the usual party guests show up, but sometimes it’s Meryl Streep and O-M-G. No late night show was more excited to have a guest this year than WWHL was to have Streep. And to her credit she was a good sport, or at least she was terrific at acting like a good sport. Just look at the gusto she has when saying she’d kill Dustin Hoffman and shag Jack Nicholson.

2012’s Best Moments in Late-Night Television