Which Hosts Have Lasted Longest On Late Night?

Dec 17, 2014 at 7:17 AM ET

Big changes are coming to late-night TV. Jon Stewart announced on The Daily Show last night that he would be ending his 17-year run on the self-declared “fake news” program later this year. The move comes just over a month after The Colbert Report and The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, both of which premiered in 2005, aired their final episodes. Elder statesman David Letterman has also announced that he’ll host his last Late Show on May 20 after 22 years.

That kind of longevity Stewart and Letterman represent isn’t anything to sniff at. Remember Joan Rivers’ ill-fated stint on The Late Show? Her iteration of the series debuted in 1986 and was summarily canceled in 1987. The disastrous Chevy Chase Show produced just 25 episodes in 1993, while Magic Johnson’s The Magic Hour (yes, of course Magic Johnson had a late-night talk show; 1998 was a beautiful time) only made it to 11.

In fact, as best we can tell, only 18 American late-night talk show hosts have served for five years or more. Colbert and Ferguson crack the top 10, but only by a slim margin. Stewart comes in at five on the list, while Letterman—if you add up his stints on Late Night and The Late Show—comes in at number one.

A few notes: We operated by the conventional definition of “late-night” television, after 11 p.m. on cable and Fox and after 11:35 p.m. on other networks, and focused only on shows that aired nationally—that’s why you don’t see the likes of host Joe Franklin, who appeared on television in New York City for more than 40 years, mentioned here. We considered omitting Last Call With Carson Daly, because—although the series is indeed a late-night interview show—its form has varied widely and Daly’s screentime as host has decreased drastically, but it didn’t feel right to leave him out.

Our list dates all the way back to Jack Paar, who helmed The Tonight Show from 1957 to 1962. Thanks to TV’s less-than-stellar history of diversity, it contains exactly one woman (Chelsea Handler), one person of color (Arsenio Hall) and one openly gay host (Andy Cohen). Once Letterman retires, Conan O’Brien will reign as the most senior active host, with Jon Stewart just four years behind him.

It’s sad to say goodbye to Stewart, Letterman, “Colbert” (the character) and Ferguson, but late night’s future is nevertheless bright. The Colbert Report time slot will be filled by Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show, James Corden will succeed Ferguson at the Late Late Show desk and Stephen Colbert himself will take Letterman’s place on the Late Show. Set your DVRs accordingly.

Editorial Note: In light of yesterday’s frankly shocking news that Jon Stewart will be leaving The Daily Show after 17 years, Vocativ has republished this piece on late-night talk-show hosts from December 2014.