THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH CONAN O'BRIEN (NBC)
THE GOOD: Remember the end of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, when a snappily dressed oddball gets loose inside a Hollywood studio and wreaks surreal havoc on the film industry? Well, after an awkward beginning, that’s pretty much what Conan O’Brien’s Tonight Show has become. Whether he’s dubbing new dialogue over Japanese anime, lamenting budget cutbacks in the adult film industry, or pleading ”Yo, Jay-Z, Buy NBC,” O’Brien skewers his new home and the whole spectacle industry relentlessly.
THE BAD: Conan’s got the best sidekick, the band with the most personality, the best recurring characters (two words: William Shatner), and a talented staff of writers. Unfortunately, the interviews — arguably the whole raison d’etre for late-night television — are all too often the weakest part of the show.
THE JAY LENO SHOW (NBC)
THE GOOD: People feel comfortable with Jay. Big celebrities visit, knowing they’re safe from scorn. Average joes in his Jaywalking skit always giggle along with Jay, even though he’s making fun of them. Some of the new show’s inventions, like Stories Not Good Enough for Nightly News, with Brian Williams, or the addition of actually funny correspondents, have injected a bit of life into what’s otherwise basically a remake of Jay’s old Tonight Show, sans desk.
THE BAD: ”I dreamed I was trapped in a helium balloon being flown by two Northwest pilots. Apparently they had fallen asleep. I had swine flu and I couldn’t afford the vaccine because I bet all my money on the Dodgers and the Angels.” That actual joke (from October 27th) pretty much sums up Leno’s tired, hey-I’ve-heard-of-that brand of humor.
THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN (CBS)
THE GOOD: Jay-Dave was a cultural divide; Conan-Dave is a philosophical debate between two very different, complementary styles. Where it feels like O’Brien plans his shows to the minute, David Letterman embraces the improvy randomness. That’s probably why he’s the best interviewer on late night. Is he more fun chatting amiably with somebody he likes (he made Johnny Depp’s ”Life on my private island” stories feel like casual lunch-break chat) or enduring someone he clearly doesn’t (Joaquin Phoenix, Rod Blagojevich, Lauren Conrad)?
THE BAD: His on-air monologue about blackmail and intra-office affairs made for great TV, but the fallout has left a black cloud. For the first time in almost two decades, Dave doesn’t control the moral high ground.
LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON (NBC)
THE GOOD: This is the most inventive show on late night. The high-concept skits (Tiger Woods playing his own Wii videogame; Betty White playing beer pong) are hilarious and eminently Tweet-able. The Roots are the best band in late night; the show practically deserves its own soundtrack CD. The format’s elastic enough to provide room for momentous occasions like the recent episode-length Monty Python summit. The show has become the go-to place for indie rock bands. Yeesh, there’s even a serialized narrative: Will there be a Saved by the Bell reunion?
THE BAD: Unfortunately, the host is Jimmy Fallon. He’s not the charisma vacuum we were expecting, but the host hasn’t figured out whether he wants to be a cutesy nerd, a snarky everyman, or a nervously manic chipmunk. To put it another way: Is he Conan, Dave, or Jay?
LAST CALL WITH CARSON DALY (NBC)
THE GOOD: Since the only guests left for this 1:30 a.m. show are the occasional NBC-employed supporting actor, Carson’s free to do pretty much whatever he wants. This year, the show moved away from the studio into a new pseudo-documentary format, freeing the host to go on visits to Seattle grunge landmarks and Route 66.
THE BAD: The non-studio format makes everything feel like a DVD extra. Daly’s got good taste, but he’s an overly fawning interviewer whose sole expression is wide-eyed blankness.
THE LATE LATE SHOW WITH CRAIG FERGUSON (CBS)
THE GOOD: Every episode of The Late Late Show begins with Ferguson giving a stream-of-consciousness rant/ramble into the camera. The monologues are brainy mixes of pop philosophy, goofball humor, wordplay, and personal memoir. There’s no band, no sidekick, and all the running characters are just Craig in a bad wig, but the host’s wit and top-of-his-head absurdity makes every night feel like a feast.
THE BAD: As this week’s blackout showed, the jokes about the low budget are only funny because they’re terribly, terribly true.
THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART (COMEDY CENTRAL)
THE GOOD: Jon Stewart is the best host on late night TV, and the inventor of a whole new style of humor: Witty gravitas. He delivers goofball punchlines with a wry, knowing delivery; seemingly embarrassed by how much he actually cares. In the post-Bush era, The Daily Show has found new life as a relentless media watchdog, a role epitomized earlier this year by Stewart’s merciless skewering of CNBC’s Jim Cramer.
THE BAD: Ever since Rob Corddry and Ed Helms left in 2006, the correspondents have been underwhelming. The current crop all seem to be auditioning for their own spin-off; the broad, big-humor stylings of John Oliver, Aasif Mandvi, and Wyatt Cenac push the show into unsteady slapstick territory. (Samantha Bee pops up less often than she used to; too bad, because she actually deserves her own spin-off.)
THE COLBERT REPORT (COMEDY CENTRAL)
THE GOOD: From the opening fast-zoom closeup on the host onwards, Stephen Colbert’s riff on pundit gasbaggery is the most high-energy late-night show. The host has managed to stretch what could have been a one-joke O’Reilly Factor spoof into a veritable American Institution. His visit to Iraq managed to honor and skewer the military; a typical needle-threading performance for the loud-yet-subtle Colbert.
THE BAD: No other show is so myopically focused on its host; even the interviews are more about his manic narcissism than the interviewees.
JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE (ABC)
THE GOOD: Jimmy Kimmel’s a frat-boy favorite from his Man Show days, but his show has developed a familial, almost homespun style. His childhood friend is the bandleader; his Uncle Frank and Cousin Sal appear regularly, and the show breakout star, Guillermo Rodriguez, used to be the studio’s parking lot security guard. It’s almost like a real-life version of UHF.
THE BAD: Kimmel’s low-energy, everyman delivery can be mistaken for a lack of personality, especially considering that, since his show begins at midnight, he has to stand out from five other competing shows.
CHELSEA LATELY (E!)
THE GOOD…AND THE BAD: The most unique thing about Chelsea Handler’s E! revue is also its biggest weakness. Every night, Chelsea gets a panel of three comedians (usually cult favorites or up-and-comers) to join her in commentary on the latest celebrity news. When the comedians are funny, there’s no better conversation on TV: Chelsea Lately turns into a hilarious cacophony of funny people racing to beat each other to the punchline. But when the comedians are bad, the result feels like a minor-league version of Best Week Ever without all the glitzy pop-up visuals. Handler herself turns rude sass into a charming art form.