Conversation has played a major role in shaping civilization since the dawn of time, and talk shows have proven to be nearly as important to the success of TV. We all have our favorite talk show hosts, but who are the top overall? We can look at their ratings, how much money they make, how influential they’ve been to TV history or what kind of debates they trigger around the water cooler—or on social media. We can also look at how passionately vocal their fans are. Since all of those points are valid, let’s make a somewhat unscientific amalgamation of all of them.
He retired from TV in 2010, but his 25 years on the air every night, and his unique interviewing style, made him influential in the development of talk shows—and like Oprah, he can’t squelch the passion for it, so he now appears in an online show. He’s never been known for being tough or probing too deep…but his research was impeccable and his questions open-ended, so he encouraged guests to open up and spill the beans far more than they may have liked. And these were often people you wouldn’t even see on other talk shows—everyone from world leaders to celebrities to quirky personalities. Ellen DeGeneres
Ellen is a viewer favorite who’s the closest anyone’s come to taking Oprah’s former crown as the Queen of Daytime. Her offbeat personality, casual style and awkwardly funny dance moves make her likeable and relatable. Those qualities also encourage her guests to loosen up and be goofy in ways you won’t see anywhere else. Although she hasn’t been on TV as long as the others on the list—only since 2003—she certainly doesn’t seem to be going anywhere fast.
3 Jay Leno
>Leno had some big shoes to fill when he took over hosting “The Tonight Show” from Johnny Carson. And he’s been turfed from the gig, and rumored to be turfed again, enough to make it look like he’s losing his footing in those shoes. But the fact is he beat out David Letterman for the coveted gig in 1992, and he won it back from Conan O’Brien in 2010. Throughout the conflicts his ratings and beloved schtick have always kept him near the top—and he’s a close second to Letterman when it comes to salary.2 David Letterman
The Queen’s counterpart—and her nemesis—is the King of Late Night Talk, David Letterman. Well, OK, some people will argue that Jay Leno is the king, or that nobody could ever take the title from Johnny Carson. However, since taking a seat behind his desk in 1982, Letterman has already surpassed Carson’s 30-year reign. He tops the list of best paid late night hosts. And let’s be honest here—we probably wouldn’t even be making a list here if Letterman hadn’t popularized the Top Ten list for decades.
1 Oprah Winfrey
Oprah may have quit her incredibly successful syndicated talk show, but she hasn’t given up interviewing people about topics that move her. And between her OWN TV channel, her Harpo Films production company, her “O” Magazine and her Oprah Radio channel on Sirius XM, she’s sure not finished building media empires. Oprah was considered the Queen of Daytime Talk for years, and multiple attempts to crown her successor have been largely unsuccessful. So she deserves to be at the top of the list, regardless of what she’s planning next.