5 Arsenio Hall
Though not a conventional top-5 pick, Arsenio Hall is routinely ranked among the elite late-night hosts. Hall’s claim to fame was bringing a youthful quality to late-night with his self-titled “Arsenio Hall Show” from 1988 to 1994. The show was among the major competitors that eventually led to Carson’s retirement to give “The Tonight Show” a fresh image. Hall hosted one of the most iconic late-night moments ever when former President Bill Clinton played the saxophone on a show in 1992.
4 David Letterman
David Letterman didn’t win the infamous battle for host of “The “Tonight Show,” but he does edge out Jay Leno among the late-night icons. Letterman has a slightly more eccentric personality, and his 30 years hosting late-night shows as of 2013 definitely gives him a legacy advantage. While Letterman delivers funny monologues, his hallmark is clever bits, including his widely loved “Top 10” lists and “Stupid Pet Tricks.”
3 Johnny Carson
Were it not for the historical factor, Johnny Carson might be commonly considered the top late-night show host ever. In fact, David Letterman has referred to Carson on many occasions by his common moniker “The King of Late Night.” Carson was host of “The Tonight Show” for 30 years before retiring in 1992. His strengths include a stellar monologue, great interviews and classic character bits.
2 Jack Paar
Paar took over as “Tonight” show host in 1957 when Allen left. While he only remained the host for five years, Paar certainly left his mark. Paar was more of a straight-forward talker than a comedian or showman. He was also very passionate about the show and his control over it, famously walking off-set over a censorship debacle.
1 Steve Allen
Somewhat driven by the historical significance, many lists of top late-night talk show hosts rank Steve Allen as the best. Allen was the first major late-night show host when “The Tonight Show” made its debut in 1953. Allen was known for his intelligence, musicality and comedy. His variety format lasted an hour and a half.