10 Most Influential Talk Show Hosts in TV History

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Be it morning, noon or night, these TV personalities came into our homes and captivated us with their own stories — and the stories of the guests they featured from one show to the next. The talk show is a genre that began during the dawn of TV and has been strong ever since. Some of these talk show hosts used their fame and TV show platform to make us laugh. Others took a different route and chose inspiration. Others decided to put the spotlight on sleaze and the degenerative aspects of society. Regardless of the format, here are 10 talk show hosts who have made their imprint in the TV landscape.


10. Ricki Lake (1993-Present)

Ricki Lake's talk show broke new ground in the 1990s.

The Ricki Lake Show logo; Fair use

While she is famous for her breakout role in the 1988 iteration of Hairspray on the silver screen, Lake is equally remembered as the hip talk show host that reached a young demographic on Ricki Lake from 1993-2004. The audience played as much of a role on Lake’s foray into talk as the featured guests had. Topics were often edgy, and guests would unabashedly discuss their sex lives and divulge other personal information before a national audience. Lake is making a resurgence in the talk arena in fall 2012 with a new program, The Ricki Lake Show. Unlike her previous chat fest, Lake’s reboot will aim for a slightly older demographic and will delve into some of the upbeat, personally affirming topics explored on Oprah Winfrey’s long-running series.


9. Geraldo Rivera (1987-Present)

Geraldo Rivera's 1990s talk show featured a wide range of questionable guests.

Geraldo Rivera, 2010; Justin Hoch

Rivera is often cited — and, at times, criticized — for being one of the forerunners behind the in-your-face, confrontational style that began to permeate daytime talk shows in the 1980s. Lowbrow topics were aplenty, from assorted dysfunctional relationships to hate groups. The confrontations hit such an extreme that Rivera himself got involved in a highly publicized fight on the set with white supremacists in 1988, suffering a broken nose in the process. In addition to his syndicated show, Geraldo, the talk show host with the unmistakable mustache has taken the helm in a more subdued fashion on shows airing on NBC, CNBC and Fox News Channel.


8. Dick Cavett (1968-2007)

Dick Cavett's shows appeared on several different networks.
Known for his controversial style and ability to probe deeply into a variety of issues, Cavett got his start on the small screen as an actor in the late 1950s. He subsequently had a behind-the-scenes role as talent scout on The Tonight Show, initially for Jack Paar and later for Johnny Carson. By 1968, Cavett took center stage as host of a talk show, This Morning, which was broadcast on ABC and deemed a sophisticated alternative to the other fare available. Over the years, Cavett has hosted some variation of a talk show on six broadcast and cable networks: ABC, CBS, CNBC, PBS, USA and Turner Classic Movies. He also has hosted radio programs.


7. David Letterman (1980-Present)

David Letterman has a longer tenure in late-night TV talk shows than anyone else.

David Letterman in 2011.

Letterman holds the distinction of being the longest-tenured late-night talk show host — a reign that just recently surpassed previous record-holder Johnny Carson. Known for his self-deprecating humor, top 10 lists and signature laugh, Letterman began his foray in the talk show arena during the morning hours, albeit briefly. For four months, in 1980, he hosted The David Letterman Show on NBC. It was abruptly canceled due to poor ratings, but Letterman eventually resurfaced on the opposite end of the day on the same network. When it debuted in 1982, Late Night with David Letterman soon became popular with the college crowd because of its edgy and unpredictable humor. Eleven years later, Letterman jumped ship to CBS in protest of NBC’s decision to install Jay Leno as host of The Tonight Show. His follow-up, The Late Show with David Letterman, has been running strong for nearly two decades.


6. Jay Leno (1987-Present)

Jay Leno has been enormously influential in the late-night TV world for more than two decades.

Jay Leno with first lady Laura Bush in 2004.

Known as the “everyman,” Leno’s seemingly down-to-earth persona and high work ethic have been among the attributes that have brought viewers to NBC’s The Tonight Show for two decades. But the venerable late night talk show host has not been without controversy. In 1992, some colleagues had harsh words for him as he succeeded Johnny Carson. Some of that criticism resurfaced in early 2010 as NBC unwound a decision to have Leno host a primetime show, with Conan O’Brien as successor of The Tonight Show. While he dabbled in acting throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Leno became a household name in 1987 when he became a regular substitute host on The Tonight Show. He also has done a number of comedy show circuits throughout his career.


5. Larry King (1985-Present)

Larry King earned both praise and criticism for his soft interview style.

Larry King interviews Vladimir Putin in 2000.

Known for his gravelly voice and signature suspenders, King was a mainstay on CNN for two-and-a-half decades with his chat show each weeknight. The venerable personality stands out because he has interviewed almost every type of person imaginable, from celebrities to foreign leaders to conspiracy theorists. Some TV analysts believe the disparate people agree to appear on King’s show because of his non-confrontational approach and open-ended questions that offer the person to expound on their viewpoints with ease. If you’re looking for tough, probing questions, look elsewhere. King’s CNN show, Larry King Live, ended its run in December 2010. A year-and-a-half later, he re-emerged with a web-only series, Larry King Now, which is being streamed through Hulu.


4. Dinah Shore (1970-1992)

Dinah Shore's friendly personality resonated with guests and viewers.
Shore enjoyed an expansive career in entertainment. She got her start in film in the 1940s and subsequently released a number of successful albums as a singer throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Shore entered TV as the medium emerged in the 1950s, and one of her first stints on the small screen included a guest spot on Bob Hope’s first television show. The role was notable enough that Shore wound up getting her own entertainment program, The Dinah Shore Show, in 1951. Two decades later, Shore entered the talk show arena, first on NBC’s Dinah’s Place and later in the syndicated Dinah! After a nearly decade long respite, Shore hosted one final talk show, A Conversation with Dinah, from 1989-1992 on cable. Regarded for her warmth and charisma on-screen, Shore’s persona resonated with viewers, regardless of the program genre or form of entertainment.


3. Phil Donahue (1967-2003)

Phil Donahue was the forerunne of the modern daytime TV talk show.

Phil Donahue (right) with guest Johnny Carson on a 1970 episode of The Phil Donahue Show.

Considered a pioneer in the talk show format — at least of the daytime variety — Donahue got his start hosting a local program in Dayton, Ohio. Three years later, in 1970, his show went national through syndication. During his nearly 30-year reign in the daytime arena, Donahue never shied away from hot-button topics, including abortion, war and civil rights issues. For this reason, many of his guests tended to be controversial figures. He left the crowded field of daytime talkers in 1996, but returned to the talk show circuit briefly in 2002 to host a nightly issues-oriented show on MSNBC. It was canceled after seven months due to low viewership.


2. Johnny Carson (1962-1992)

Johnny Carson hosted NBC's The Tonight Show for 30 years.

Johnny Carson as Carnac the Magnificent; Fair use

An iconic personality, Carson entertained audiences young and old for three decades each weeknight as the host of NBC’s The Tonight Show. His success is often attributed to his warm persona that usually brought out the best in the guests he interviewed. At the same time, he created a swath of gut-busting characters — including Carnac the Magnificent and Art Fern — for the insomniacs tuning in. Generally respected on screen and off, Carson has been one of the more studied TV figures since his death in 2005. He reportedly was a shy, introverted person when he was not in front of the camera. But his influence on pop culture was evident during his emotional farewell from a show he hosted for nearly 30 years.


1. Oprah Winfrey (1984-Present)

Oprah Winfrey is regarded as one of the most influential individuals in the world.

Oprah Winfrey’s first broadcast of the Oprah Winfrey Show, Sept 8, 1986; Fair use.

Without a doubt, Winfrey is one of the most influential, powerful figures in the world with her signature focus on self-empowerment, spirituality and desire to help the less fortunate. She created a brand so strong the books featured on her long-running syndicated talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, would fly off store shelves. Winfrey is so influential, in fact, the talk show host took the unprecedented step of creating a cable channel, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), around her beliefs. Winfrey began her career in gab in 1984, initially hosting a locally produced Chicago morning talk show. After two years of success in the Windy City, Winfrey went national. The rest is history.


One More: Merv Griffin

Merv Griffin wielded great influence as a TV executive.

Photo credit: Linda Bisset

Merv Griffin was one of the most popular talk show hosts of the 1960s and ’70s. Griffin and his eponymous The Merv Griffin Show won numerous Daytime Emmy Awards, but before that, his head-to-head battle against Johnny Carson in late night fell flat. And despite the success of his daytime show, which ran from 1972 until 1986, there was little to differentiate it from another popular long-running daytime program of that era, The Mike Douglas Show. Griffin wielded enormous influence as a TV executive, however, founding the popular syndicated shows, Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune.

Written by

Dave Fidlin is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and journalist. He has contributed to a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites throughout his career. He grew up glued to his family's TV set and has been enthralled with the medium ever since.