Best Talk Show Guests

If you are a regular reader of the blog, and a big thank you if you are, you know that I am a sucker for late night talk shows. Though I only watch Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and The Daily Show regularly, I certainly dabble in the comedy stylings of Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert, with the occasional Craig Ferguson thrown in when he does something particularly interesting. You couldn’t pay me to watch Jay Leno.

While the hosts really make or break a talk show in the long run, the guests can also make a huge difference in how entertaining an individual episode is. As I noted in an earlier post, one of the mistakes that I think Jimmy Fallon made in the beginning of his run was having Robert DeNiro be his first guest. Amazing actor, but he isn’t a talker and poor Fallon had to work much harder to get DeNiro to give more than short answers to questions. He’d be a challenging guest for a seasoned host, but it was painful to watch Fallon struggle so much on his first night out.

Now, I don’t think DeNiro was being difficult on purpose; his personality is just not a great fit for the format. One thing you learn from talk shows is that some actors are so good at what they do because they personally are kind of a blank canvas. They can easily become someone else when handed a script, but aren’t all that interesting when they have to be themselves. Other guests seem disinterested in being there and it is clear that their sole purpose is to promote whatever it is that they are currently working on or a movie that is about to be released. These guests aren’t a lot of fun either. Their lack of enthusiasm is palpable and doesn’t make for very fun television.

Unfortunately, some guests have too much personality or are just a little weird, which becomes all too apparent when they have a seat on the couch. The idea that you have of them is altered, as the curtain is pulled back a little to reveal that under the image that has been carefully cultivated by a publicist, there is a real odd ball. That’s always a disappointment for me; I know that actors are real people and that they have a whole range of personalities, but when you are used to thinking of them one way it can be jarring to see them behave in a way that is so counter to your conception of them. This happened to me recently with Madeline Stowe’s appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. She plays such an evil ice queen on Revenge that I was a little surprised by how different she seemed when chatting with Jimmy. I guarantee that Victoria Grayson never worries about flashing people (and please note that she repeated it to make sure Jimmy heard her).


I’ve had similar reactions when I see Julie Bowen being interviewed:


To quote the great philosopher Kanye, “that sh*t cray.”

I’m also less impressed with guests when I see them on multiple shows and they basically tell the exact same anecdote every time. That screams over-coaching to me; though I suppose that it is a reasonable expectation that not a lot of people watch multiple talk shows, so the number of people who will notice the repetition is minimal. But I do notice.

A good guest is relaxed and funny and doesn’t try to take over the show. They may have a prepared anecdote or two, but they are able to deliver them in such a way that they don’t sound prepared. They are able to promote their current project without giving hitting you over the head; their appearance shouldn’t feel like an infomercial. A great guest is game for anything and is willing to participate in comedy bits or games with the host. It always disappoints me when the “A” guests go on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and don’t play a game or otherwise participate. That takes then down a notch in my estimation. The more ridiculous that they are willing to be the better; the all-time great late night guests are game for just about anything.

I was reminded this week what a difference a great guest can make on a late night talk show when Jimmy Fallon had on Tom Hanks, who is pretty much the perfect guest. He’s likable, a great story teller, gives you the soft sell on his projects (though I’ve also seen him appear on shows when he has absolutely nothing to promote), and is willing to be goofy and go with the flow.

Need proof? Here is Hanks participating in a hilariously weird comedy bit – a slam poem about the 90s television show Full House:


He then sat down with Jimmy and told a very funny and solid story about Bruce Springsteen:


He and Jimmy have great chemistry and both of his segments are fun and entertaining. I was initially on the fence about seeing Cloud Atlas – I worry that it is this year’s The Tree of Life – but I’m now more open to giving the movie a chance. That’s what a good segment is capable of.

It isn’t just Fallon where Tom Hanks shines. He has always been fantastic every time that he has shown up on Conan O’Brien’s various shows. In fact, it was Hanks that helped coin the nickname “Coco” for Conan during Hanks’ first appearance on the short lived The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien.  Doesn’t matter if that was a prepared bit or not – Hanks sold the heck out of it and the nickname totally stuck. The website for Conan’s new show on TBS is even That is the power of Hanks. He’s a good sport, all around nice guy (or an even better actor than we thought) and pretty much the perfect talk show guest. And I say all of this while not being the hugest Hanks fan; I think he’s a great actor, but he’s not someone that I follow closely or whose presence in a movie would be enough to make me go to the theater.

Of course, Tom Hanks isn’t the only person who makes a great guest – Alec Baldwin also comes to mind – but if the powers that be ever gave me a talk show (and I assume this is in the works somewhere), the first person that I’d try to book is Hanks.  He helps make a good host look great and would definitely make my job a lot easier. He would almost make me consider tuning in to Jay Leno. Almost.

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