Rating Stand Up Comedy On Late Night: Who Loves Stand Up…and Who Doesn’t

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The Stand-Ups on Late Night Television: A Mid-Year Review and Report Card

The days when a five-minute appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson could make a stand-up’s career are long gone, but the late-night television circuit remains a showcase for comedy and can be a handy barometer for the state of stand-up.

We took a look at the top late-night talk shows in the U.S. that feature stand-up comedians performing stand-up. (The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Conan, Late Night with Seth Myers, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and The Late Late Show with James Corden and Jimmy Kimmel Live) and examined how much each show featured stand-up comedy in 2016 to date.

Here are some of the trends we discovered. To be completely fair, this article only looks at comedians who performed a stand-up set; it does not include comedians who appeared as a couch guest either to promote movies, television or even stand up shows, specials, albums and tours. Hannibal Buress, Noel Fielding, Colin Quinn, Dave Attell, Sarah Silverman, David Cross, Moshe Kasher, Tom Segura, The Kids in the Hall are just a few examples of stand up comics who have been couch guests on shows and are not included in this article.

Conan is the most stand-up friendly show…. And Jimmy Kimmel Live is the least. Conan led the pack with 28 stand-up appearances this year, including two appearances by Daniel Sloss, the only stand-up to perform twice on any one talk show this year (Mark Normand and Nick Griffin had two appearances each, but on different shows). Conan has also featured the most racially diverse group of comics, including Fahim Anwar, Dulce Sloan, Aparna Nancherla, and Joel Kim Booster, among others.

Fallon books the headliners. Music is an integral component of Fallon’s show, and Fallon usually books musical acts over stand-ups by a 10:1 ratio, but when he books stand-up, he swings for the fences. Brian Regan, Andrew Dice Clay, Jimmy Carr, Gabriel Iglesias, Nate Bargatze and Iliza Shlesinger are half of the twelve stand-ups who have performed on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon this year. Disappointing side note however, for most of their stand up performances, the Tonight Show doesn’t even bother to upload the stand up clips to their popular YouTube account.

No one does edgy like Stephen Colbert. Late night talk shows have become pretty benign and formulaic through the years, and stand-ups usually play things safe with sets that play to middle-America without offending anyone. Not so on The Late Show, where Sam Morril said “Having a penis is like having a Republican son. It’s a part of me so I have to support it, but these are not the views that I endorse.” Bonnie McFarlane riffing and the need to practice texting while driving and Maria Bamford’s descriptions of the various “lotions and potions” and “jams and jellies” she and her husband use in the bedroom were refreshingly edgy.

There’s still a significant gender gap in comedy. Of the 60 stand-ups who performed on late night shows this year, only 16 were female (about 25 percent). Female comics like Bonnie McFarlane and Iliza Shlesinger are changing the game, but comedy still remains largely a boys club.

There’s a youth movement under way. While comedy veterans like Regan, Clay, and Harland Williams performed this year, the overwhelming majority of stand-ups featured on late night this year have been lesser-known comics in their 20s and 30s, such as Daniel Sloss, Rhea Butcher, and Carmen Lynch. Some of the more established stand-ups (ie: Kevin Hart, Lewis Black) have transitioned to films or just doing panel on the shows. They still kill in their appearances, but those appearances are as fun interview subjects and not for stand-up performances.

Politics is surprisingly absent. In an unprecedented election year such as this, Trump and Hillary seem to be low-hanging fruit, but most of these stand-ups steered clear of politics in their late night sets. Again, maybe that was due to their willingness to please middle America and avoid alienating half their audience by displaying a political preference, or maybe they just wanted to avoid topics that would potentially be covered in the opening monologue. In any case, the lack of the political material in an election year such as this one is striking.

Here are our grades for the late night shows based on their 2016 class of late night stand up performances. We graded based on overall support of stand up comedy including number of performances this year, comics invited to perform, diversity, actual promotion and presentation of the sets and performances. Fifty eight comedians gave sixty performances on late night talk shows so far in 2016.  Sixteen were women.

Conan, TBS, 29  
Grade: A

Rory Scovel, January 7
Joe List, January 11
Marques Ray, January 11
Brad Wenzel, January 27
Fahim Anwar, February 1
Daniel Sloss, February 2
Dulce Sloan, February 8
Adam Clayton-Holland, February 9
Leonard Ouzts, February 22
Carmen Lynch, March 1
Shane Torres, March 8
Emily Galati, March 21
Josh Gondelman, March 23
Nick Griffin, April 4
Quincy Jones, April 11
Steve Gillespie, April 25
Myq Kaplan, May 3
Gad Elmaleh, May 11
Matt Donaher, May 12
Mark Normand, May 23
Tom Papa, June 9
Daniel Sloss, June 13
Doug Smith, June 20
Joel Kim Booster, June 22
Rhea Butcher, June 30
Aparna Nancherla, July 7
Gary Gulman, July 13
Matthew Broussard, July 26
Noah Gardenswartz, August 22

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, CBS. 10 stand up, 1 sketch duo
Grade: B

Jerry Seinfeld, January 6
Maria Bamford, January 15
*Key & Peele (sketch), February 27
Sam Morril, April 22
Ryan Hamilton, May 6
Nick Griffin, May 13
Marina Franklin, May 27
Paul Mercurio, June 15
Bonnie McFarlane, July 15
Cory Kahaney, July 23
Mark Normand, August 5

The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, NBC, 12
Grade: B-

Iliza Shlesinger, January 8
Mary Lynn Rajskub, February 26
Jimmy Carr, March 17
Gabriel Iglesias, March 23
Nate Bargatze, April 1
Andrew Dice Clay, April 5
Nick Guerra, April 15
Jack Whitehall, April 29
Harland Williams, May 24
Lucas Brothers, June 8
Brian Regan, June 17
Jeff Dye, August 3


The Late Late Show with James Corden, CBS 4
Grade: C –

Jamie Lee, January 14
Cameron Esposito, March 10
Rachel Feinstein, April 18
Jared Logan, July 26


Late Night with Seth Myers, NBC, 3
Grade: D +

Michelle Wolf, April 14
Joe Pera, May 12
Fortune Feimster, June 15 


Jimmy Kimmel Live, ABC, 1
Grade: Fail.

Dino Archie, July 29

late night report card

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Dan Murphy is a freelance writer in Buffalo. Pre-order his new book documenting the rise of women’s wrestling from sideshow to WWE main event on Amazon.com, "Sisterhood of the Squared Circle: The History and Rise of Women’s Wrestling"
Dan Murphy
Dan Murphy
Dan Murphy is a freelance writer in Buffalo. Pre-order his new book documenting the rise of women’s wrestling from sideshow to WWE main event on Amazon.com, "Sisterhood of the Squared Circle: The History and Rise of Women’s Wrestling"