For the most part, a celebrity’s appearance on a talk show can feel rote. The star and the host have an uninspired, rehearsed conversation, the star shows a clip, if he or she is on Fallon they play a bizarro lawn game; if it’s Ellen a man pops out from the table. The talk show is a formula that’s been honed for the past 50 years. But the best guests can make talk shows worth watching, breaking free from the medium’s constraints to deliver moments of endearing or hilarious spontaneity. Who are these people? In 2017, who is the best talk-show guest? The Ringer staff make their cases below.
Micah Peters: This is easy. Jamie Foxx is the best talk-show guest because Jamie Foxx tells the best stories. Where usually you’d hope a guest is game to grin and maybe offer cute answers to an unimaginative line of questioning, Foxx wrests control of the interview completely to peel off on a tangent about the time Oprah staged an intervention for him. While the big draws there are obviously OPRAH and INTERVENTION, the real prize is that Foxx does a perfect Sidney Poitier. He does a really good awkward and backpacked circa-2005 Kanye, too. Which is almost as good as his peeved Quentin Tarantino.
I guess the better way to put it would be: Jamie Foxx is the best talk-show guest because Jamie Foxx commits. Whether that be to telling the shit out of a story, or to cleaning “Bitch Better Have My Money” up and bringing it to the opera house, which honestly might’ve been my favorite minute and a half of television so far this year. Foxx on a press tour is awe-inspiring, sometimes regular inspiring, but above all entertaining pretty much all of the time. As a great talk-show guest should be.
Alison Herman: These are the best four minutes of stand-up written in the last five years, and they’re performed on Seth Meyers’s couch:
Maybe it’s because I relate a little too powerfully to a nice Jewish girl from the suburbs rolling through the Ivy League to discover that “marijuana is, like, my soulmate,” but this Obvious Child promotional appearance made Jenny Slate a star to me. That’s the best-case scenario for a one-season SNL alumna headlining her first movie, and it’s what talk shows are supposed to do for guests but so rarely do anymore, either because the guest doesn’t bring the juice or the show itself isn’t the platform it used to be.
Late Night With Seth Meyers was just getting started in early 2014, and it hadn’t stumbled on the Trump material that now accounts for the lion’s share of its YouTube views. But Jenny Slate is a fast-talking, ad-libbing, relentlessly likable force, and this bit single-handedly explains why the internet lost its mind when she started dating Chris Evans. I think I could lip-sync the whole thing from memory.
Sean Yoo: Chris Pratt’s talk-show résumé speaks for itself. He has consistently promoted blockbuster-level movies since 2014 (The Lego Movie, Jurassic World, two Guardians of the Galaxy movies) and has been running through an endless number of press junkets. But it’s about more than quantity. The criteria of a good late-night guest is loads of charisma, engaging anecdotes, and the willingness to do just about anything on television; Chris Pratt checks off all those boxes. Take a look at the tape: Here’s a charismatic Pratt on Fallon effortlessly gliding through the improv bit Word Sneak; check out the young anecdotal Pratt and the evolved anecdotal Pratt; and finally here’s the IDGAF Pratt that tears down the Ellen crowd with this goofy game of “Speak Out.” If that doesn’t convince you, guess what, I’ve got more: Here is peak Pratt, with a magic trick that is as good as LeBron’s block in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals.
I rest my case. The man is an elite talk-show guest who won’t be slowing down anytime soon.
Rob Harvilla: “I’m not as famous as I think I am,” Jennifer Lawrence informed David Letterman in 2012, in the midst of a loopy story about her prank-inclined older brothers and that time she mistook an empty parked car for the paparazzi. That wouldn’t be true for much longer — this was the year of Silver Linings Playbook and The Hunger Games. But in her personal-arc sweet spot, beloved but not yet overexposed, nobody worked the Goofy, Relatable Superstar angle harder, or more convincingly. Just a cavalcade of adorable embarrassment. To hear her tell it, she pukes incessantly, spills yogurt on planes, has a deformed tailbone from being thrown off a wild horse, was originally forced into media training for announcing the death of Kim Basinger, and once somehow got both sweaty and freezing enough that she made Letterman get her a blanket.
This America’s Farting Sweetheart shtick was unsustainable long-term, which is how you get to last year’s infamous “I scratched my butt on sacred Hawaiian rocks” incident. But in the twilight of the stars-telling-cute-stories era, before Jimmy Fallon began forcing our celebrities to play charades or pin the tail on the donkey or whatever, J-Law reigned supreme as a top-tier guest with a lowbrow sensibility, a Stars — They’re Just Like Us column made flesh. And yeah, fine, she’ll do the Box of Lies, too.
Chris Ryan: Dude gets it. When Rannells does Fallon or Seth Meyers, it’s like he’s just a fun New Yorker dropping by. Sure, he is there to promote something — The Intern, Girls, one of his many Broadway bangers (Hamilton, The Book of Mormon, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) — but he’s just hanging out and shooting the shit. He’s got great stories …
He doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he also knows he’s more interesting, at least in those few minutes, than the host. So he casually grabs the spotlight and tells stories that are sort of about whatever he’s plugging but more about being a working actor in New York. I almost want him to get his own show, but that would mean he wouldn’t get to be a guest anymore.
Sam Schube: Sometimes a celebrity enters the annals of talk-show history with a single breathtaking performance. That was the case for Salma Hayek, who sheepishly narrated to Jimmy Fallon earlier this year the time she thought her husband was cheating on her, only he (a French billionaire) was using an app named ELSA to learn to better communicate with her in English. Classic, totally relatable (what, your billionaire husband never downloaded an app to speak in your shared second language?), and extremely sweet. Salma Hayek is pantheon-worthy.
Andrew Gruttadaro: Forget the cool-guy strut or the gregarious, pointing-to-the-audience entrance — this is how every late-night guest should hit the stage:
It shouldn’t be a surprise that the author of the most humorously cutting, poignant, amenable tweet in history is also the most entertaining guest to watch on late-night TV in the past year. Like the tweet, Danny DeVito’s recent late-night appearances (for a small movie called The Comedian and a big Broadway play called The Price) have been thrilling and unexpected; aggressively bizarre and inexplicably endearing. He went on The Late Show toward the tail end of 2016 and proceeded to gleefully hijack every conversation host Stephen Colbert started. A meme about people’s babies looking like DeVito somehow turned into a joke about eating babies; when it came time to introduce a clip of The Comedian, DeVito started scatting. Then earlier this month, DeVito went on Late Night With Seth Meyers and copped to always carrying a hard-boiled egg (“It’s a good thing! It’s a very nutritious thing to have!”) before pivoting and basically becoming a lovable spokesperson for small, portable trampolines.
DeVito’s a throwback to the days when late-night guests would just talk — he’s not one for games or gimmicks. But any time he’s on one of these shows, he’s engaged, he’s excited, and he’s impossible not to love. The conversations feel fresh, and the frenetic way DeVito retells stories or anecdotes makes me feel like I’m watching my uncle or grandpa talk at the dinner table on Thanksgiving. At 72, DeVito has entered the I’m-just-happy-to-be-here part of his career, and frankly, I couldn’t be happier to witness it.
Kevin Clark: It makes sense that Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the perfect modern talk-show guest. She has enough reps — here she is deflecting a creepy Jay Leno bit about her legs nearly 20 years ago — and she is, of course, among the funniest humans on the planet. This creates a rare blend: comfortable enough to engage in the type of banter and storytelling that still fills tons of air time (inside scoop from Julia: Joe Biden talks an uncomfortable amount) and smart enough to know the value of a viral hit (here she is doing squats with Jimmy Kimmel, and here she is drinking on air, and here she is doing a Fallon “Whisper Challenge” gag). JLD was such a good Letterman guest that she was included in his final show two years ago, and appears to enjoy talk shows so much that she appeared on whatever Larry King is doing now. She was on Craig Ferguson. Craig Ferguson! She’s the talk-show Ichiro, apparently up for anything as long as she’s getting the at-bats. In their time, all four Seinfeld stars were pretty good talk-show guests, but Louis-Dreyfus since has lapped them all on the talk-show circuit. Unless you want to hear Jerry Seinfeld on Cowherd complaining about college kids.
Schube: Perhaps you knew this from watching 12 seconds of House of Cards, but Kevin Spacey is a magnificent ham. He’s an old-fashioned actor — the kind of guy who can bring his charm, classically-trained talent, and gameness to bear while sitting in an oversized guest chair. Also, Kevin Spacey is a phenomenal impressionist. Does anyone in the coveted 18–49 demo care about a Johnny Carson impression? I doubt it, but Kevin Spacey does. And that’s what makes him the king of the talk-show guests.
Herman: Louis C.K. is the last remnant of an older generation of talk-show guests — the kind that come prepared, fairly polished, and ready to roll:
C.K. understands the late-night appearance as a sort of secondary stand-up set. He’s too famous to have to showcase a tight five, or 10, or anything less than an SNL monologue, but he also doesn’t use his sit-downs as a clearinghouse for subpar material. “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy” is arguably the last talk-show segment to actually break through and make an impact on the larger culture; I still think about it every time I get on an airplane. And even though C.K.’s largely declined to talk about our current president on stage, he understands that the talk show is the perfect place to get out some topical thoughts:
He’s smooth and composed enough to be a must-watch, but awkward and prickly enough not to seem like a Fallon-A-list ham. Very few people treat the talk-show appearance as a minor art form anymore, so let’s treasure those who do.
Ryan: My talk-show guest, Amanda Peet. Amanda Peet will give you a viral moment if you need one; Amanda Peet will tell a self-deprecating story to lighten the mood; Amanda Peet can hang out when you bring another guest out; she can do Jimmy, Jimmy, James, or Stephen. And, best of all, she can turn any of those shows into After the Thrones, even when she’s supposed to be talking about Togetherness.