Like 2014 before it, 2015 was a year of monumental change in late night. There are still no female hosts on the air—we will have to hold out for Samantha Bee and Chelsea Handler in 2016 for that—but this past year did see some major transitions in the late night field.
We said goodbye to David Letterman, who can still be seen rocking his enormous Santa Claus beard on the college circuit, and to Jon Stewart, who popped up on his old friends’ shows this month and will soon be starting his new mysterious endeavor with HBO.
At the same time, we welcomed TV veteran Larry Wilmore to The Nightly Show along with relative newcomers Trevor Noah to The Daily Show and James Corden to The Late Late Show. And, of course, this fall brought a rejuvenated Stephen Colbert back into the fold, filling Letterman’s shoes with a little more heart and a lot more song and dance than the Late Show had in its original incarnation.
This year also saw the continued shift in viewers, more and more of whom are not watching moments like the ones below during “late night” hours, but rather catching the most buzzworthy clips the following morning. Of the 10 videos on YouTube’s top trending list for 2015, three of them came from late night shows, each garnering view counts in the 35-55 million range. Last year, that same list was late night-free.
For the list below, we reserved one spot each for the 12 men who defined late night television in 2015.
12. Trevor Noah Casts Trump as an African Dictator
During his two and a half months at the helm of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah has at times struggled to find his own voice within the brand that Jon Stewart perfected. But if there was one moment when his own perspective truly shown through it was during a bit about—who else?—Donald Trump, that came at the end of his very first week.
By recasting Trump as the ideal African dictator, Noah managed to show a man Americans thought they knew all too well in an entirely new light.
11. Bill Maher Challenges Liberals on Political Correctness
2015 was a year in which so-called “P.C. culture” threatened comedic freedom in often unsettling ways. Pervasive political correctness became the overarching theme of the recently completed 19th season of South Park and one of its biggest critics was Real Time’s Bill Maher, who dedicated an extended rant to defending his fellow comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Amy Schumer from accusations of prejudice.
10. James Corden Sings Carpool Karaoke with Stevie Wonder
Of all the innovations James Corden has brought to late night this year, the segment that stands out more than any other is Carpool Karaoke. Corden agrees, telling the New York Post earlier this year that the bit, in which he drives around with famous pop stars and sings their songs with them, helps humanize people who are almost never without their entourages.
“We shoot them for about 40 minutes and they’re completely on their own: It’s me and them and fixed cameras and that’s it,” the host said. “I think they find that very liberating and there’s a joy in that I’m very proud of.”
The Justin Bieber version got the most attention and views, but you could tell Corden was most excited about jamming with Stevie Wonder.
9. Conan O’Brien Joins Grindr
Conan O’Brien’s unprecedented trips to Cuba and Armenia were undeniable highlights this year, but they worked best as full episodes, with no one segment standing out for its excellence above the rest. For that, we turn to a field piece that stuck closer to home. With help from the always hilarious Billy Eichner, O’Brien decided to join the gay hook-up app Grindr, just to see what would happen.
8. Larry Wilmore Calls Out Fox News’ Charleston Coverage
When a white gunman entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine black parishioners, Jon Stewart had “nothing other than just sadness” to give his audience. But that same night, Larry Wilmore managed to find the perfect way to wring laughs out the horrible tragedy, by focusing on Fox News’ utter failure to see the racial motivations behind the attack.
7. Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda Freestyles with Jimmy Fallon and The Roots
This may not have been Fallon’s most popular clip of 2015—that honor goes to a post-Super Bowl lip sync battle between Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart—but it was the most fundamentally entertaining. And it was all thanks to Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda who, with The Roots backing him up, delivered expertly crafted freestyles on the spot. While most of Fallon’s seemingly impromptu games can feel overly rehearsed, this was spontaneity at its best. Since you probably can’t get a ticket to Hamilton on Broadway anytime soon, this video will have to suffice.
6. Seth Meyers Brings Jon Snow to a Dinner Party
Late Night’s Seth Meyers somehow managed to make big news by doing something very simple this year: He sat down. But while the former Weekend Update anchor’s newfound comfort produced some incisive commentary on everything from John Boehner’s resignation to Donald Trump’s lies, it was a rare taped sketch that stood out above the rest in 2015.
Before we knew anything about Jon Snow’s fate, Meyers taught us that he would make a truly awful dinner party guest. And that Kit Harington is actually pretty funny when he wants to be.
5. Jimmy Kimmel Trolls Trump Rally
We just knew the guy with the “DTF” cowboy hat standing directly behind Donald Trump at his massive Dallas rally in September was too good to be true. And we were right.
As Jimmy Kimmel revealed, that brave soul was his good friend Jake Byrd, who managed to troll Trump way harder than any of the late-night hosts who scored interviews with him could to his face.
4. John Oliver Starts His Own Tax-Exempt Church
In his second year as HBO’s resident explainer-in-chief, John Oliver unpacked America’s mental health system, Syria’s refugee crisis, Canada’s surprisingly evil politics and more. But nothing had the overwhelming success of the fake, tax-exempt church he created called “Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption.” It was the most important thing any late-night host has done since Colbert Super PAC.
3. Stephen Colbert’s Emotional Interview with Joe Biden
If Joe Biden had decided to run for president in 2016, he would have owed an enormous debt to Stephen Colbert. Before the vice president appeared during Colbert’s first week of Late Show episodes, he was widely considered too much of a self-parody to be president. After he nearly broke down on screen talking about the loss of his son Beau, he was practically a national hero with a real shot at taking on Hillary Clinton.
As a comedian, Colbert is in many ways still figuring out how to be funny without the benefit of his right-wing Colbert Report character. But as an interviewer, he quickly showed that he could connect with his guests in a deeper way than he ever could when he was portraying a self-described “idiot” like “Stephen Colbert.”
2. Jon Stewart’s Farewell to Bullshit
Airing immediately after the first whirlwind of a GOP debate in August, Jon Stewart’s final episode of The Daily Show felt sadly diminished in comparison. How could he compete with the meteoric rise of Trump and the 24 million viewers who tuned in to see him do battle with Megyn Kelly?
The final show itself was full of exciting cameos from past correspondents, culminating with an emotional send-off from Stephen Colbert. But it was that final segment, with Stewart alone at his desk, that will be remembered.
“The best defense against the bullshit is vigilance,” he told his loyal audience one last time. “So if you smell something, say something.”
1. David Letterman’s Final Star-Studded Top Ten List
In the end, David Letterman’s late-night farewell was a lot less teary-eyed than Johnny Carson’s, or even Jay Leno’s. But it also contained more genuine laughs, especially thanks to the murderer’s row of special guests he put together for his final Top Ten list.
Some of the one-liners were funnier than others (Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ “Thanks for letting me take part in another hugely disappointing series finale,” complete with Jerry Seinfeld eyeroll, stands out) but you could see on Letterman’s face how much they each meant to him.