10 of the most iconic and influential TV talk show hosts from the '80s

Take a seat on the couch, here are 10 of the best talk show hosts to take the stage in the '80s

Image credit: The Everett Collection

For decades, late-night and daytime talk shows have kept us entertained while also informed. Talk show television has a rich history behind it, with many comedians and hosts taking different approaches to deliver jokes, monologues and more.

From the live bands, celebrity guests, political figures and sidekicks, there are many reasons the legacy of past classic talk shows still exist today. Let's take a look back at 10 of the most iconic and influential TV talk show hosts from the '80s.

Who is your favorite classic TV talk show host?

1. The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson



The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson is still highly regarded and considered to be one of the most iconic late-night talk shows. Johnny Carson not only inspired hosts to come but The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson established the modern late-night format. Carson and his sidekick, Ed McMahon entertained us for 30 years.

Notable guests: Robin Williams, Bob Newhart, Joan Rivers and Ronald Reagan.

Image credit: The Everett Collection

2. The Dick Cavett Show



The Dick Cavett Show was the go-to talk show for musicians, political figures and authors. While Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett may have shared some guests during their years, Cavett was focused on getting guests outside of the entertainment field. Cavett had a literate and intelligent approach to comedy that can be seen in many of today's talk show hosts.

Notable guests: Groucho Marx, Janis Joplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Jimi Hendrix and more.

3. The Phil Donahue Show



The Phil Donahue Show aired for 26 years on national TV. Although The Phil Donahue Show had major success for awhile, the show began to lose viewers in 1995 and its last show aired in 1996. The Phil Donahue Show still makes the list as it was a precursor for all daytime talk shows to come in the '80s and '90s. The show had its fair share of celebrity guests but Donahue started pushing the envelope by talking about mental health and social topics that were considered taboo at the time. It was a daytime talk show with a lot to say.

Notable guests: Ralph Nader, Dolly Parton, Dick Clark and Joan Rivers.

Image credit: The Everett Collection

4. The Oprah Winfrey Show



This show needs no introduction. The Oprah Winfrey Show was on air for 25 seasons and it remains one of the highest-rated daytime talk shows in history. Winfrey used her show as an educational platform with self-improvement segments, hosting book clubs and more. The show received 47 Daytime Emmy Awards.

Notable guests: Michael Jackson, Celine Dion, Tina Turner and Tom Cruise.

5. The Arsenio Hall Show



The Arsenio Hall Show was hosted by comedian and writer, Arsenio Hall. Hall's late-night career began when he hosted The Late Show in 1987 after the dismissal of Joan Rivers. Hall became unexpectedly popular. Were you one of the original fans that Arsenio Hall won over?

Notable guests: Eddie Murphy, George Lopez, Andrew Dice Clay and Paula Abdul.

6. Late Night with David Letterman



Late Night with David Letterman was the first iteration of the Late Night franchise. During its run, the show was nominated for many awards and grew a fan base that stuck around after Letterman's departure. These days Letterman is hosting another type of talk show on Netflix, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. 

Notable guests: Bill Murray, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks and Howard Stern

7. The Merv Griffin Show



The Merv Griffin Show had a much different tone to it compared to other late-night and daytime talk shows. Griffin was great at conversational style hosting. He conducted interviews that tended to be light-hearted but he didn't stray away from in-depth discussions that would drag out for over 30 minutes. 

Notable guests: Jimmy Carter, Rosa Parks, Clint Eastwood, Gene Wilder and Dustin Hoffman.

8. Tomorrow Coast to Coast



Tomorrow Coast to Coast was hosted by Tom Snyder and aired on NBC. The show focused on both entertainment and news and immediately followed The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. While it may not be the most notable late-night talk show, Tom Snyder had a big mix of guests that you wouldn't typically see on a late-night show. 

Notable guests: Charles Manson, Alfred Hitchcock, James Baldwin, John Lennon and more.

Image credit: IMDB.com

9. Larry King Live



Larry King Live brought on popular guests to talk with the great and controversial journalist and host, Larry King. Larry King Live was CNN's most-watched and longest-running talk show, with over one million viewers nightly. Were you one of them?

Notable guests: Bill Clinton, Ophrah Winfrey, Diane Sawyer and more.

10. The Mike Douglas Show



The Mike Douglas Show was a daytime talk show hosted by Mike Douglas. Each week Douglas would have a different celebrity co-host and would interview a variety of guests. Do you remember watching The Mike Douglas Show?

Notable guests: Sammy Davis Jr., Phyllis Dyer, David Brenner and more.

Image credit: IMDB.com

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IndianaRockz 9 months ago
I do not even watch any of the current major network late night talk shows, mostly trash with guests/"stars" I've never heard of. I watch Johnny Carson almost nightly on the Antenna TV network...at least you knew/know the stars he had on! And I love the special guests he had on such as the lady with her potato chip collection when Johnny pretended to eat one of her prized chips (hilarious) or the 90 year old Avon lady. And I miss David Letterman with his good Indiana humor & wit; I loved the segments with his mom. Good stuff.
(((🍞"Toast on a stick")))
Moverfan 11 months ago
Don't remember ever watching Larry King Live, but I watched everything else at least occasionally--grew up watching Mike Douglas in the afternoon, Merv in the evening and stayed up to watch David, Arsenio and Johnny as I got older.
Am I the only one who noticed that while they're talking about Late Night With David Letterman, the photo they used is from The Late Show?
FloridaTopCat 14 months ago
Seinfeld did a classic tribute to "The Merv Griffin Show" When Kramer finds the set walls and sets them up in his apartment!
meckpj197655 19 months ago
I grew up watching "The Mike Douglas show" They should bring him back.
bagandwallyfan52 19 months ago
Sadly, no, my friend - Tom Snyder passed away in 2007.
Michael 20 months ago
I remember when Jimmy Olsenwas on Johnny Carson. Late sixties, and Ican't remember. It was around the time someone shaved his head.
bagandwallyfan52 Michael 19 months ago
Zip 20 months ago
What, no Chevy Chase?(yeah, I know it aired in the early 90's, but I couldn't resist the joke)
cperrynaples Zip 20 months ago
Yep, his Fox show lasted 5 weeks in 1993!
Zip cperrynaples 20 months ago
Yeah, it was a real disappointment to me because I was a big Chevy Chase fan. I loved his sense of humor, and when I heard he was getting a talk show I thought that would be a perfect venue for him and his wit. Turned out to be quite a train wreck.
To me his greatest movie he ever did is Fletch. It really is Chevy at his best.
bagandwallyfan52 Zip 19 months ago
Pacificsun Zip 19 months ago

This is the LOCATION:

LOCATION: Trivia Quiz Answers (don't peek if you want to play)
Yes, my friend - Mr. Chase's real name is Cornelius Crane Chase; he adopted the name Chevy Chase after the Washington, D.C., suburb of Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Sooner 20 months ago
Phil Donahue, Oprah and Arsenio? Really!!!!!???? And ahead of Letterman, the best ever after Johnny. And if you could stay up really late, Tom Snyder had great guests and a great way of interviewing them.

An overlooked host that had a really sharp and unique style was Steve Allen. He was as fun, or more so, than his guests.
dean 20 months ago
No, Jay Leno, on the list? .... hmmm
cperrynaples dean 20 months ago
Leno was Johnny's guest host in the '80's but didn't go full time until Carson retired in 1992!
Pacificsun 20 months ago
There were exceptions. But there seemed to be a code against, or a competition among inviting each other to their own shows. A perpetual conflict between Carson and Letterman, who felt the network shortchanged him on a promise made regarding his Late, Late Show. That he was to step into the shoes of Carson. Which of course could never happen. Because NBC was looking to the next generation of beyond Primetime hours. Which translated into attracting the next generation of Viewers, looking for hip and cutting edge and unsophisticated humor. They did indeed get what they were looking for. Except an entire ready-made and willing audience shifted dramatically. Even the early stages of JF, it'd be the only station to leave running after primetime. And now it's the only one I deliberately turn from.

A really well written article on the iconic talk-show hosts. The informed viewer's alternatives to daytime Soaps, and after-hours topical entertainment. It would be interesting to ask Viewer's who was their favorite, and why.
TheDavBow3 20 months ago
A talented guy but not sure about Arsenio Hall being on this list.
Pacificsun TheDavBow3 19 months ago


LOCATION: answers to trivia quiz if you want to play (don't peek).

CoreyC 20 months ago
Tiger Woods was on The Mike Douglas Show when he was a little boy.
cperrynaples CoreyC 20 months ago
Yes, he played miniature golf against Bob Hope! It was 1978 and I believe he was 3 years old!
cperrynaples cperrynaples 20 months ago
PS Who is Phyllis Dyer? Clearly they meant Phyllis Diller...LOL!
Barry22 20 months ago
Not a big talk show fan, but I did like Letterman when I was working nights and he was on when I came home. Saw Donahue do a show when he was in Miami Beach.
kkvegas Barry22 20 months ago
We have both things in common. I used to watch Letterman after coming home from work, and I saw Phil Donahue live when he visited Los Angeles in 1985.
UTZAAKE 20 months ago
Not making the list is Bob Costas who hosted from 1988 to 1994 Later which followed Late Night with David Letterman on NBC. The installment I remember the most featured Larry King, with the catch being each had to assign a mystery guest for the other to interview without any preparation. Costas interviewed Mario Cuomo, King got Meatloaf.
MrsPhilHarris 20 months ago
There is a great clip from The Mike Douglas Show of John Lennon and Chuck Berry singing Memphis, Tennessee with Yoko wailing in the background. The sound man cuts her mic.
Good call sound man!
cperrynaples MrsPhilHarris 20 months ago
If you want to see a howler, look for Mike's interview with Little Richard & Liberace! Clearly, Mike had NO gaydar...LOL!
MrsPhilHarris cperrynaples 20 months ago
😂 I’ll have to watch it.
Pacificsun cperrynaples 20 months ago
Had to go out and grab this one!!

Attended a MD show. Genuine. And by today's expectations, Square.
cperrynaples Pacificsun 20 months ago
That's clearly the Decades edit because the original ran 90 minutes! But yes, I'm sure everyone who saw Little Richard's costume figured it out right away...LOL!
Pacificsun cperrynaples 20 months ago
It's rare for YT to feature 90 minutes of a personal vid. Though once in awhile a fan has gotten through with a 90 minute like made-for-TV movie. I know of an instance. Usually a vidder has to jump through an extra hoop to post something longer than 15 min. What's posted was just to give feel of the dynamic between them. They both had great talent!
KJExpress 20 months ago
Charles Manson? Yikes!
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Michael daDoctah 20 months ago
But everything I read about him was after the killings. So he had the fame then. Yes, he hung out with some of the Beach Boys and tried to sell his songs, but was he anything but obnoxious?
Michael Barry22 20 months ago
Vincent Bugliosi. Ed Saunders wrote The Family which is apparently about Manson before the killings. I have a copy, never read it. He obviously intersected with the counterculture. I think Bobby Beausoleil was part of the Digger band, but it's not clear if that was more the Mime Troupe band.
SteveMcnary KJExpress 20 months ago
Manson always brought big ratings. He was also interviewed by Geraldo Rivera & others over the years.
Pacificsun KJExpress 20 months ago
I know!!! That was my reaction too. I mean does no one have ANY intuition about people? My guess is, he was considered untouchable even in prison!
BrittReid 20 months ago
Johnny ruled the airwaves and Dave became the best when he was on.
BenSobeleone BrittReid 20 months ago
Yep, Johnny was the king of the late night talk shows.
WonderGeorge BenSobeleone 15 months ago
Now and Forever - Johnny Carson!
cperrynaples 20 months ago
Dick Cavett & Mike Douglas shouldn't be on this this list because their heyday was the '70's! By 1980, Cavett was on PBS and Douglas was on cable!
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Pacificsun cperrynaples 20 months ago
Yeah, this one was careless. But if you didn't have any "feel" for the age or experiencing the phenomena itself, it could happen.
Pacificsun bdettlingmetv 20 months ago
I'm going to defend against this one. Normally the decade labels don't make much difference, except when used to a detriment. Any writer, when ever, is responsible for their content through research and fact checking. No, they didn't live through it. But (for them) are looking back on time, like we go to a museum appreciating "ancient history." While the stories are "content" driven, the discussion is actually about "experience." So they throw topics out there for Readers to remember, and then to exchange.

I'm appreciative of the hard work it takes finding subjects, and what goes into them, and meeting deadlines. Don't knock it, till it's been tried. 😊
cperrynaples cperrynaples 20 months ago
Well I'm sure I stumped everyone so the answer to the Sheldon sitcom was Run Buddy Run! It was a takeoff on The Fugitive where Sheldon was chased by gangsters because he overheard their conversation!
WonderGeorge cperrynaples 15 months ago
If my memory serves me correctly - which it does, in 1981, Mike was dropped by his syndicator, Group W, and was bounced from several tv markets, so he overhauled his show; in 1981, the show was now, "The Mike Douglas Entertainment Hour", where there were no interviews - if you wanted to appear on the show, you had to perform.
LoveMETV22 20 months ago
Some of the Late night Hosts mentioned in the story were priceless. Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett and
David Letterman were among the best. What was particularly funny was David Letterman's Annual Tribute to Halloween.
Yes that is young Macaulay Culkin in the skit.🎃🎃🎃🎃
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LoveMETV22 Pacificsun 20 months ago
I just watched it not to long ago ( like a few days ago). I like it as well. But I don't remember when I first watched it though.😉
Pacificsun LoveMETV22 20 months ago
Johnny Carson was dependable. His kickback on topical interest was masterful. And his skits were fun! A relative saw him live in a nearby city! IMO, Letterman couldn't help but make you laugh. Cavett was informative. They forgot to mention David Frost. A little more refined than Larry King, but both got the Big Guests. Nice for posterity. Saw Mike Douglas in person. And friends and myself, ran home from school to watch Merv Griffin, hosting our favorite Stars! Others (only IMO) were a bit more heavy handed than "entertaining." More in the class of "informative." Maybe they should've made a distinction there. But nobody has come close to the originals. Confirmed by all the shifting around, and cable had a lot to do with it, adding so many choices and specialties.

For what my opinion is worth.... easy 🗑️ deposit right here!!
LoveMETV22 Pacificsun 20 months ago
Re: I just watched it not to long ago ( like a few days ago), I was referring to BTTF.
Just guessing your reply was in reference to talk shows, or my post about talk show hosts being like ice cream flavors.
Pacificsun LoveMETV22 19 months ago


LOCATION for Trivia Quiz answers (wait until you play)
15inchBlackandWhite 20 months ago
I do remember watching The Mike Douglas Show. In particular an episode where his guest was a veteran New York City police detective. They were discussing TV detective shows. Douglas asked him what TV cop show was the least realistic. He answered "Hawaii Five-O". Why? "Because at the end of every show they say Book em' Danno, and if that was really the case you'd never see Danno on the show because he'd be spending all of his time in court." Which did he think was the most realistic? Barney Miller!
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Pacificsun cperrynaples 20 months ago
Forgot the hyperlink to HSB
BenSobeleone McGillahooala 20 months ago
Speaking of Crime Story, Tony Denison (Ray Luca) and Jon Polito (Phil Bartoli) made a visit to Superdawg in Chicago on a food show on tv several years ago. They were driving down Milwaukee Avenue in a 1960s convertible. You see the back of Superdawg in the opening credits of Crime Story.
WonderGeorge BenSobeleone 15 months ago
Thanks for the info, Ben, I'm one who enjoys Crime Story!
BenSobeleone Pacificsun 14 months ago
That's an excellent show! I would like to see that on MeTV or MeTV+ or H&I (Heroes and Icons)
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