Look, there are a ton of places for comedians to get TV credits as their career develops, but there’s still something special, something pure, about those five minute sets on a late night network talk shows, you know? Here are ten of our favorite appearances of the decade, from both newcomers and veterans, doing everything from well-crafted tight fives to off-the-rails experiments.
Norm Macdonald on Late Show with David Letterman, May 2015
It was a transitional decade for late night: a bunch of new white guys got new shows, Trump’s election turned every show into some version of The Daily Show, and David Letterman retired. It makes perfect sense that Norm Macdonald was Letterman’s pick to be the final standup act as his show was coming to a close in 2015, their sensibilities are so closely aligned. Norm first appeared on late night TV 25 years prior to this very special appearance, full of classic Norm bits and an unexpected burst of emotion to close things out. This is just a great piece of television.
Joel Kim Booster on Conan, June 2016
A great late night debut is both an introduction and a best-of. Comics work for years to develop a bulletproof 5 minute set, one like Joel Kim Booster’s 2016 appearance on Conan. Riffing on his childhood and identity, the audience immediately knows both who he is and what he’s about, and also that he’s incredibly charming and funny.
Dulcé Sloan on Conan, February 2016
Another killer late night debut set, this one from Dulcé Sloan, who would go on to be one of your favorite correspondents on The Daily Show. Dulcé’s balance of easy charm and efficient brutality is on full display here, as is her very expensive bra. She talks dating, fashion, and casual brunchtime sexual assault, among other things in this delightful five minute set.
Kate Berlant and John Early on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, February 2017
Nothing nicer than a perfectly matched duo act, you know? And there’s no better duo in the 2010s then Kate Berlant and John Early, the weirdos who launched 1,000 front-facing camera comedians. Their perfectly complementary styles (and outfits) shine during this Fallon set that is both a culmination of the work they were doing at the time across a variety of short films and a perfect first taste of their work to the wider late night watching public.
Aparna Nancherla on Conan, October 2013
Aparna Nancherla’s late night debut on Conan in 2013 mixes the personal and the political in a really special way, dropping a bit about colonialism early on in a set that’s otherwise pretty observational, accessible stuff. It helped establish Aparna as a beloved presence and unique voice in modern standup comedy, a fresh perspective with a knack for writing killer jokes.
Joe Pera on Conan, March 2017
We’re big Joe Pera fans here at BYT, both of his standup and of his Adult Swim series, Joe Pera Talks With You. His 2017 appearance on Conan is a true delight, where you get to see him riffing with the studio audience, with a hint of a knowing smirk cracking through his polite Midwestern facade. It’s like this: make a bunch of jokes about tall sons and do exclusive, one-on-one prop comedy and you’re probably gonna hook me.
Shane Torres on Conan, September 2018
It is NOT easy for a standup comedy clip to go viral these days. For whatever reason, the internet is not interested in being set ablaze this, comedy in its most pure and undiluted form, like it does other bite-sized bits of content. That’s what makes Shane Torres’ Guy Fieri bit that much more remarkable: the internet damn lost its mind for a minute about this clip. It’s a special piece of work, inverting a classic comedic method of dissecting an everyday thing to examine why it’s weird/bad, defending the mayor of Flavortown as a champion of small businesses and expander of culinary minds.
Jacqueline Novak on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, March 2018
To the delight of comedy fans and the bewilderment of countless YouTube commenters, the brilliant Jacqueline Novak spent the entirety of her appearance on The Tonight Show in 2018 talking about french fries. A laser-focused set that obsesses over the interpersonal minutiae of ordering and sharing food, Novak brought us something instantly memorable and conceptually thrilling.
Ron Funches on Conan, August 2011
Watching Ron Funches’ 2011 Conan set feels special all these years later. A totally singular voice, goofy jokes about the many differences between the South Side of Chicago and the Pacific Northwest delivered at half-speed. Funches has slimmed down and sped up in the years since, but his debut on late night television will always be my favorite.
Rory Scovel and Jon Dore on Conan, June 2011
Rory Scovel and Jon Dore’s collaborative appearance on Conan has stayed with me since it first aired in 2011. This is technically an unranked list, but this is easily my favorite performance of the decade. A totally game Conan sets up the premise in the intro: the show somehow accidentally booked two standups in one night before throwing to Jon and Rory for three straight minutes of chaos. They both launch into their act, totally ignoring the other’s presence, and continue to do so across musical segments, crowdwork, and some light improv games. It’s one of those perfectly simple conceptual bits that is totally nailed in execution, a true thing of beauty.