Unlike more traditional occupations, there's no set career path for aspiring late-night talk show hosts. But even the most iconic hosts had to start somewhere, whether that's as a local weatherman or an anonymous caller on a morning talk show. Like many on-screen debuts, the earliest film and television appearances of many of these late-night stars were rather awkward—even more so in hindsight. Which might explain why some of these well-established personalities have never spoken publicly about their earliest roles.
1. STEPHEN COLBERT
South Carolina-raised Stephen Colbert's southern accent was on full display when he made his first on-screen appearance in 1993, playing the husband of an injured woman who appeared in the final two minutes of an episode of the otherwise forgotten ABC drama Missing Persons.
Two years later, Colbert co-starred on Comedy Central’s sketch show Exit 57, which he co-created with some of his Second City compatriots, including future Strangers with Candy co-creators/stars Amy Sedaris and Paul Dinello.
2. JIMMY FALLON
While attending The College of Saint Rose, Fallon was hired to appear on the pilot episode of Metroland’s Loose Camera, which was meant to air on the Fox affiliate in Albany, New York in September of 1994.
Whether it ever actually aired on TV is hard to ascertain, but Fallon definitely performed stand-up on the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon in 1996.
3. CONAN O’BRIEN
Conan O'Brien's first professional comedy writing credits were with HBO’s Not Necessarily the News and Fox’s short-lived The Wilton North Report. O'Brien got a job writing for Saturday Night Live (working in the same room as Bob Odenkirk), where he appeared as an extra in a few sketches. The first time his pale face graced the airwaves appears to be during Tom Hanks’ opening monologue on the season 14 premiere, which aired on October 8, 1988.
4. JIMMY KIMMEL
Before his big break co-hosting Win Ben Stein’s Money, Jimmy Kimmel had a small role in a 1995 indie short called Delinquent’s Derby, which—as Kimmel’s character put it—featured “geriatric pugilism.” But before all of that, while he was still working as a radio DJ, Kimmel appeared on a local TV show in Seattle to talk about movies. "I remember it vividly," Kimmel says. "I watched it [recently] and I was stiff as a board, I had red glasses like Sally Jessy Raphael ... It was a great look for a young man. I knew it at the time, I looked at myself and I said, 'I will never be on television, I need to make it on the radio, because clearly I’m not good at this.'" Sadly, no footage of this seems to currently exist on the internet.
5. JAMES CORDEN
The current Late Late Show host wrote about his television debut in his autobiography, May I Have Your Attention, Please?. He skipped school one day when he was 14 years old and watched ITV’s This Morning with Richard and Judy’s episode about bullying. Corden to this day doesn’t know what compelled him to call in and claim he was being bullied, but he did in fact do so, and through the deception got his voice heard—albeit in character—on the small screen. In 1998, at the age of 19, Corden appeared on the second episode of Nickelodeon's Renford Rejects as, fittingly enough, a bully only known as “Razor 1.” In the credits, his name was misspelled as “James Cordon.”
6. SETH MEYERS
After years of working in improv comedy groups, and right before he began his 13-season stint on Saturday Night Live, Meyers appeared on the “Rain on My Charades” episode of Spin City as “Doug” in February 2001. Meyers confirmed via Twitter last year that it was his "first time on network TV!"
7. JON STEWART
The former host of The Daily Show (it’s weird to write that) got his first comedy writing gig on A&E’s Caroline’s Comedy Hour in 1989. He appeared on camera for some sketches (which he co-wrote) during his tenure, along with fellow staff writers Louis C.K., Susie Essman, and Dave Attell. In 1991, Comedy Central gave him an on-screen gig as co-host of Short Attention Span Theater.
8. TREVOR NOAH
The Daily Show's incumbent host “stumbled into” his first TV gig on the South African soap opera Isidingo when he was 18 years old. He had a starring role as a gangster.
9. LARRY WILMORE
The Nightly Show host played Officer Ziaukus in a few episodes of The Facts of Life between 1983 and 1984. It helped him along in his stand-up career throughout the 1980s before he started his second life as a respected comedy writer on show likes In Living Color in the 1990s.
10. ARSENIO HALL
11. JOHNNY CARSON
Carson became the third permanent host of The Tonight Show in 1962, 14 years after he made his on-screen debut as a milkman in Omaha’s WOW-TV special The Story of Undulant Fever. Unfortunately for those wanting to know more about brucellosis, it was only broadcast on the University of Nebraska’s first television set, in the Lincoln campus’ auditorium. The special itself was broadcast from the basement of the university’s theater building. Here’s Carson recounting the unlikely debut on a 1985 episode of Late Night with David Letterman (where he forgivably got the year wrong).
12. JAY LENO
Both Leno and David Letterman were young Los Angeles stand-ups in 1975 when Jimmie Walker hired the two to write jokes for him. The writing gig led to Leno’s on-screen debut as a patient in the waiting room of a clinic on an episode of Good Times, who informs Walker’s character J.J. that VD is an epidemic.
13. DAVID LETTERMAN
After graduating from Ball State University and broadcasting from its campus radio station, Letterman managed work on Indianapolis’ WLWI-TV in 1970. The first time his voice was heard on TV was when he was that station’s identification announcer. He later appeared in front of the camera as their part-time weatherman, the host of their Saturday children’s show Clover Power—where he gabbed with 4-H members and once presented a band called L.C. Soul Unlimited featuring a 13-year-old Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds—and hosted the late night movie show Freeze Dried Movies, where he once swapped the audio of a spaghetti Western with ukulele music performed by him and his friends. He moved to Los Angeles in 1975.