It takes a certain grace, poise and pain-in-the-assness to be an effective interrogator of bold-faced names. Many have tried, but it’s a rarified air up there — and these are among the very best to ever hold the mic and point it at someone famous, or infamous.
1. HOWARD STERN
For more than 40 years, Stern has been infecting radio — both terresetrial and satellite — with giddy outrage. But all the while, he’s also been a penetrating radio journalist, getting those who sit in his studio to say things they never would, or should.
2. DAVID FROST
He verbally fenced Richard Nixon into admitting “when the President does it, it’s not illegal.” Even if he hadn’t been a pillar of British television and interviewed scores of heads of state…that’s some Hall of Fame shit right there.
3. MIKE WALLACE
Telling truth to power is a journalist’s job, and few did it as well as this late 60 Minutes correspondent.
4. JOHNNY CARSON
One of Carson’s great gifts — aside from that cutting sense of humor — was his innate ability to modulate himself to an interview subject. When he needed to be funny, he could be. When he needed to be the straight man, he was. When he needed to dig deep, he did.
5. BARBARA WALTERS
To paraphrase Robert Redford’s senator in Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Her work has been a gift to mankind. She shaped the century. And she’s really amazing at getting people to cry.
6. BOB COSTAS
Before he became NBC’s Sports Adult, who powered through pink eye during the Olympics, he was the host of HBO’s On the Record and Later on NBC. Both shows were just about one person sitting down and talking to another, aided only by exhaustive research and an honest interest in what the other person wants to say.
7. KATIE COURIC
The mark of a good television journalist is not just the work they do, it’s the void that’s left behind when they leave. And The Today Show has never truly recovered from Couric’s departure. She could work high and low with the best of ‘em.
8. ALEX HALEY
Best known for writing Roots, Haley also did groundbreaking interviews for Playboy with some of the ‘60s’ most important African-American figures, including Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
9. MARC MARON
There are a billion podcasts out there about a billion different things, but Maron has cornered the market on emotionally eviscerating audio portraits of both himself and his guests. His interview with Louis CK is one for the ages:
10. CHARLIE ROSE
Odds are, if you’re watching PBS and (Downton Abbey isn’t on), it’s because you’re watching Charlie Rose sit down around that awkwardly round wooden table learning new things about people you already find fascinating or discovering what’s fascinating about someone you’ve never heard of.
11. BRYANT GUMBEL
Sports is where Bryant Gumbel lives. He did his time on The Today Show, co-anchoring with Katie Couric, and interviewed his fair share of heads of state and victims of tragedy and people who own dogs who were rescued from trees by cats. But for 20 years he’s been hosting HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel which has become the 60 Minutes of sports journalism.
12. CRAIG FERGUSON
For as absurdist as his version of CBS’ The Late Late Show was — and he had a talking robot sidekick and two people in a horse suit named Secretariat — he was a skilled interviewer. Witness this audience-free chat with UK man-about-town Stephen Fry:
13. DICK CAVETT
As much an interrogator as a referee, Cavett was an expert at booking guests on The Dick Cavett Show that were either straight-up fascinating (John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Marlon Brando) or guaranteed to explode, like this fracas between Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal.
14. GAY TALESE
No one is as famous for not landing an interview than Talese, who turned his dogged pursuit of Frank Sinatra for Esquire magazine into one of the landmark pieces of journalism of the 20th Century: “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” But when he did get his subject — be it Peter O’Toole or Joe DiMaggio — he turned it into gold.
15. ZACK GALIAFANAKIS