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  • Forget Fallon…Let’s Talk About Ferguson

    In defense of the best late-night host you're probably still not watching

    When people talk about the late-night TV wars, we’re always hearing about the good old days of Carson, followed by the warring between Letterman vs. Leno, Leno vs. Conan, Leno vs. Fallon, and now, Fallon vs. Kimmel. Plus, there’s new kid on the block Seth Meyers getting his feet wet.

    But one name that never seems to come up in these incessant “King of Late Night” debates is Craig Ferguson, the host of The Late Late Show (airing just after Letterman). Why?

    American audiences perhaps first became familiar with Craig from his role as Nigel Wick, Drew Carey’s boss on The Drew Carey Show, which aired beginning in 1996. But it’s been a long road for the Scottish-born American host, and many of his trials and tribulations can be read about in his memoir, American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot, which details a whole lot about Ferguson’s life that you probably didn’t know about, from his years as a punk-rocker…to a dancer…to a bouncer…to a construction worker…and perhaps even more interesting, it shares his deeper reasons for wanting to become an American. He’s also written a novel.

    The 51 year old has been sober for two decades now, but his experiences with drug and alcohol addiction, combined with the fact that he’s been married three times, have perhaps unwittingly contributed to creating the perfect recipe of life experiences from which to draw his peculiar-yet-brilliant stand-up comedy.

    And when you watch The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson for the first time, you immediately notice that something is different. And I don’t just mean Craig’s thick accent. You might even ask yourself, is this guy for real?

    You see, even though he works on a fairly typical-looking late-night TV set, Craig doesn’t follow any of the unwritten “rules” of late-night. In fact, he spends more of his time defying convention than anything else. What he does is, underneath the surface, a send-up of the entire late-night genre…a parody of it, if you will.

    What makes Ferguson different? Let me count six of the ways.

    1. Craig opens each show with a “cold open”-style sketch, which may or may not be rehearsed, and is almost never scripted. It might be a mini-monologue, or it might be a lip-dub featuring a cavalcade of bizarre looking puppets. Recently, one of these opening segments involved a strange-but-fascinating conversation with William Shatner, sitting together on a pair of armchairs in front of Craig’s fake fireplace, as piano music serenaded their odd discussion:

    2. After the “cold open,” you’ll notice that The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson is the only late-night TV show that has its own theme song with lyrics. Those lyrics are sung and co-written by none other than Craig himself, an obvious homage to his former days as a punk-rock drummer. Did I mention how darn catchy the song is? Think ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky”:

    As a side-note, Ferguson has no house band on the show. As a result, he frequently makes jokes about his “invisible” band, and cuts to a shot of his empty curtain.

    3. When the show returns from the first commercial break after that theme-song (which you’ll undoubtedly still be humming at this point), Craig begins to deliver what looks slightly more like late-night fare, in the form of a monologue. Only, upon closer examination, it’s not much of a monologue at all. Ferguson begins every one of them by banging on the camera and proclaiming “It’s a great day for America!” He then delivers the so-called “monologue” directly into the camera, as if he’s talking right into your television set. The bizarre lens angle almost feels like you’re watching his performance through a keyhole. Just about anything can (and will) happen in these monologues, which are quite loose and unscripted. Sometimes, Craig even runs his own segments out of order for no apparent reason. And when a show has been pre-taped (as in, Craig is on the road or on vacation or it’s a holiday), he will often make frequent allusions to the fact that the show you’re watching at the moment was actually recorded four months ago…without actually saying so. Since Craig can’t possibly comment on news that hasn’t happened yet, those pre-taped episodes will often devote the entire hour to “Finnish Independence Day,” or another little known holiday that’s celebrated on the scheduled air-date…you know, just to keep the show “fresh” and “timely.” He also has a propensity to test his own censors throughout the show, and when he cusses, his mouth is usually covered up on the screen with the flag of a foreign nation, along with phrases like “tootsie fruits!” or “ooh-la-la!”

    Other recent running gags during this segment have included calling for a picture of Paul McCartney, but instead showing a picture of Angela Lansbury on the screen. He often does the same thing with Cher and Marilyn Manson, as well as other celebrity lookalikes.

    4. My personal favorite part of the show comes AFTER the monologue segment, which is supposed to be devoted to viewer tweets and e-mails. This is the segment that usually devolves into utter chaos, and is almost certain to go off-the-rails every night. This is in part thanks to Ferguson’s “robot sidekick” named Geoff Peterson, who trades the most barbs with Craig during this feature (along with much of the previous monologue). Geoff has become perhaps the most important part of the show in recent years, and he’s voiced by impressionist/voice actor Josh Robert Thompson behind the scenes. The idea for a “robot sidekick” emerged out of Craig’s constant on-air jokes about the fact that CBS has no budget for the show, in part because it’s on so late that supposedly, nobody actually watches it. His idea was to create a “Robot Skeleton Army” for the show, and even have a robot sidekick who wouldn’t need to be paid. Grant Imahara of Mythbusters eventually agreed to build the robot for Craig, and thus, the glowing blue-eyed, mohawk-wearing animatronic skull puppet was born. At first, he delivered only pre-recorded lines when Craig called upon him (and Craig never knew what lines the producers had in store for him), but eventually, Josh Thompson started performing as Geoff live in the studio full-time, utilizing a hilarious George Takei-insired voice. Running gags include the fact that Geoff can’t walk, and the story of how he originally died from a meth overdose. He sports a suit that’s way too big for him, wears mardi gras beads around his neck, and a name-tag stolen from The Price Is Right set. He can move his head, mouth, and arms, but that’s about it.


    Oh yeah, and Geoffrey Peterson is also gay. Are you beginning to sense how deep the mythology of The Late Late Show runs? For the past three years, Thompson has operated and voiced Geoff every single night, and, thanks in part to his improv background, has developed a rapport with Ferguson that is arguably the best duo ever on late-night television. Once again, nothing is scripted out ahead of time. Here’s an example:

    5. Though the current best part of The Late Late Show is, in my mind, clearly the back-and-forth between Craig and Geoff, Ferguson does eventually talk to celebrity guests (more on that in a second). But right before he does, don’t be surprised if you see Craig and/or one of his guests dancing with Secretariat, a gigantic pantomine horse who has appeared on every single show since the premiere of the Disney film of the same name.  Tom Hanks and Kristen Bell have even ridden on Secretariat, while other guests have been brought to the stage by a Secretariat-led conga line. A costume worn by two people, Secretariat has a stable on the side of Craig’s stage, and he usually overlooks the show as it’s being recorded. We learned recently that Secretariat has an extreme cocaine addiction, and you may even see him snorting white powder during the show on occasion.

    6. Finally, there’s the guests. But a guest appearance on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson is like none other. Craig always rips up the question cards and throws them all over the stage right in front of the celebrity he’s talking to. It would appear this is to show them that he wants to have a genuine conversation, rather than use scripted questions. And those conversations can go just about anywhere. Ferguson rarely ends up talking about the show or movie his guests are on to promote. Instead, they often have a much more meaningful–or at least hilarious–exchange. Craig usually gives his guests the opportunity to participate in one of several unique activities, including an “awkward pause” (where they simply stare at one another for an awkward length of time), a “mouth organ” (harmonica) contest, a $7.50 prize in nickels (for correctly answering a question about Iceland), or a contest in which they each try and hit Secretariat with a frisbee. Sometimes, Craig will offer fruit to one of his guests from the basket on his desk. If they choose the coconut, he’ll smash it open on his desk and drink coconut milk with them. Ferguson is also the absolute master of flirting with his female guests. While other late-night hosts usually get rather shy in their phony attempts at flirtation, Craig would have you believe he’s ready to go all the way with his female celebs…and all of the ladies seem to absolutely love him for it, as they flirt hard and heavy right back at him:

    So there, in a nutshell, you have it. Call it The Cult of Craig, but this guy is different. Do I think NBC should have tried to hire him away from CBS to replace Jay Leno, rather than give The Tonight Show to Jimmy Fallon? Of course not. In fact, I think Craig Ferguson is perfect right where he is. Part of the endearing charm of this genius show is the fact that it’s not really intended for mainstream consumption. While I certainly won’t protest if he is eventually primed to replace David Letterman on his own network, I am happy to continue watching Ferguson develop his unorthodox and hilarious blend of entertainment in the wee hours of the night. I’ll admit that he does air past my general bedtime, but for years now, I’ve had him locked in my DVR every single evening/morning, simply because I don’t want to miss his latest stroke of genius. Craig has taken risks like no other television host, whether that’s in the comedic realm (such as the time he turned his entire 1000th episode over to his hand-puppets), or something more serious (his 2006 hour-long eulogy to his father earned him an Emmy nomination). Did I mention the time that Ferguson decided to do a show with NO studio audience, just to see what would happen? Take that, Letterman.

    Whether it’s a culmination of his life experiences, his personality, or something deeper, Craig Ferguson is delivering a thought-provoking show every night, even if you’re too busy laughing to realize the utter brilliance of what you’re seeing. He may be changing the landscape of late-night television by satirizing all of its conventions, and he’s doing it one viewer at a time.

    Do you agree? Share your thoughts down there, underneath this compilation of The Secretariat Dance…

     

     


    Matt Fox

    Senior Editor

    Fox has history in broadcasting that spans two decades. From his early days as an FM host and club DJ in the mid-90′s to his later experiences in political talk radio, he has always had a knack for combining topical news with his love for popular culture. Those experiences culminated in his position as executive producer for several radio shows featured in the TALKERS Heavy 100. Originally from New York, Fox has made the great pilgrimage down to sunny south Florida.

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