Craig Ferguson, The Inconspicuous King Of Late Night
We recently discussed the death and endless undeath of Late Night shows, but one name was noticeably missing from the list of comedy royalty – Craig Ferguson. The affable Scotsman batted cleanup following his friend David Letterman for nine years, quietly slipping out the back door shortly after Letterman’s grand exit.
Craig’s program, The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, was one of a kind – a loose, surreal, semi-improvised and entirely singular experience centered around an entirely singular personality. Ferguson’s perspective, his humanity, and his compassion made him – in this writer’s opinion – the greatest Late Night host of his generation, and it’s exactly those qualities that today’s broadcasts are desperately missing.
Craig Ferguson took over The Late Late Show from Craig Kilborn in 2005 after winning a sort of guest host competition that had Ferguson, Michael Ian Black, Damien Fahey, and D.L. Hughley all host the show for a week each before CBS chose to keep the chain of Craigs intact, replacing Kilborn with Ferguson.
Ferguson started his run in the 12:30 am time slot with a heavily scripted show that matched the format of his predecessor. He would begin each show with a tightly crafted monologue, reading five to ten jokes off of cue cards before launching into his regular segments. Craig Kilborn’s show was a carefully planned, if not restrictively rigid program that showcased the wit of his writer’s room but left limited space to experiment.
That wasn’t Ferguson’s style at all. Very quickly, the new Craig realized that his ad-libs between the jokes on the cue cards got bigger laughs than the cue card jokes themselves. He loosened the show’s tie – so to speak – by walking all the way downstage and delivering his monologues stream-of-consciousness style directly into the camera.
His meandering monologues were loosely connected to current events – usually – but it wasn’t so much the content that attracted his small but devoted fanbase as much as it was the connection they felt with Craig. They got something from him that they weren’t used to getting from a late night host – an unfiltered, unguarded glimpse into his actual personality.
Craig’s segments followed a similar spirit of un-structure which often featured riffs with his gay robot sidekick Geoff Peterson who was built for him by the late Grant Imahara of Mythbusters fame after he lost a bet to Craig on Twitter. Beginning in his third year, Craig started to incorporate a growing list of puppet characters, and notably added a pantomime horse named Secretariat who would become a regular presence much like Geoff Peterson.
But where Craig really shined was in the interviews. Starting in 2008, Craig would symbolically rip up his notecards at the beginning of the interview to signal to the audience and to his guest that there would be no rules, no rigid structure, no conveyor belt of publicist approved anecdotes hamfisted between lukewarm endorsements of whatever book/movie/podcast the guest had come on to hock.
His interviews broke down the guards of the most carefully media trained celebrities on the planet through his sheer shamelessness. He reveled in the awkward moments, and pushed each discussion off the rails at the earliest opportunity provided to him. He was never afraid to delve into uncomfortable subject matter, and he (almost) always managed to change his demeanor to fit the appropriate tone for difficult questions.
It was this skill that landed him a Peabody award for his 40 minute interview of South African civil rights leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2009:
This wouldn’t be the last time Craig Ferguson dared to address the issue of racism and racial violence on his – supposed – comedy show, as he brought on Dr. Cornel West at the beginning of Black History Month in 2011.
What made Craig such a compelling interviewer was his curiosity and his devotion to honesty. As an immigrant to America, Craig felt that it was his duty to pick apart the most touchy topics through the point of view of a Scottish settler fresh off the shores. He was a brave and relentless inquisitor who would get to the center of his guests’ beliefs through any means necessary.
He was also an incorrigible flirt. Whoever you were, whatever your gender, when you sat down opposite Craig Ferguson you were preparing to be wooed.
The through line for the The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson was that it was really just the Craig Ferguson experience. The whole of his being was on display, including his flaws and his immaturities should the situation call for them. Being a former professional musician, he even wrote and performed his own theme song.
If you only watch one Craig Ferguson video in your life, let it be his monologue from February 20th, 2007, in just his second year hosting the show. Craig was asked to deliver a scathing riff on Britney Spears who had just begun her very famous, very public unraveling. In defiance of his writers and his network, Craig stepped in front of the camera and improvised one of the most honest, empathetic, and human monologues in the history of Late Night.
This is Craig to a T. A deeply flawed and deeply compassionate comedian who is just trying to help himself and his audience make sense of things:
Craig was never a superstar, nor did he try to be one. He had respectable ratings playing opposite NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien, but in the twilight years of Craig's tenure, he slowly saw Jimmy Fallon creep past him into the top spot of the timeslot. When David Letterman announced his imminent retirement in 2014, there was public speculation that Craig Ferguson was gunning for the big chair since Letterman had been so involved and invested in Craig’s run on The Late Late Show.
Secretly, Craig Ferguson was already planning his own retirement from Late Night by the time Letterman launched his farewell tour. “I wanted to leave the show before I stopped enjoying it” was his reasoning, besides, the biggest stage in Late Night may never have been a very attractive option for him at all. When he was still on his first six year contract, he said that he doubted he would sign on for anything longer than that, explaining, “I just don't know if I like being that visible… I don't know if I would want to ramp that up any more, you know. And people here find that, I think, quite difficult to (understand).” Thankfully he stuck around a few extra years, but to Craig, Late Night was only ever a temporary gig.
Exposure was never a perk of the job for Craig, which contrasts him with his successor, James Corden, who runs The Late Late Show like a carnival barker inviting viewers to join him in whatever cross-promotional spectacle he’s running that week. Who doesn’t love “Crosswalk Musical?”
By the time Craig Ferguson left the desk of The Late Late Show in 2014, it was clear which way the Late Night winds were blowing. Jimmy Fallon’s meteoric rise ushered in a new era of young, pop-y, social media minded Late Night programs that better suited the internet age. Fallon and Corden’s attention-grabbing segments generate YouTube views much more successfully than freeform, open-ended soliloquies by a coquettish Scotsman.
Nowadays, Late Night gigs feel more like launching pads for these nouveau-funny hosts to test out a Carpool Karaoke or Lip Sync Battle style series rather than a platform for commentary. You’ll rarely see a Jimmy Fallon monologue go viral, but a clip of him tousling Donald Trump’s hair? That gets clicks.
Late Night has entered a style-over-substance era, and unless we see drastic shifts in the way media is consumed, it’s unlikely for that to change. There’s simply no room anymore for heartfelt, improvised monologues or mischievous, meandering interviews soaked in entendre.
We’re desperately missing the bravery and vulnerability that Craig brought to the format, and it’s unlikely that we’ll ever get a host as willing to wade into uncertain waters the way he did again. We just wish we could see him chat up Kristen Bell one last time.
Top Image: Worldwide Pants Incorporated / CBS Productions
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