Flashback Friday: THE LATE, LATE SHOW WITH CRAIG FERGUSON (Or, we aren’t ready to say goodbye)

Courtesy CBS

Sniff. It hurts just to type that out.

Okay, technically, The Late, Late Show is still on the air. But tonight is Craig Ferguson’s final episode as host of the show, so it seemed like a good idea to resurrect our hiatus feature to coincide with his imminent departure from our airwaves in order to celebrate a series that is not like anything else on late night television.

In the last ten years, we’ve laughed, we’ve cried, we’ve danced with puppets and robot skeletons. In other words, it’s been a real trip. On no other show would you be discussing testicles in one segment, then talking with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the next. At times wacky and at others completely heartfelt and heartbreaking, Craig’s stream-of-consciousness approach to his show really set him apart from the pack during his tenure at CBS.

As Craig takes his final kick at Secretariat’s stable, why not take a stroll down memory lane, since there hasn’t been, and will never be, anything quite like him on TV.

It might be a great day for America, but it’s a bittersweet one for us fans.

While I can’t claim to have been watching The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson right from the start, I’m pretty darn close. Back in 2005, when the show premiered with him as host, I was a little over the talk show format. The Daily Show (and The Colbert Report) were more my speed, because they were a little less predictable than your usual late night show; their competitors were entertaining, but you usually got the same stories out of the same celebrities night after night, and there wasn’t that much excitement in the post-11pm time slots.

To be honest, I don’t even know that I was aware that Craig Ferguson had taken over the show from Craig Kilborn initially, such was my ignorance of late night TV. Sometime later that year, I was visiting a friend, and finally caught an episode of Ferguson’s at her house, and I was immediately hooked. Though I already knew he was funny, I couldn’t believe Mr. Wick from The Drew Carey Show was so personable and charming. As soon as I got home, I became a devoted fan of The Late, Late Show’s, and have tried my best not to miss an episode since. (Thank goodness for the emergence of the DVR, am I right?)

One of the many things that set Ferguson apart from his contemporaries is how he very quickly and subversively bucked the trends laid out by the late night tradition. Sure, he was another white guy in a suit behind a desk who asked celebrities questions for five minutes before a commercial break, but he overturned the format in his own rebellious way.

For instance, he completely revolutionized the concept of the talk show opening monologue. While most hosts, who are by and large standup comedians, give familiar spiels not unlike their routines, with beat after beat of jokes before their credits, Ferguson eventually made his name by using the time to discuss whatever came to mind. Sometimes it was nine minutes of pure, silly nonsense, but other times he used the segment to speak about something near and dear to his heart. I think two of his most famous monologues were the “eulogy” after his father died, and his defense of Britney Spears in another. Perhaps unrelated topics superficially, both pieces came from a deeply personal place within him, and riveted the audience in the process with his honesty and lack of guile.

The eulogy came only about a year into his reign as The Late, Late Show’s host, and it highlighted the best parts of Ferguson’s gift as an entertainer: it was poignant, thoughtful and heartfelt, yet it focused not on his grief, but on his love for his father. It would be difficult to do that as it is so close to losing a parent, but Ferguson pulled it off with such aplomb that it’s like he was finally able to unleash the potential in his role as host. It wouldn’t be the last time we, as an audience, would be so lucky to witness the intelligence and gravitas the man possessed. (A sentiment he would repeat years later when his mother died, as well. Or after the devastating Colorado shootings. Or 9/11 anniversaries. He wasn’t afraid to speak from the heart when we all needed to hear it.)

The Britney Spears speech is also notable, because it dealt with issues that are often taboo, yet become fodder for countless other comedians. When Spears had her infamous “pink wig” meltdown, every host on television, in any capacity, took the opportunity to shred her mercilessly, believing it to be nothing more than a publicity stunt, or not caring enough to look beyond that. Ferguson, though, took an entirely different approach: he recognized in Spears’ behavior the actions of someone who was mentally ill and unable to cope in the throes of addiction. As a recovering alcoholic himself, Ferguson chastised the media for exploiting Spears’ situation, and he put his money where his mouth was: he vowed never to make fun of Spears ever again, and he’s been true to his word ever since. His monologue that night was a harrowing confession about the depths of depression and addiction, and sharing his pain so succinctly and matter-of-factly opened a dialogue about the stigma of illness and the lack of acknowledgment of it in our society. Say what you will about anyone from Johnny Carson to Jimmy Fallon, you definitely wouldn’t ever hear anything remotely similar on their stages.

There were guests that left us in awe. His conversation with Archbishop Desmond Tutu was enlightening and heartwarming, and he rightfully won a Peabody Award for it, because there was no other talk show in which that would happen so organically. If you ever have the chance, look up his show with Stephen Fry; it’s an analysis of the psyche that is also unique to his particular performance style. He threw in references to Nietzsche and Kierkegaard as easily as he did penis jokes. He had authors and doctors and poets and everything in between, and treated them all with the same respect, no matter their fame or fortune. In short, his cerebral brand of interview highlighted the humanity in an industry that so often eliminates it.

Yet, despite the heaviness of such topics, it wasn’t Charlie Rose every night. Ferguson could be downright silly with the best of them. He did cold opens dancing to pop songs with shirtless interns and animal puppets. He played Michael Caine in space and Prince Charles hosting a chat show and Sean Connery reading. He cooked with Wolfgang Puck and Paula Dean and teased them in equal measure. He had a fake horse named Secretariat and a real robot skeleton named Geoff Peterson, and they became characters of their own despite not technically being sentient. He had an impish quality that permeated every facet of his job.

It’s like Ferguson never quite lost his punk rock roots. He was off the beaten path, and rarely got the recognition for it (from the ratings or the critics), but in some respects, that’s probably just the way he wanted it, because he could keep doing what he was doing. He might have been a big boy dressed in a suit, but he still ripped up his index cards before every interview to indicate that there would be no scripts to follow on this show, so guests better be ready to play along with whatever came to mind. (Awkward pause, anyone?) His style was less soundbites, more free-form conversation with his subjects. He took his show on the road to unusual destinations for late night: galavanting around Paris with Secretariat and Kristen Bell, or walking around his old stomping grounds in Cumbernauld, Scotland with Michael Clarke Duncan and talking independence with Prime Minister Alex Salmond, or creeping through cemeteries with Nikki Reed in New Orleans, there’s nothing he really wouldn’t do if it interested him, even if it was outside the network’s comfort zone. And the results were delightful, because as with most things with Craig, it came from the heart.

To say I’m going to miss Craig every night is an understatement of monumental proportions. I’ve gone to bed with him (not like that, perverts!) for nearly a decade, and it really does feel like a friend moving away. You’ll revisit the memories and check in once in a while, but it’s not the same as living next door to each other. It’s wonderful that he gets to go out on his own terms, and pursue other projects he’s been itching to do for ages. (If you ever get the chance to go to one of his standup shows, do it. You won’t be disappointed.) Celebrity Name Game is a fun venture, and his new syndicated show reportedly in the works next year will hopefully build on his success as an interviewer in the last ten years. Tonight will be bittersweet, because though I’m sad he won’t be in my living room every night (again, knock it off!), I’m glad he’s getting the chance to do things that excite him, before getting too burned out in the wee small hours of the morning.

I’ve had the privilege of attending a taping of his show (in Lesbian Row no less!) and I can’t even say that what you see is what you get, because Craig Ferguson live is even more effervescent and playful than he is on TV. He’s wild and saucy, but also obviously deeply committed to giving the best show he can, night after night. He’s not just another “late night douche”; he’s a consummate entertainer.

What did we learn on the show every night Craig? That you are a charming, ornery lad who can’t play by anyone’s rules. And we wouldn’t have you any other way.

 

Here is a tiny sample of the many wonderful moments from Ferguson’s late-night ride over the last decade:


The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson ends its run tonight at 12:37 (am!) on CBS. James Corden takes over as host on March 23, 2015. After the holidays, CBS will be using a rotating roster of guest hosts until his premiere. Celebrity Name Game airs in syndication nationwide. Ferguson’s new evening talk show is expected to premiere sometime in fall 2015.

Nels
Nels knew how to operate a TV remote control before she knew how to talk. As a result, she has spent an inordinate amount of time pretending she actually lives on a soundstage. When she isn’t watching whichever show is currently capturing her heart, she is writing about how said show is currently capturing her heart. She loves pie.

5 Responses to Flashback Friday: THE LATE, LATE SHOW WITH CRAIG FERGUSON (Or, we aren’t ready to say goodbye)

  1. […] another from them), Fourthmic.com, TVGuide.com, TVLine.com, The Wrap, The Daily Dot, Elite Daily, ThankYouLizLemon.com, brycejmcneil.com, Ken Tucker at Yahoo.com, Examiner.com (talking about the show’s theme […]

  2. Anonymous says:

    What a beautiful tribute! As a fellow super fan, I share your sense of loss. No one else will call me a “cheeky wee monkey”…even if I ask really, really nicely.

    Thanks for this post, it was wonderful.

  3. I love reading blogs by people who really get Craig and what he did in the leaky basement for 10 years. Thank you so much for this.

    Now go see some of his standup! The schedule is at rsanews.com under Live Comedy Tour.

    • Nels Nels says:

      Thank you so much! It’s so unfortunate that he was so under appreciated for his innovation and honesty, but on the flip side, that may be why he was so unique, right?

      I wish I could see his standup! I’ve seen him several times already. Unfortunately so far the nearest show to me is a couple of hours away, which I would do if it were on a weekend, but it’s on a weekday and real life just isn’t cooperating! Hopefully something opens up nearby as they add more dates!

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