Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Why Craig Ferguson is the Best Entertainer in Late Night T.V.

I am by no means an expert of late night talk shows; by 11:00 or 11:30 I'm usually still watching a movie, writing about a movie, or just surfing the Internet until I finally feel tired enough to go to bed. Even as a big fan of Conan, I rarely muster the enthusiasm to check him out on the Tonight Show, unwilling to sit through monologues that even he can't make funny to get to the juicy bits and preferring to sift through the detritus in the morning via individual clips of the show's sketches and interviews for the fun stuff. Yet I applauded Conan's ascension to the big time, not simply because it meant Jay Leno moved that much closer to retirement (has that awful 10:00 show killed enough ad revenue to die yet?) but for its symbolism: Conan, obviously a Letterman acolyte, got the gig that Leno denied Letterman back in '92, a move that sent Letterman into a tailspin of crabbiness and resignation and made him scarcely better than Leno in his ensuing 14-year stint as second banana in the ratings. Conan's rise also allowed me, no-Tivo-havin' Luddite that I am, the freedom of not having to choose between him and CBS' 12:30 host: Craig Ferguson.



The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson is a curious beast, one that immediately sets itself apart from any other talk show. The 12:30 and beyond programs always lack the glitz and bombast of the preceding shows, as people are still awake at 11:30 and need one last burst of energy to drain them before bedtime; those who stay awake beyond, however, are in for the long haul. Sure, some will nod off, but if you set off firecrackers to keep them awake you'll piss off all the people who just can't sleep. But Ferguson's show is different: his program opens on a dimly lit set showing only a sturdy but nondescript desk and two chairs. It looks less like a network production than a public access chat show. Instead of the usual fanfare, Ferguson simply walks into frame as if a janitor or a page sent to clean up the mess by whatever program just finished shooting and noticed the camera was still on.

Monologues are the death of talk shows. No one can really find a perfect balance between the host's desire to own all of the spotlight -- Letterman and Leno, both stand-ups, whip out their staid one-liners while Conan, whose jokes are just as stale, livens it up at times by peppering in bits that reveal his inclination as a writer -- and the empty, commercial nature of these shows, designed in the modern age simply to promote guests' wares like infomercials. But I would take a million Gwenyth Paltrows telling the host and audience a million times over how fun it was to "slum it" for her latest feature by wearing blue jeans bought in a department store because "that's what my character would do" over one more goddamned monologue joke about Tiger Woods*.

Ferguson is different. This Scottish-born, recently legalized U.S. citizen is the one thing I didn't think you could be during a monologue: unpredictable. Standing mere feet from the camera, he tosses off the usual one-liners, but he delivers them in a laid-back style, without the desperate force placed on every punchline by the other hosts; if a joke fails, he'll charmingly shrug it off and win laughs anyway. Occasionally, however, he comes with a prepared topic, such as a funny but thundering declaration that he would no longer mock the clearly troubled Britney Spears for cheap laughs, or a rant about politicians exploiting their children and families even as they say "leave the families out of this" to ward off criticism. Feel his ebullient giddiness as he gushes over his ability to vote in his first U.S. presidential election and slam natural born citizens who don't care about such a powerful right. These monologues can often be serious and moving, such as the eulogies he performed for both his father and mother, or the entertaining but finely detailed, condensed history lesson of South Africa and apartheid to mark Desmond Tutu's appearance on the show. His brand of planned stream-of-consciousness (before the show's opening credits even play) announces that all bets are off, and whatever you expected to see in this talk show will not be what you get.

As an interviewer, he's no less engaging and irreverent, tearing up his question cards while announcing the first guest to signal he won't play the typical game of product placement, or at least not by official rules. He often trades light insults with the guests and looks for any excuse to careen away from the usual hawking. As for the ladies, well, all the hosts have their ways of admitting their geeky nature when in the presence of gorgeous starlets: Leno was too shamelessly pandering to make a move, Letterman's ogling was creepy long before news of his affairs made the papers, and Conan emphasizes his awkward, lanky nerdiness with flustered breathing and the valiant stab at cool with a well-timed growl. But Craig has the swagger of a man who knows he has an ace up a sleeve, an accent, and his interviews with female guests are the most entertainingly flirtatious on television, as Craig allows for a give-and-take that *gasp* lets the women be funny too (see his hysterical interviews with the wonderfully witty Lauren Graham).




And I haven't even gotten to the puppets yet. Lacking a house band and often forced to play pre-taped musical performances because of the limiting accommodations of the cramped studio, Ferguson makes do with hand puppets and brilliantly insane musical numbers generally involving puppets and oddly dressed men, surreal lip-syncs that that will put a song in your heart and a therapist's number in your contacts. When his monologuing puppets, among them a shark, a unicorn and a vaguely terrifying puppet of Craig himself, address the camera and assume that any home viewers are stoned, this cheeky nod to what must be a prime subgroup of his demographic reveals more honesty than just about any other chat show out there.

The best of these wacky creations is, undoubtedly, Wavy Rancheros, a "crocodillyalligator" (he is never entirely sure what species he is) controlled and voiced by Ferguson. Toeing the line between a redneck and Nawlins accent, Ferguson plays Wavy as a reptilian Pepé Le Pew, giving love to the audience (and, in the 1000th episode where he "hosted," the guests) and waving his tiny puppet hand lovingly shouting his bizarre greeting "Whatado!" (a term Wavy himself doesn't understand). I don't even know how to describe that wave, a ridiculous movement obviously the result of Ferguson attempting to wiggle his thumb in the tight cloth. Something about it, the way Ferguson has to arch his entire hand, and thus the puppet, back to let this itty bitty claw wave at the audience is at once adorable, nonsensical and inexplicably, inescapably hilarious. If that wave doesn't bring a smile to your face, some part of your psyche never fully developed and for that you have my pity.

Talk show hosts prove their mettle by adapting to the studio space they're given. Notice how odd and uncomfortable Conan looks when he stands in the middle of the almost comically gargantuan set NBC built for him slinging out one-liners but how inspired he is when he uses the L.A. glamor against itself, such as his attempts to sabotage the Universal lot tour that passes by the building or a foot race around the studio. Conversely, anyone with the fortitude to check in on Jay Leno's new digs can plainly see how badly he suffers without the glossy commercial sheen, his attempt to utilize a more intimate setting only revealing the falsity of his populist image. Kimmel and Letterman adapt to their spaces as well, Kimmel creating a frat boy atmosphere and Letterman speaking from his purgatory, situated halfway between the echo of the more personal and spontaneous feel of his Late Night and the pale imitation of the Tonight Show that alternately gives him more exposure and reminds him of what was denied.

Ferguson uses his cramped, abandoned high-school A/V room to max effect. No one expects anything from such a basic setup, thus anything can happen. He records monologues and interviews not necessarily on the night they air, caring less for ripped-from-the-headlines punchlines than actually entertaining the crowd. Plenty of celebrities make for great talk show guests regardless of host -- Ricky Gervais, Russell Brand, Norm Macdonald, (on the basis of a wildly entertaining start) Gabby Sidibe -- but Craig's conversational style brings out the best in guests who are witty but don't necessarily get to shine elsewhere, such as Lauren Graham, Ewan McGregor, Mindy Kaling and Kristen Bell. Ferguson, a recovering alcoholic, treats his audience as his support group, strangers he treats as friends, confiding in them with his dedicated but lighthearted program (he's got the self-deprecating wit of a recovered addict). Whether each night's episode plays with deeply felt intimacy or madcap, surrealist comedy, the Late Late Show is the bright beacon of late night television, brighter even than my beloved Conan, and definitive proof of just how astonishing even the slightest bit of originality can be in a formulaic format.

Whatado, errybody.



*I have to admit, though, that Craig's Tiger jokes are actually funny.

11 comments:

  1. Thanks for this. That was, quite possibly, the most beautifully expressed essay I have ever seen about a man who is, also quite possibly, the most brilliantly funny, kind, sincere, honest, and interesting man in television today, full stop. No, make that an exclamation point!

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  2. Yeah, I basically spent all of yesterday and today just watching old clips. His 1000th episode was inspired. Old programs used to air clip shows because that was the only way to see highlights again, but Craig understands that highlights are on YouTube already so he might as well make the milestone episode great in its own right.

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  3. That 1000th episode will go down in my book as one of the greatest moments in television history. Inspired is the perfect word for it. I know some people didn't care for it, but I think it was brilliant, and in true Craig fashion.

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  4. A true entertainer. For some reason the academy for the emmys don't agree. I don't understand it, but I will keep watching him as long as he wants to be on tv. Maybe this will be his year.

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  5. His interview with Olivia Williams is RIDICULOUS good.

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  6. I started paying attention to Craig Ferguson this year. And you hit the nail right on the head. Ferguson is the best late night host on network television because A) his show looks so unconventional from the others, and B) Ferguson is completely unpredictable and so damn funny. This guy is always finding ways to make me laugh that the others have not. There is so much value in Ferguson's show.

    And you're right about Wavy and his little wave. Who doesn't get a big kick out of that?

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  7. And I didn't even mention his Prince Charles. I could have devoted an entire paragraph to the rampant joy that his constant ragging on the Brits brings, but if you start down that road soon you're just listing highlights as opposed to explaining why you think something as good. Even with Wavy I wrote the cop out that I couldn't explain why I loved him, so I was pushing my luck as it is.

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  8. I am simply tickled by your essay. I haven't ready anything this good in months and I read a lot. If I had your talent I would have written the same essay about Craig Ferguson. Ironically I too have always liked Conan, my past favorite, and now second fiddle. It's a shame to think Conan may be done next week (January 22, 09). 11th hour antics anyone!?
    Oh... on Kristen Bell and Craig Ferguson: If they are not soul-mates then I don't have a soul. There is near-nuclear energy brewing within those two when they come into proximity.

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  9. Craig with Kristen and Craig with Lauren Graham are better pairings that 99% of every on-screen couple ever put out by Hollywood. If I didn't know Craig was married I'd be wondering why his and Lauren Graham's people didn't just set them up and be done with it, because they'd be the coolest couple ever.

    I don't know that I would call Conan a second fiddle, though (but I'm sure you didn't mean it in much of a negative way). I still love him to death and love the way he blends his irreverence and originality with a deep love of the classic form of talk show humor and presentation. I agree that the thought of him leaving the Tonight Show (especially leading to Leno's return) makes me want to vomit. It's just too much to bear.

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    1. I agree with Jake. Craig and Lauren Graham so naturally engage in sassy, snappy dialogue at each other's expense, that it beautifully charms all who see it. He adores her witty, graceful style and she in turn enchants him with her dis-arming warmth and easy smile. It's endearing in the most heart wrenching kind of way. Sigh...

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  10. Great Blog!! It’s amazing to hear this. Suggest me some best talk shows which are good, brilliant, funny and if it possible suggest me shows of this man. I never had seen shows of this man before.

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