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