As long as there has been late-night network television, one network has led the way. NBC’s The Tonight Show completely transformed the way America laughs, the way America views entertainers, and the way America watches television.
The great old studios’ PR departments manipulated the promotional broadcasts of network radio. Movie fans never knew their favorite stars, they only knew the carefully scripted copy aired by the national networks. The Tonight Show changed all of that. Every evening, Steve Allen hosted a swank, adult cocktail party where the stars could break the studio’s mold if they wished. His show kept America awake, and launched the late-night concept: a daily variety show, hip to current events, centered on the personality of the comedian host.
During the years Johnny Carson hosted, a Tonight Show booking became every aspiring comics’ dream. Carson’s largest legacy is the comedic careers his show launched. For over 20 years, every comic who broke into the main stream could trace his or her good fortune to either his show or the late-night format he and his writers perfected.
No television show will ever again leave such a lasting footprint in the pop culture landscape as Carson’s Tonight Show. That, readers, is an absolute fact.
With the greatest shake-up in network late-night television since King Carson left his throne, now is a perfect time to ponder where late-night television is today. In the first of an occasional series, I will seek an answer to the question that will keep many network sponsors on pins and needles: Does late night still matter?
Our series begins with CBS’ Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. CBS created a network 12:30 talker in 1995 produced by David Letterman’s company, Worldwide Pants. Letterman clouted talk-show dinosaur Tom Snyder into this slot, and Snyder put viewers to sleep for four years.
In 1999, Snyder left and The Daily Show‘s original host, Craig Kilborn came aboard. Kilborn kept frat guys at home for five years, but really never earned the kind of ratings a Letterman lead-in projected. When Kilborn’s contract came up, he and Worldwide Pants decided to go their separate ways.
Instead of going the young hot-shot route again, they snatched a Scottish comedian from the jaws of obscurity. Craig Ferguson first gained fame as a member of The Drew Carey Show ensemble. When Drew and the gang moved on to UHF-rerun never-never land I, for one, thought we were done with the broad comedic styling of Carey and company. I was wrong.
Ferguson’s Scottish burr and Fozzie Bear comedy aims right at the thick of America’s middling tastes. Until last week, I couldn’t wait to turn off the television after Letterman. Craig’s penchant for appearing RIGHT IN the camera scared the almighty living bejesus out of me. [shiver]
Last week, I made an honest attempt to place my prejudices aside and viewed an entire week’s worth of Late Late Show. First, the good part. I survived. Barely.
We all know a Craig Ferguson. He’s that obnoxious acquaintance you have who knows he’s the funniest person in the room. The guy who commits to bad jokes like a Mormon to a mission. The guy who will one-up you with eye-rollers until you give the polite laugh and get as far away as socially proper.
I can very much see where Craig appeals to Dave. Craig is the most blatant copy of Dave so far. Make Dave Scottish and his writers dim and there, you have The Late Late Show.
Craig begins each show with at least 20-minutes of Craig time. It starts with four minutes of him invading your television space right after Dave says good night. Sometimes he is accompanied by a puppet. I’m serious. This is a man who believes the best way to kick off an hour of network broadcast time committed to his own personality is to peddle the kind of ‘50s kid show shenanigans lampooned blisteringly well by Pee Wee Herman 20 years ago.
Dave, call Paul Ruebens!
After the commercial break, the puppets give way to nine-minutes of monologue held five inches from your face. When every other host is shortening monologues or cutting them altogether due to their insane level of comedic difficulty and tedious craftsmanship Craig, confident as ever, mugs away with manic glee. By Thursday night, I became fixated on how his haircut spiked into a perfect flat-top. The man was literally square.
Another commercial, and we’re back. Um. A guest. Please? No, Craig launched right into viewer e-mail, which he does daily.
Stop. Please, for the immortal soul of Mr. Carson, please, mix up your segments, Craig. They don’t have to be original. But don’t do what is ostensibly ‘The Late Show Mailbag’ every single night. Not only does it lessen the effect of every joke in the segment, it makes your loyal viewers wonder if they have unread forwards from their incredibly e-mail-impaired aunt in their own inbox.
This goes on for about seven-minutes.
Just past midnight each evening, Craig finally relinquishes the spotlight for a guest. Now, I firmly believe that the interviews on B-level talkers like Craig’s are completely disposable. The guests, for the most part, will continue workmanlike careers just out of the spotlight or fill seats at your local dinner theater in ten years. In short, Craig is not booking Tom Hanks.
That being said, Craig interacts well with the guests. Monday night’s show was their first in HD, and one of their new lights went out. At the time, Craig was in the midst of a chat with the hot Descanel, Emily (Bones). Craig very naturally asked Emily to move over a chair and did the rest of the interview curled up in her old seat. Of course, he was aware of his own comfort level and slapped extra mustard on the ham, but what are you going to do? Craig is who he is.
On Tuesday night, Craig welcomed Rockist favorite, Quentin Tarantino. Always eager to bathe in the attention of a new release, Quentin referred back to the horrid Aquaman sketch Craig was in. Instead of digging at Craig for spoofing a character that he knows nothing about (seriously, it was like my dad spoofing Spider-Man), Quentin talked about how Ted Knight voiced the late ‘60s cartoon Aquaman, while also narrating. Fact check, Mr. Tarantino. Ted did narrate the cartoon, but he voiced Black Mantis. I expected more from you, Mr. Brown.
The Actress Who Once Played Princess Leia visited the set on Thursday night. I don’t know where Craig and Carrie grew close, but my guess is it rhymes with ‘zehab’. Carrie raved about her current electro-shock regiment, claiming you can choose the memories you would like to forget from a menu.
There has to be an electro-shock clinic somewhere that wants to do an infomercial with Carrie Fisher. Please.
That wasn’t even the best part of her appearance. No, she told Craig that Michael Jackson booked her for what turned out to be his last Christmas to recite the Admiral Tarkin Star Wars monologue for his children. He paid her with a cell phone.
I can’t make this up. Watch it.
The only other noteworthy event came during Thursday’s e-mail bag. He blatantly slammed Conan. “Once I lose fifty percent of my audience, I’ll be the King of Late Night! How can that be? ‘Cause the people not watching me will be older!”
[Insert angry cat noise].
Craig, you weren’t in the conversation. The head of NBC thinks you’re a golfer.
I laughed four times while watching Late Late Show for a week. Pretty dismal. Even Johnny couldn’t rely as much on his own mixture of wit and charisma as Craig does.
Craig, you don’t need a sidekick. You don’t need a band. But you do need something to break up the beginning of your show. And stop with the puppets! Unless you know Robert Smigel.
Craig told us he’s currently working out his contract with Worldwide Pants. Dave knows good late-night. It might be time for Craig to update the whole resume.