In Defense of ‘The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson’

On 8 January, Jimmy Kimmel took his late-night television talk show on ABC to 11:35PM, a whole 25 minutes before the time slot during which he had made his bones for almost ten years beforehand. The walk-up to the move provided a whirlwind press tour for the comedian-turned-host that saw him lob bombs at Jay Leno, reiterate his undying love for David Letterman and, of course, land him the cover of 2013’s first Rolling Stone. And it was in that particular publication where the following passage was first written:

“Even though the Live! broadcast will not end as (Jimmy) Fallon’s Late Night begins, Kimmel says he’s still watching Fallon closely: ‘People are going to compare me and him for years to come — we’re being positioned as the Leno and Letterman of the next round. I like it because he’s a worthy competitor. We exchange emails. He’ll say, “That was great, I wish we’d done that,” and I’ll say similar things to him.’ He goes on: ‘Fallon has more fun on the air. He just seems thrilled to be there, and it comes through.'”

There’s someone the former Man Show host forgot to mention, however, during his trip through the media storm. It’s someone who seems like he could out-fun his competitors by the minute with what he’s doing on television during the late-night hours. It’s someone who made gallons upon gallons of lemonade with the expired lemons that were once forced upon him earlier in his career. It’s someone no one seems to be talking about now that Kimmel is going head-to-head with the two most established names the after-hours talk-show universe has seen in the last few decades. And maybe most notably of all, it’s someone who continues to redefine the notion of what a late-night gab fest should be with each rambling monologue and each ripped index card.

It’s Craig Ferguson.

And why he’s not properly recognized for his contributions to the late-night world at this point is something that is beyond logical comprehension. Why Kimmel seems to think it’s only a two-horse race — especially considering how Ferguson is positioned to step in for Letterman whenever the gap-toothed king decides to step down, mind you — isn’t just obnoxious and a little conceited, but it’s also irresponsible and disrespectful to both the late-night crowd and the Scotsman himself.

It’s true: Quietly, yet surely, Ferguson has taken the mold of what a traditional American 12:30 a.m. television sit-down should be and utterly made it his own, incorporating everything from a robot sidekick that has his own podium, to a stable with someone dressed up as the race horse Secretariat, to which he turns occasionally throughout the program to nod and say, “What’s up?”

His Late Late Show is as bizarre as it is addicting, and anyone who’s seen it can attest to as much. Take The Daily Beast’s Joshua Alston, for instance, who wrote about the guy all the way back in 2008 when he was set to host the White House correspondents dinner.

“Ferguson admits to some performance jitters, but like most folks in Washington, he’s figured out how to spin,” Alston wrote in the days leading up to the event. “‘If I do a good job, that’ll be good. And if I do a bad job, that’ll be good for the next night’s monologue.’ That’s easy enough to say in a rumpled oxford shirt and jeans, lounging in his Los Angeles office, a few thousand miles from the D.C. Beltway. That bravado could melt away once he’s in front of a stodgy crowd, smothered by a tuxedo. Because Craig Ferguson is not that guy. In fact, he’s built The Late Late Show‘s healthy cult of just under 2 million insomniacs by not being that guy. He doesn’t seem like he would be comfortable in a tux, seeing as how on his show he can’t be counted on to wear a tie or fasten his shirts. (Unlike his fancy-pants boss, David Letterman, whose company produces the show.) He’s taken to calling his viewers ‘naughty, naughty monkeys,’ particularly when they respond to one of his naughty, naughty jokes. Like when he recalled that a guest, former costar Drew Carey, planted a kiss on him. (‘Now I can’t stop thinking about him,’ he confessed.) He puts on absurdist sketches, like his impression of Michael Caine in space, or Aquaman as an advice columnist. Then there are his chatty, ambling monologues. He’s known for going off the cuff and shooting off his mouth, whether there’s a laugh every half minute or not. ‘What I try to do is be as personal or as honest as the situation will allow me to be,’ he says.” (“Late Bloomer”, by Joshua Alston, The Daily Beast, 12 April 2008)

Actually, ‘personal’ and ‘honest’ are two adjectives that apply to his CBS hour more than they do any of his competitors, and they are also two elements that help balance out his craving for the weird so touchingly that one has to wonder why he can’t be billed with Kimmel or Fallon as “the next Leno and Letterman”. You want a worthy competitor, Jimmy? How about taking a look at how Ferguson eulogized his father after his death in 2006, when no one even knew Craig Kilborn wasn’t hosting Late Late anymore? That episode earned the host an Emmy nomination. Or, how about when he was the only guy in late night who came out and told his audience he refused to make jokes about Britney Spears in 2007 while she was going through one of the most publicized meltdowns in the history of pop culture because he understood what it was like to battle addiction? Do you think Leno, Letterman, Kimmel, Fallon, Conan or anyone else could resist that temptation to make those kinds of jokes?

Then, there’s the sit-down with retired Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu which earned him a Peabody Award in 2009. There’s the refusal to make fun of all the idiocy that was going on at NBC when Leno wanted his Tonight Show back. There’s the wherewithal to scrap a monologue about The Dark Knight Rises at the last minute because of the shootings that happened in Colorado. There’s the week of shows in Paris. There’s the heartwarming tribute to one of his predecessors, Tom Snyder, who at one time hosted a different kind of talk show in his time slot. There’s the admission of pre-taped monologues. There’s his palpable excitement about being able to vote in his first United States presidential election. There’s the open dialogue about his sobriety. There’s the touching goodbye to his friend Michael Clarke Duncan. The list goes on and on and on and on and on.

Since 2005, Ferguson has been expanding the parameters of the late-night world. Even when the interviews are funny, they feel strikingly more personal than the conversations you find elsewhere. Stars seem genuinely happy to be sitting in his small CBS studio. He always seems to somehow create a level of comfort within the dialogue that makes viewers feel as though they are looking in on a talk between two long-time friends, even if the two people speaking hardly know one another. There’s a levity to his presentation that frankly is more appealing than the aesthetic overkill that is found anywhere else on cable at nighttime. Yeah, he’s funny, and yeah, he’s a little different, but his secret weapon is clearly his heart. There are a million different reasons to like The Late Late Show, but there’s only one that makes you actually root for the guy to succeed as a person every night, which is why that secret weapon allows his late-night happy hour to be so transcending.

And transcendental is the correct word. From day one, he’s been the quirky alternative to the stereotypical stuffy-tie, formulaic crop of talk shows with the word “late” in them. Fallon is too predictable and kind to truly grab the viewer in the same way Ferguson does. Yeah, he has The Roots behind him, and sure, the SNL alum has provided his share of viral videos that are must-sees, but whenever those guests sit down, Jimmy too often resorts into fanboy mode. Kimmel, on the other hand, is fine enough as a host, but there is a fundamental lack of emotion within the questions he asks whenever someone takes a seat on his couch. It comes off as an acute sense of apathy that makes it hard for any viewer to truly buy into his conversations. Like Fallon, he’s had a large share of hilarious YouTube moments, but when it comes to the nuts and bolts of hosting a late-night show, Kimmel often seems disinterested with the two things late-night hosts will, no matter what, always have to do — converse and provoke.

Ferguson, on the other hand, has a natural ability to connect with people. His prior experience as a comedian-turned-C-level-actor-turned-addict-turned-host sets him apart from the traditional figure usually seen on late-night television in America. He’s weathered, and that always seems to help guests warm up to his unorthodox style of interviewing. You can’t help but respect a guy who has spoken openly about how close he was to death — both personally and professionally — before his life — again, both personally and professionally — made a Rocky-style comeback for the ages. This isn’t the kind of person who obsesses over someday hosting Letterman’s Late Show, for instance. This is the kind of person who’s just happy to be on television again, period. Late, early or afternoon.

“The challenge now is for Ferguson to become the topic of conversation,” Alston wrote. “He seems perfectly happy with his rung on the ladder, but no one in show business minds a little extra attention.”

That was written five years ago, remember. If we are to believe Kimmel’s proclamation, Ferguson obviously still hasn’t become the kind of conversation-starter that some may think he should be. Though even with that said, and even if nobody wants to throw his name into the future late-night ratings wars as a serious contender, and even if CBS still insists that he start rehearsing more for his show each day, and even if pundits refuse to take him seriously as a legitimate talk show host, there’s one thing no one — not even Jimmy Kimmel — can dispute: Craig Ferguson will keep making late-night television.

And Ferguson will keep looking like he’s having more fun doing it than anyone else in the world.

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