A moment of due respect, please, for a late-night TV departure that has been underhyped and underappreciated in all the comings and goings and ponderous showbituaries.
I’m talking, of course, about Friday’s final episode of “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson,” in which the 52-year-old talk show host will tell his audience, for the last time, “It’s a great day for America, everybody!”
Ferguson could, one supposes, be regarded as a casualty of David Letterman’s decision this year to retire from the 11:35 p.m. slot and CBS’s good fortune to get Stephen Colbert as Letterman’s replacement. Ferguson reportedly received a handsome exit package, per his contract; British actor James Corden will take over “The Late Late Show” in March. Ferguson has been a great sport about it all, depriving reporters who write about the TV industry the juicy taste of resentment that fueled the Jay Leno-Conan O’Brien- Jimmy Fallon saga for years over at NBC.
Ferguson took over “The Late Late Show” in January 2005. Tellingly, it’s hard to remember much at all about the show that his predecessor, Craig Kilborn, had hosted from 1999 to 2004. It’s gone completely dim.
Prior to the hosting gig, Ferguson was best known to American TV audiences for his role as the unsavory boss on “The Drew Carey Show” from 1996 to 2003. Some viewers also knew that Ferguson could be a terrific guest on other people’s late-night shows — spot-on funny, flirty, hyper and, thanks to his mesmerizing Scottish accent, appreciably foreign. He was as good at listening as he was good at riffing.
That’s really all you need. Ferguson quickly figured out that “The Late Late Show” ought to be a place of low-budget surprises, experimentation, unpredictable conversations. Not long after his premiere, he delivered an eloquent, off-the-cuff eulogy for “Tonight Show” legend Johnny Carson that mentioned James Joyce and Ferguson’s first trip alone to New York at age 22. It was arguably better and more moving than the solemn words spoken by Ferguson’s late-night peers.
Within that first year, Ferguson was weaning himself from the joke-driven monologue, a ritual of late-night talk shows that occupies a great amount of time and effort on the part of the show’s writers. He just started to wing it. When his attempts at character sketches fell flat, Ferguson and his team looked to other ideas, which is how he eventually wound up sharing his stage with a pantomime horse named Secretariat and a metal skeleton robot named Geoff.
Over its 2,000-plus episodes, Ferguson’s “Late Late Show” became the sort of had-to-be-there joke that remained grateful to any newcomers who wanted to be there too. Ratings stayed consistent at around a million-and-a-half viewers each night. Loyal fans were particularly devoted (for evidence of this, look no further than the show’s meticulously and lovingly tended Wikipedia page). Even if Ferguson wasn’t your particular cup of tea, it was impossible not to pick up on the show’s sense of cerebral silliness and joy.
Starlets and accomplished actresses were often like putty in his hands. His male guests would frequently turn giddy. Writers almost always wound up talking about something besides their new book. (Ferguson, who has written a memoir and a novel, was perhaps the last broadcast network late-night host who seemed to enjoy having writers on the show.)
And while all late-night hosts are willing to tear up those blue cards that guide them through interviews with their guests, Ferguson really did ignore them, perhaps as an act of faith in genuine chitchat.
On that last point (and by way of disclosure, I suppose), I have real experience: Five years ago, I was a guest on “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson,” plugging a book I had written.
They were taping a few shows that night in anticipation of Christmas break; the other guest on this episode was Sigourney Weaver, but Paris Hilton was also waiting in the wings, as was the restaurateur Jose Andres, as was Betty White, who was dressed in a Santa Claus suit. Leading up to the show, I’d spent hours on the phone being prepped and prodded by a “Late Late Show” producer; she had compiled all the things Ferguson and I would ostensibly discuss and printed them out on those blue cards, which indeed got tossed aside the minute I walked on stage and took a seat next to his desk.
To this day, I’ve never watched myself on any television appearance (on principle, an indefensible stance for a TV critic to take), but what I remember, in those terrifying few minutes, was how hard it was to match his energy.
Since that night, I’ve watched all late-night talk shows with a little more sympathy — not only for the guest but sometimes for the host, too. It’s a dynamic as old as television itself (“Please welcome my next guest . . .”), but it’s still asking two people to hit it off in the most unnatural and somehow unpretentious way. Lately, it seems like some hosts fear the possibility of disconnect so much that they turn to antics and games to supplant the potential for awkwardness. What was great about Ferguson’s talk show was that he didn’t distrust talk.
final episode airs Friday at 12:35 a.m. on CBS.