Requiem for a Late Late Late Show

Comedy Features
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The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson has been plugging along under the radar for the entirety of the show’s run. To be fair, we’re talking about a show that aired at 12:35 a.m. in a medium that only really seems to get attention when somebody leaves a show, or to question whether or not the talk show has any relevance, or to chastise the genre for its general overwhelming presence of white dudes. David Letterman is the legend. Jimmy Fallon has revitalized The Tonight Show. Seth Meyers has been the new guy in town, that shine of intrigue still on him. Hell, even Conan probably has more cache, if only for the cult that built around him when he got ousted from The Tonight Show himself. Then, there’s Craig Ferguson, just plugging away, doing his own thing. While the attention was elsewhere, Ferguson was hosting the best of all the late night talk shows.

That will not be the case for much longer, however. Ferguson’s run will end on Friday with a visit from (fittingly enough) Jay Leno after over 2,000 episodes on the air. He’s been doing this since 2005, going through the usual growing pains and revamps—the latter especially. Not because the show needed it, but because Ferguson had the tendency to get really into a particularly brand of comedy, before tiring of it and completely tossing it aside. For example, to celebrate his 1,000th episode back in December 2009, the entire episode was done with puppets, with crocodile Wavy Rancheros doing most of the hosting and Jason Segal doing his vampire puppetry from Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The puppets have essentially been gone from the show for years.

However, while they were around, they were very funny, and no other late night show would have a pig puppet named Flaubert in honor of Gustav Flaubert who, as Ferguson liked to point out, had a contempt for the bourgeoisie. When eulogizing The Late Late Show it probably is best to focus on the show that is ending, which is the latest incarnation of what Ferguson wanted to do. A show that had done away with sketches, sketches that were always on the verge of falling apart, as Ferguson clearly never had any interest in honoring the verisimilitude of what was happening. A show that had basically just become Ferguson screwing around with his sidekicks and riffing on whatever was on his mind. It was the most bare-bones version of the show, but also probably the best.

Ferguson was very fond of saying that his was not like any other late night show. He would call it a deconstruction of the genre, or a parody of a talk show. The first claim is true, the second a misrepresentation at best. He definitely liked to remove the artifice of the genre in order to do something more off-the-cuff and authentic. He also seemed to love to mess around with the audience and the producers, and no late night host ever had a more frequent mischievous glint in his eye. In the end, though, it was still a talk show, with actual jokes and actual interviews. It wasn’t Comedy Bang Bang. Not that it didn’t have plenty of inventiveness, of course.

He had a pantomime horse named Secretariat. The horse used to occasionally come out and dance, but in recent years he got his own stable, where he would snort cocaine and try to knock Frisbees that Ferguson threw in the air. He briefly wore a Mythbusters hat. Ferguson always liked to point out in faux-anger that it wasn’t a real horse. However, it was the arrival of Geoff Peterson that really changed the course of the show. Where sketches used to go, instead Geoff and Ferguson would kibitz back and forth, talking nonsense and making a ton of double entendres. Sometimes Thompson would call in on an old-timey phone, usually as a celebrity—he does a great Morgan Freeman—and sometimes as some made-up character. Serge was a particularly good one. Also, occasionally a rhino head on the wall named Sandra would talk. She had the voice of an Italian-American man.

The show would open with Ferguson doing some random bit, sometimes talking to Geoff, other times talking to an audience member. Then came the excellent theme song, then a monologue that was largely improvised. This was followed by Ferguson and Geoff answering tweets and e-mails, and then the interviews, which was where the show always shined brightest.

Nobody did better late night interviews—it isn’t even close. At the beginning of every interview, Ferguson made a point of ripping up the pre-prepared questions and tossing the pieces up in the air. Then, a conversation would happen. A real, often very funny, conversation. Ferguson has as quick of a wit as anybody, and a sense of silliness and desire for fun that always propelled things forward. He got the least famous, least notable guests of any talk show. He interviewed a litany of traditionally attractive actresses who got fifth billing on some network show. Not that Ferguson seemed to care, as he had an affinity for flirting. Whereas most late night hosts feign being unable to converse with beautiful women, either engaging in pantomime awkwardness or going full Tex Avery wolf, Ferguson was just a dude who liked to flirt, and didn’t feel the need to fake discomfort with attractiveness for a gag. At the end of the show, we found out what we learned on the show that night, another chance for Ferguson and Geoff to screw around, and that’s it. Another episode in the books.

It was so simple, but so entertaining. Ferguson and Thompson developed a great rapport, and the show went to strange, goofy places all the time. One of the last bits added to the show was a riff on debate shows called “Count/Counterpoint,” only with Craig as a vampire named Count Counterpoint. He did vampire accents a lot. He also did incredibly uncomfortable Southeast Asian accents, the one real blight on this otherwise very good show.

Ferguson liked to reference Soren Kierkegaard and Carl Jung. He swore constantly, and would then accuse his producer Michael of being a racist for censoring him with a little flag over his mouth. He played the mouth organ and often ended interviews with an awkward pause. Seconds of a television show were handed over to two people just sitting there in total silence. It was almost always funny. A couple of times, he took the show overseas, once to Paris, once to his native Scotland. These shows were an interesting change of pace, and he traveled around with celebrity friends like Kirsten Bell and the late Michael Clarke Duncan. Once he had Stephen Fry on for an entire episode with no audience, and they just had a great talk. Once Desmond Tutu came on, and he won a Peabody.

His final month has been spent having some of his frequent guests come on. Folks like Henry Winkler and Betty White and the aforementioned Bell, who has been on as often as anybody. There is a real joy in seeing him having his old chums roll in one last time, and it has guaranteed entertaining interviews. Ferguson liked to joke that CBS didn’t care about him, and he didn’t care about CBS. He was just a creepy old man in a creepy old basement doing a show with his gay robot pal and his horse. He told stories about doing acid with Peter Capaldi, the current Doctor, when they were in a punk band together. We’ve gotten to see plenty of Craig Ferguson over the years. He’s ready to move on, and it has been a long, successful run. In a way, fans of the show have always had practice getting ready for the show to end due to all the things that have gone by the wayside over the years. We’ve said goodbye to Wavy and Sid the rabbit from North London. We’ve said goodbye to “Michael Caine in Space.” We’ve said goodbye to Ferguson donning drag for Murder, She Wrote sketches which mostly revolved around him bleating, “Has there been a murder?” Now, we will say goodbye to Secretariat and Geoff and Craig and The Late Late Show as we’ve known it for a decade. It’s been quite the ride. For one last time, let us ask that most important of questions: Do we have a picture of Paul McCartney?