Article by Jo Whitby
We don’t really do the late night talk show in the UK or at least we haven’t done it very well. The once a week celebrity gawping with the likes of Graham Norton and Jonathan Ross are small fish in comparison to their counterparts in the US who, for the most part, are on TV every weekday evening and have been for the past gazillion years. Now, I am in no way suggesting we put Norton on every night (in fact he already has been and who remembers that?) and if Letterman or Leno are anything to go by I’m not sure I want that taking up air time either. I find the tried and tested ‘late night’ format becomes dull very quickly and no amount of famous guests or punch line monologues can save the genre from the mediocre and mundane. There is however one US late night talk show that I think would work and it’s not just because it’s hosted by a Scotsman with a gay robot as a sidekick… oh and a horse, let’s not forget the horse.
The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson
I was a bit too young when Craig Ferguson first stomped onto stages around the UK performing his shouty sweary stand-up. I had unknowingly seen him in Red Dwarf, then later in the film ‘Saving Grace’ and have since caught up with some of his other acting escapades including ‘The Big Tease’, ‘Born Romantic’ and, I kid you not, ‘Lenny The Wonder Dog’ which I’ll admit I did not watch all the way through but I did try, honest! Talking dogs aside, Ferguson is a surprisingly decent actor and I was impressed when I found out he had also penned ‘Saving Grace’ and ‘The Big Tease’ too. These days, when he’s not writing books or new screenplays, you’ll find him providing voices for hit animations like ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ and the recent award winning Pixar hit ‘Brave’.
‘The Late Late Show’ was recommended to me by an American friend who is also a Doctor Who obsessive and suggested I might enjoy some of Ferguson’s interviews with the cast members. Off I trotted to YouTube where I discovered hundreds of clips and lovingly put together fan montages of ‘the best bits’ which usually involved Ferguson talking to beautiful women or having a laughing fit. So ensued a ‘Late Late Show’ marathon catching up on 7 or so years worth of interviews… ok, so I didn’t watch absolutely everything but enough to be deemed unhealthy. I’ve been a regular viewer of the show for about two years now which is amazing considering it isn’t even shown in the UK. I’ve had to access the shows via slightly naughty means but to be fair nearly all the shows can be found in full on YouTube. Nuffin’ to do wiv me guv’. So what is it about ‘The Late Late Show’ that makes it so special?
I have not laughed to the point of tears on such a regular basis.
I didn’t think it was possible for a daily show to consistently induce such intense fits of laugher that my face ached on a regular basis. Essentially the show format is similar to most other late night talk shows. You’ve got the ‘cold open’, a monologue which includes a bit of banter with a ‘sidekick’ followed by a few interviews and possibly a bit of music or comedy at the end which is a rarity on ‘The Late Late Show’ because bands probably cost too much. There are however a few distinct differences.
The show is mostly unscripted using only a bullet point system during the monologue which allows for fluidity, with Ferguson regularly deviating and heading off on unexpected tangents. Then there is Geoff Peterson, Ferguson’s sidekick with a difference for the past 3 years, for Peterson is a ‘gay robot skeleton’ voiced by comedian Josh Robert Thompson. Completely improvised, Thompson’s relationship with Ferguson is dynamic, sharp and witty, making for quick paced exchanges, regularly bringing each other to the point of hysterics. This is most apparent during the ‘tweets and emails’ segment of the show where the majority of interaction happens with Geoff. I find the pair similar in comedic style to that of British legends Peter Cook and Dudley Moore – taking the normality of everyday life to the point of surrealism and then laughing at it.
Let us also not forget that a late night talk show is not complete without a pantomime horse (or cow as he has been described by the occasional bemused guest), at least in Ferguson’s books. There is something so beautifully childish about Secretariat, now a permanent fixture on the show with his very own stable door and appropriate horsey scenery. For a non-speaking role the ‘two interns in a horse costume’ somehow manage to produce a fair amount of belly laughs. It’s simple fun and is much needed in a genre that takes itself far too seriously.
The non-interview interview technique.
I have to admit that I am not finding Ferguson’s interview technique particularly daring – funny, yes, daring, not particularly. That’s not to say I don’t love the spontaneity in his style and I do take great pleasure in seeing stars taken out of their comfort zone – I guess what I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t surprise me, I wouldn’t expect anything less from Ferguson. I’m always baffled by guests who are seemingly shocked when he tears up the prep-card –a ritual that highlights his penchant for talking about everything other than what it is the guest is on there to promote. Heck, the show’s only been on TV for 9 years. Stars even avoid appearing on the show because of this ‘off the wall’ style of interviewing which I think just makes them look ridiculous. Ferguson is also unashamedly a big flirt with the ladies and for the most part many of the female guests haven’t seemed to mind. I don’t sense any intent to objectify but I’m sure his playful nature could be misconstrued that way.
However there are those guests who are game and subsequently make for great entertainment to everyone’s surprise. Hollywood giant Tom Hank’s appearance springs to mind. Already known for not taking himself seriously in the slightest viewers were treated to a memorable conversation resulting in Hanks attempting to hitch a ride on Secretariat. Many guests have said in relation to appearing on Ferguson’s show “this is the fun one” and in terms of interviews I have to agree. It’s not all fun and games however and interestingly the show won a ‘Peabody Award’ in 2009 for a more serious conversation with Desmond Tutu.
To put on a show every night year after year with the same amount of enthusiasm and joy is astonishing to me. What is even more astonishing is the ability to keep us laughing. His delivery isn’t pompous or smug and he connects with the audience on a human level rather than the ‘me and them over there’ attitude I’ve noticed from some late night talk show hosts. It feels that Ferguson is part of my family now – he’s the daft uncle that cracks jokes over dinner at Christmas making you choke on your sprouts. I like that sense of familiarity, he makes me feel comfortable and that probably allows him to get away with saying potentially ‘shocking’ or ‘offensive’ content with the viewers.
Why the low viewing ratings America?
What puzzles me is the low turnout with regard to viewing numbers in the US. Is the late night douche from Scotland a little too ‘out there’ and ‘cussy’ for the everyday American? He’s on at 12:30am so admittedly ratings are naturally not going to be outstanding but the likes of ‘Late Night with Jimmy Fallon’ are really stealing it ratings wise. Could the difference with Fallon lie in the budget? NBC seems happy enough to splash the cash for Fallon to be ‘experimental’ and have ‘The Roots’ as his house band whereas it is visibly noticeable that CBS are tightwads, I mean, overly cautious on the purse strings . No, I take it back – they really are tightwads. Come on, Ferguson doesn’t even have a band (even Jack Docherty on the UK’s Channel 5 had a band) and we’ve not had a ‘special’ for what feels like ages.
Would more investment equal higher ratings? It would certainly enable Ferguson to do more adventurous things but do the ‘target demographic’ (it’s on after midnight – how can there actually be a ‘target demographic’ at that time of night) care enough to tune in? I can’t really answer that without spending hours researching statistics and I’d rather poke my eyes out with the burning embers of Satan’s own fingers than do that. One thing I know is that Ferguson is a hit with the nerds and the geeks, in fact anyone with common sense and a wicked sense of humour. He talks about subjects that the other talk shows wouldn’t, which isn’t going to appeal to everyone at least not in the US. Also according to CBS, the US viewing public is easily corruptible in the middle of the night – all the sexual innuendos and swearing must be playing havoc with all those naive innocent minds out there (I’m saying one thing but meaning something else here). I have noticed that UK audiences are much less prudish when it comes to adult humour, our censors don’t bleep out swear words after the watershed (between 21:00 and 05:30) even on the freely available channels but us Brits do like to swear. We just can’t help it.
I’m having a dig at CBS because I’m worried that the ‘Late Late Show’ team are running out of creative avenues due the frugal budget (I’m sure Ferguson would say they past that point years ago) – multi-coloured mugs and Frisbees are a nice touch but tend to have a limited comedic life span. It’s been noted that Ferguson doesn’t do it for the ratings and couldn’t care less about the so called ‘wars’ between other late night talk shows. He does it to make people laugh and he’s certainly achieved that. Get your finger out CBS and give the man a decent budget so we can keep the boredom at bay for at least a little while longer – for Ferguson as much as the rest of us.
We’re only 9 years late to the party.
Us Brits can be a bunch of snobbish resentful bastards at times especially regarding those who intentionally ‘abandon ship’ to go and be successful somewhere else. Ferguson hasn’t been shy in declaring his love for America and in 2009 he even had the gall to become one of them. British cynicism is the only obstacle I see stopping UK audiences from enjoying ‘The Late Late Show’ and it’s stupid.
Is this article simply a selfish crusade to bring Ferguson back to the cold and unforgiving shores of Blighty? I suppose it is. The man makes me laugh which subsequently makes me happy and we need some damn happiness in this country. We need Craig Ferguson – the late night douche from Glasgow who made good in America as uncomfortable as that may make us feel. Perhaps CBS could sort out a deal with one of the UK channels (‘Dave’ for instance) and put the show on British telly – even at a stupid hour at night – so I can feel a little less like a criminal getting my laughter fix every weekday evening.
‘The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson’ is unique, unpretentious and downright hilarious. Don’t be a party pooper.