A couple weeks back I tried to pay some small tribute to The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, a deeply weird television show I enjoy greatly despite only understanding it maybe 35 percent of the time. It seemed obvious then, given the fresh Colbert-replacing-Letterman news portending a late-night shakeup at CBS, that Craig was not long for this world, and indeed just tonight Ferguson announced he'll be stepping down at the end of the year. This is maybe for the best, but I'll miss him anyway. Below, I try to explain why.
There is no cause to weep for Craig Ferguson; there are reportedly between 8 and 12 million reasons not to. But the end is (reportedly) nigh. He is definitely not getting David Letterman's job; now comes word that Chelsea Handler, for starters, may be gunning for the job he already has. The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, a beacon of surrealist enjoyment for weirdos, insomniacs, and/or Scottish-accent fetishists since 2005, is in great peril. Perhaps this is just; perhaps it has run its course. You don't want to save it, fine. But it's worth savoring, however long it has left. I love this show.
We might as well start here.
Late-night hosts publicly flirt with beautiful women for a living. Only the tactics change, spanning from self-deprecating neurosis (Conan) to puppy-dog mega-enthusiasm (Fallon) to Letterman's own masterful brew of apathy and (mostly) benign lechery. (Love this exchange with a smitten Blake Lively, particularly "We're not gettin' along.") Ferguson traffics in horndog flattery, too—"Can I say how impressed I am by your trousers?" is a typical opening line—but as with every element of his show, there's a pleasantly askew, almost meta quality. He has a very silly but somehow also calm, comforting, genuine-feeling rapport with a very specific genus of up-and-coming actress; some may outgrow him, fame-wise (think Anna Kendrick, maybe), but many refuse to abandon him. Here he is smelling Kristen Bell's fingers recently on the occasion of her 25th (!) visit to the show.
So in the clip above, we find him mooning over excessively English young actress Alice Eve, who is goaded into practicing her dodgy American accent by simulating a telephone call with her mother (played by Ferguson, until the real Ferguson starts arguing with her, whereupon she's played by a disembodied voice) on a prop old-time-y phone (provided by Ferguson); Eve also makes reference to being forced to interact with a skeleton (Craig's disconcerting robot sidekick, Geoff) and a horse (Secretariat, who wears blue eye shadow and is played by two definitely underpaid interns). This is basically the closest thing semi-mainstream American television has to a Japanese game show.
She is up for all this, however, or can expertly project the facade of being up for all this, this crazed menagerie of props and puppets and stoned-feeling conversation. (Here's another Eve appearance, in which she and Craig discuss the notion of free will.) I became so enamored with the American-accent clip that I actually had a dream that my wife and I were on a double date with Ferguson and Eve, which took place in his (shabbily furnished) apartment, in either his bedroom or at least a room with a bed in it; all I remember thinking is, "Man, she's really into him. Good for him."
The important thing to remember about The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson is that the word "late" appears twice in the title. Forget DVR, forget Kimmel-style, culture-jamming, workday-disrupting viral videos—this program airs from roughly 12:30 to 1:30 a.m., and can only be fully appreciated at that time, imbued with a palpable sense of woozy unreality and mounting regret. "Jesus Christ, go to bed already," is the overtone: If you can stay up that late on a weeknight watching Kristen Bell ride two dancing men in a horse costume with no social consequence, you've likely got bigger problems. (The theme song addresses this conundrum explicitly.) Nothing on this show will make sense if you don't understand the inherent poor decision-making of its target audience, if indeed any of it is even supposed to make sense, which it most decidedly is not.
This is not so much a talk-show parody as a deconstruction, starting with Ferguson's rambling, largely improvised, not particularly joke-centric monologues. (His soul-searching 2010 jeremiad about viewing Britney Spears' sad recent antics through the prism of his own prior substance abuse was weirdly moving.) Geoff the Robot Skeleton was initially designed to mock the vapidity of human talk-show sidekicks; in lieu of scripted, pre-recorded sketches, Craig usually prefers a baldly half-assed Twitter-and-email bit most notable for its panoply of disturbing intro jingles.
None of this is exactly sui generis—it's a more cheerful and benevolent spin on early Letterman's palpable disdain, a more uncanny spin on late Letterman's weird-uncle set-in-my-ways nonchalance, and an ever-so-slightly less manic spin on early Conan's throw-shit-at-the-wall zoological anarchy. (That Ferguson's version of the Masturbating Bear isn't masturbating shouldn't be taken as evidence of maturity: Fully 70 percent of his banter with Geoff is gay-joke-based, as when they repeatedly ask each other, "Have you been to Dover?") A glib, overly generalized drug-reference chart: Letterman is weed, Conan is cocaine, Fallon is Molly, Kimmel is angel dust, Handler is vodka (sorry), Arsenio Hall is whatever drug is most likely to trick you into thinking it's still the '90s, and Ferguson is Adderall, except he has spoken often of his past cocaine/alcohol abuse, so the hell with this, forget I said anything.
He has improbably shiny eyes. The celebrity interviews usually begin with Ferguson symbolically tearing up his notecard full of questions, and often end with an awkward pause, or a therapy session, or a harmonica tutorial, or the question, "You want to dance with the horse?" Dance with the horse, if ever you get the chance. "I love this show!" exclaimed Cat Deeley a couple weeks back as her time wound down. (I have no idea who that is, though the first suggested result when you Google her name is "Cat Deeley feet.") "It's just nonsense!" Here's Craig bantering with his house band, Alfredo Sauce and the Shy Fellas.
I have watched The Late Late Show religiously since Letterman's announcement; not surprisingly, our host has little to say on the topic, beyond joking about being replaced by Honey Boo Boo and congratulating Colbert on becoming "a fine edition to the CBS cavalcade of stars" and suggesting that the internet "calm down" with no elaboration. Otherwise it's been business as usual. (OK, "business.") The guests have varied in quality (to Gina Carano: "Are you yawning?"), though the colossally stoned chat with Morgan Freeman (topics included predestination, Kierkegaard, and whether or not the ocean was self-aware) was revelatory, or at least bewildering in an enlightened-feeling way.
Theatrically bleeped profanity is rampant. Sharon Osbourne addressed the matter of his sweaty balls; the general vibe is so saucy that Brooklyn Decker, unprompted, within seconds of sitting down, found herself defining the term "FUPA." Typical context-free aside: "There's one time I was on LSD, and I was chased by killer ducks!" There's no stride to even hit here, and he's still hitting it anyway.
Doubtless there is some more appropriate Colbert pairing. Handler skeeves people out (often on purpose), but the white-dude cabal in this realm is in dire need of smashing. Craig's had a good run, if that run is over, if "run" is even the appropriate term to apply to a show this blithely bananas. Know this: No one has ever better replicated the actual sensory experience of watching a talk show in the dead of night. He doesn't need your pity, but he deserves your respect. I hope he and Alice Eve are very happy together.
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