Craig Ferguson: Latenight’s Uniquely Intimate Host Signs Off, For Now

Craig Ferguson: Latenight's Uniquely Intimate Host

A year of big transitions in latenight TV comes to a close tonight with Craig Ferguson’s sign-off on CBS’ “The Late Late Show.” The shuffle of talent and shows that will continue into next year has brought new comedic flair to the sturdy latenight talkshow format.

But even with more variations on the latenight theme to choose from, it’s hard to imagine anyone delivering a nightly broadcast quite like Ferguson’s “Late Late Show” again. The show was so personal for Ferguson, and so often performed without the safety net of jokes and sketches worked up by a large team of writers or heavily prepped celeb interviews. Tonally, he was the polar opposite of his “Late Late Show” predecessor, Craig Kilborn.

From the start on Jan. 3, 2005, Ferguson never seemed afraid to let a guest chat or prepared segment go off the rails in the pursuit of the unexpected, the unrehearsed. He was willing to look ridiculous by talking to a stuffed puppet, a pantomime horse (aka two people in a costume), or a trophy rhino head mounted on the wall. He loved to play with the camera, Ernie Kovacs-style, with crazy movements and visual gags that had the effect of teaching viewers a little bit about how the equipment actually works.

(Full disclosure: Ferguson generously had me on as a guest in 2008 and 2012 to plug my books.)

As frequent “Late Late Show” guest Jim Parsons noted on Thursday’s penultimate episode, Ferguson is the rare TV host who was more than willing to “embrace a lack of structure” in the show to see what might happen. He wasn’t worried about the awkward pause — he welcomed them so much that he made sure to give Parsons a final shot to play along: “Fancy an awkward pause?” Ferguson asked “The Big Bang Theory” star.

Most nights, Ferguson opened his show by telling viewers what was on his mind, riffing on the day’s headlines and bantering with his talking-robot sidekick Geoff Peterson. He usually didn’t deliver jokes as much as make observations ranging from the silly to the sardonic. His favorite topic was the greatness of America itself, always viewed through an immigrant’s eyes. The Scotsman loves his adopted homeland, warts and all.

But the biggest difference that Ferguson offered from his latenight peers was the level of intimacy he achieved with viewers. No other current host has been as candid about his life, past and present, than Ferguson. Regular viewers learned about his upbringing in a tough part of Glasgow in the rough-and-tumble 1970s and ’80s. He was open about his battle with alcohol and his daily efforts to remain sober. He was frank about his life experience as a son, brother, husband, father and friend to many a crazy character from the Old Country.

Nothing in Ferguson’s resume leading up to “Late Late Show” would have indicated that he would be particularly good at hosting a latenight show. He was a drummer-turned-comedian-turned-sitcom second banana before landing the post-Letterman slot. And there’s nothing in the TV casting rulebook that says the host of a comedy-variety show should have an accent so thick that subtitles would not have been out of place. (When Billy Connolly was his guest, comprehension was all but impossible.) But because he had something to say, viewers hung in. Ferguson’s style wasn’t for everybody, but those who got him really dug him.

The turning point in Ferguson’s early tenure on “Late Late Show” came just after he marked his first anniversary, when he spoke movingly about the death of his father. The emotion and the honesty he displayed made for gripping television, and it helped set the course of the next nine years.

Ferguson’s mother made a few appearances on the show, which magnified the impact of her passing for viewers when he eulogized her with loving eloquence in December 2008. That same year, viewers followed Ferguson on his path to becoming a U.S. citizen, right down to his swearing-in ceremony with thousands of others in downtown Los Angeles.

As much as he loved being a cut-up, he could also drill down into the heart of difficult subjects, such as the nature of hope and forgiveness in an interview with Archbishop Demond Tutu that earned the show a Peabody Award in 2010. He spoke out against the media’s treatment of Britney Spears at the time of her infamous meltdown in 2007. And on the April 15, 2013, episode, the visibly distressed host warned viewers that he wasn’t in a mood to be funny after the news that day of the Boston Marathon bombing.

Ferguson isn’t expected to go too far after tonight’s sign off. He’s already got a day job as the host of the syndie gameshow “Celebrity Name Game,” and he’s in the process of trying to launch a new yakker next year in a different vein with the Tribune stations and Debmar-Mercury. After 10 years and 2,058 episodes in the wee hours behind David Letterman, he’s got the chops, the goodwill and the guts to try something entirely new.

“The deal I made with you when I started this show is I’ll be as honest as I can be,” Ferguson told his audience on April 15, 2013.

There’s no reason to believe he ever broke his word.

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  1. I Remember Steve Allen says:

    It is difficult to appreciate how outstanding Craig Ferguson’s late-nite hosting really is. Watch any of the rest and be prepared for excruciating lameness. Only David Letterman, until about a decade ago, and Johnny Carson until signoff, had the chops.

  2. Kathi Rogers says:

    Craig ferguson should come back to late night. It’s now the same shows over and over.
    He was a alternative that was enjoyed.
    He should also do more musical performances leaving with keep banging on, just left us wanting more

  3. CogInTheWheel says:

    It’s been a little over a week since the last show and I already miss Craig Ferguson’s form of late-night. There’s an emptiness in my variety talk shows now, Conan is pretty fun and Fallon is alright but none of them come close.

    Hopefully there’s an hour-long comedy special Ferguson has lined up for 2015. I look forward to seeing him on TV being sincere and completely transparent. If “Celebrity Name Game” lets him be himself, I’ll tune in.

    You aint dead, but I’ll still miss you Craig Ferguson!
    1 ding, vee are German.

  4. Broadwayfan says:

    You couldn’t believe that making some comedic comment, then adding “I KNOW!” would be so funny. But, I waited for those! He knew what we were thinking. I will miss Craig. Love the accent, and his style was so personal, as the author stated.
    If you want a broken heart, go to ‘youtube’ and see his comments on 9/11. He was on The Drew Carey Show then. Which I never watched. So I had no idea who he was.
    I’m not sure which ‘anniversary’ year it was but he said ‘Well, it’s not a great day in America today.”
    He’s one of a kind. I hope he gets another talk show, love him.

  5. Craig was the best thing that ever happened to late night TV… his departure then, might well be considered the worst. Hope to see you and your wonderful antics, etc. again soon, Craig.

  6. Daryle says:

    I will miss Craig, too. He’s a really nice person with a goofy sense of humor, and so perfect for late-night..I agree that his show wasn’t really promoted all that much, but it’s hard to imagine anyone not liking him.

  7. Andrew says:

    He carried on Carson’s tradition best, with his willingness to play characters, his literacy, and by not revealing what side of the political aisle he’s on. Unfortunately, he was over too many people’s heads and not left-wing enough to ever be considered for 11:30.

  8. Carol Ann says:

    “Ferguson’s style wasn’t for everybody, but those who got him really dug him.” I really, really dig him. Hope to see him again soon!

  9. Looks like I’ll be getting more sleep now. Craig Ferguson was by far my favorite late night host. Here’s hoping you’ll enjoy your next adventure.

  10. Shannon M. Little says:

    It is truly a sad sad day in America! Both Craig and David leaving…….what’s an insomniac to do now?!?

  11. katherine wierzbinski says:

    The only tv host that actually captured my heart!

  12. Rev.Jim says:

    It’s a great, but sad day for America everybody!

  13. nancyjo says:

    I’m really going to miss you. You were nothing like other late night hosts, but were unscripted and real. I wish you the very best in your future and hope to see you on another talk show in the future.

  14. Kathy says:

    You will be deeply missed by me. I Love your show and you. You are so down to earth. You are not like all the other late night or during the day talk shows.That all hosts go by a script reading a monitor that is what i liked about you. I love your co host Geoff I will miss him as well. I think they should put your 10 yr history talk show on Netflix So people like him that want a good laugh or something interest to watch can be viewed on netflix. U will be sadly missed but never for gotten, From a Minnesota Fan. Kathy Greiner.

  15. Chris K says:

    Imagine that. An immigrant who actually loves America and is NOT on the doll. What a classy guy. I can’t say I watched his show a lot, but it was always enjoyable when I did.

  16. No reason to watch CBS anymore.

  17. Martin Northway says:

    The comparison with Ernie Kovacs, another master of the unexpected, is most apt. Thanks for the memories, you dotty, naughty Scot!

  18. clodhopper says:

    I’m in awe of his wonderful motley socks and lightning fast wit! From his films and writing to his intelligent and obscure references, he’s proven himself a consummate entertainer and I”ll miss the banter and candor only he delivers so well.

  19. mark says:

    Craig may have a downside future as a host instead of as a writer or filmmaker because nothing going forward will match his chats with the robot skeleton or throwing frisbees or dancing with the two person horse. This was like watching Jerry Lewis with a brogue and there were many moments he was funnier than Jerry once was. But the show lacked good interviews and Craig could have done better to allow guests a bit more time but he preferred to read tweets or emails and take phony calls from dead stars,etc. Even David Letterman,his boss,kind of turned away in the last part of the run. But,Craig could always look into a camera and tell us home viewers exactly what the deal was. Nobody was or is that honest on tv variety/movie plugging programs and it is a good night to wish him well and give the wonderful horse,a standing or hoofing ovation,too.

  20. Reading the made me tear up. I am alternately wildly attracted to him and made nuts at the same time. But, indeed there was and will be no one like him and I wish him the best. He is indeed one of a kind and I send love to him if he sees this.

  21. I got to be in the audience one time when he had Neil Gaiman and Paris Hilton on as guests. A good example of his honesty was near the end of the show, he came out and and asked the audience if he’d been too mean to Paris and had a discussion with us about it. That bit didn’t end up on air, but it was somewhat surreal to have that happen.

  22. Dan says:

    Sorry to hear he is leaving. I like his sense of humor.

  23. sehrhard says:

    With Craig leaving, there will be no reason to leave the TV on late night. Truly my favorite host.

  24. Becky says:

    Thank you for the nice article about Craig. I felt he never received the attention he deserved from CBS or the media. But I think maybe that’s how he liked it. I’m so sad he is leaving the show but know he’ll do great in whatever he does next.

  25. Heath Doolin says:

    You nailed it with those that got him really dug him. Craig is one of those guys they just brought you into the show and you honestly felt like he was the crazy uncle who is sitting across from you and jawing about what have you.

    Also I have to say, Ol Craig is velvet with the guest ladies he was infatuated with. Seriously, men who want to show how to be disarming should take a lesson from him. Smooth

    I am going to miss him. A real breath of fresh air in the staleness of late night tv.

  26. cxg says:

    Truly one of a kind. Other talk show hosts read jokes off cue cards. Craig actually spoke to his viewers. I’m going to miss watching his antics every night.

  27. Scott Tyman says:

    you will be missed.it will be hard to go to sleep without hearing the sound of your voice.

  28. Mo Bishop says:

    Oh, I’m gonna miss you Craig Ferguson.

  29. A Rod says:

    Having grown up with Carson, Letterman and Conan, this was simply the best show on late night TV. Thanks for all of the laughs Craig and company. We will miss you all.

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