Craig Ferguson appears to miss his late-night talk platform, and for the sake of his newest venture, he had better hope some viewers do too. Because other than the few minutes the host spends doing standup to open the half-hour, there’s precious little to recommend “Join or Die With Craig Ferguson,” a History series so loose as to feel not just under-produced, but virtually un-produced. Consisting of Ferguson and a trio of guests batting around the most arbitrary of topics, it might be the cheapest-looking program of its kind since “Square Off.” And that’s saying something.
“Join or Die” (a title derived from a Benjamin Franklin cartoon) is predicated on a simple if half-baked premise: Ferguson comes out and introduces that week’s subject, a la “Biggest Political Blunder” or “Worst Medical Advice,” tells a few jokes, and then brings out a trio of guests to discuss it. They gradually eliminate the pre-chosen contenders, before the audience selects a sort-of “winner,” not that it really matters.
Beyond kibitzing with the panel (which in each case includes one vaguely identified expert), Ferguson indulges in longish anecdotes – recounting, say, a meeting with former Vice President Dick Cheney, a “blunder” candidate for accidentally shooting a friend on a hunting trip. Others cited in that episode include Larry Craig (the Idaho Senator arrested in an airport men’s room) and Eliot Spitzer (Ferguson has a lot of fun with the former New York governor “frequenting” prostitutes), but as the participants point out, there are rather glaring oversights, suggesting the producers approached the winnowing process as casually as Ferguson and company do the conversation.
Of course, the network still somewhat misleadingly known as History is all about removing the hoary stench from history, trying to repackage it in a manner easily consumed by those who dread the prospect of opening a book. For a network with a scant profile in the comedy realm, merely landing someone with the following Ferguson established on CBS doubtless must have felt like a coup.
Still, the way the show approaches each week’s debate is so cavalier and light on substance that the producers might as well have turned this into a current-events forum and simply let everyone opine about the news of the week. Nor have the bookers exactly strained themselves lining up guests, although they did draw from the fraternity of late-night hosts by recruiting Jimmy Kimmel and Chris Hardwick for separate episodes.
As Ferguson demonstrated during his late-night stint, he’s very good at being off the cuff in a vaguely naughty, impish sort of way. But “Join or Die” (on which the host doubles as a producer) doesn’t unleash that gift quite so much as fail to provide it with a coherent framework or structure. As a result, the episodes labor even to fill a half-hour.
Ultimately, the series has the effect of eavesdropping on an exchange in a bar from a loud adjacent table. That’s not to say there won’t be the occasional chuckle; but given a choice, there’s just not much reason to join them.