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Peter Lassally: The host whisperer

Producer backed unlikely Ferguson for the job

CBS and David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants took a leap of faith as big as any in modern television history when they chose a Scottish multihyphenate to host “The Late Late Show” five years ago.

But the Eye and Letterman did have some insurance in selecting Craig Ferguson: Peter Lassally. Lassally, the latenight producer famously dubbed “the host whisperer” by the New York Times, championed Ferguson over all the other candidates considered during the on-air audition process after Craig Kilborn ended his five-year tenure on “Late Late Show.”

Lassally liked Ferguson for what he wasn’t as much as for the considerable skills he brought to the table. When “Late Late Show” producer Michael Naidus brought him tapes of Ferguson’s appearances on other yakkers, Lassally was immediately intrigued by his quick wit, charisma and obvious storytelling skills. Naidus had remembered how deft Ferguson was in improvising a comedy bit in an appearance with Kilborn.

There are very few people who can do anything in the environment of a talkshow that isn’t written down and planned,” Naidus says. “When Peter and I sat down and watched that (appearance again), we both got excited.”

In the crowded latenight field, Lassally knew CBS needed something distinctive if it was going to make any inroads at 12:30 a.m. Lassally knows the terrain well, having worked on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show” for 23 years. He was instrumental in getting Letterman guest-host slots on “Tonight Show,” and after NBC gave the nod to Leno upon Carson’s retirement, Lassally helped orchestrate Letterman’s move to CBS and 11:30 in 1993.

Ferguson’s background was as different as could be from that of most latenight hosts. He was known to U.S. viewers as a supporting player on ABC’s “The Drew Carey Show,” but his resume includes stints as a standup comic, rock ‘n’ roll drummer, bartender, construction worker and writer in various media: screenplays, novels, music and, most recently, a bestselling memoir. As Lassally got to know Ferguson, the producer became convinced that his find was destined for latenight greatness.

Every night I sit in the control room and think, ‘How does he do it?,” Lassally asks.

Lassally’s conviction about Ferguson’s potential overcame the initial skepticism at CBS and in Letterman’s camp. Ferguson’s natural charisma did the rest. “I brought Craig into six people’s offices separately at CBS. He was like a politician on a campaign, and he charmed every one of them immediately,” Lassally recalls.

Lassally credits CBS chief Leslie Moonves with making the gutsy call to back his vision for “Late Late Show.” He made it clear to the Eye boss that he saw the show as big-tent entertainment rather than targeting a narrow young demo.

I said, ‘Please don’t make me go for the 20-year-old audience,’ ” Lassally says. “I told him that Craig would give him the full audience of all ages and sexes. I told him that if he wanted to get the 18-34 audience, I didn’t think Craig was the right man. Les, to his credit, said, ‘You got it.'”

As with any new show, Ferguson’s first few months on the air were a little rocky. It was clear early on that the standard-issue joke-packed monologue was not a fit with his skills as raconteur. Lassally believes Ferguson began to find his footing just a few weeks into his run, on the seg that ran the day after Carson’s death Jan. 23, 2005. Lassally urged Ferguson to speak from the heart about what Carson meant to him, not only as a host but also as a newcomer to the U.S.

Craig said that even though he was in this great big country that kind of frightened him, Johnny Carson made him feel like it was a small town,” Lassally recalls. “That was incredible television. That was a man opening himself up and speaking from his heart.”

From then on, the monologue and the show were tailored to Ferguson’s skills. Lassally says he’s most impressed by the unpredictability and joyfulness Ferguson brings to the show every night, starting with the cold open. Only Ferguson knows what he’s going to say or do in that segment — and it’s usually off the cuff the minute the red light on the camera goes on.

Everything that you would say is now a trademark of the show is the result of us taking some standard talkshow piece and smashing it to bits,” Naidus says with delight.

Of all the advice and counsel Lassally gave Ferguson in the early days, he was wrong on one key point. He cautioned Ferguson that success in latenight is a slow build, and that it would take a minimum of five years to gain traction against the competish. The Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien/Jimmy Fallon shuffle on NBC has only made more people sample Ferguson, and clearly, a lot of them like what they’ve seen.

These are certainly exciting times for us to live in,” Lassally says with a grin.

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