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

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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