There will be more late night TV turnover between 2014 and 2015 than there was in the last 20 years. But out of all the changes that have been announced or already taken place, none makes me sadder than Craig Ferguson‘s impending departure from CBS’s “Late Late Show.” He’ll be “keeping it classy all the way to Christmas” and then step down after 10 years on the 12:30am talker, so now would be a good time to give him his due at the Emmys.
After Jay Leno‘s second ouster from “The Tonight Show” earlier this year, this time in favor of Jimmy Fallon, came David Letterman‘s surprise announcement that he will retire from “The Late Show” in 2015, to be replaced by Stephen Colbert, which means the end of Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” after eight years.
Ferguson’s exit has been marked by much less drama and fanfare than those, and that may be just as well for the host, who has managed to stay out of the line of fire during the various late night wars and intrigues of the last five years.
Ironically, those very late night wars were the reason I discovered Ferguson in the first place. After Conan O’Brien vacated “Late Night” on NBC in 2009 in preparation for the launch of his own embattled and short-lived “Tonight Show,” I glanced over at his time slot rival Ferguson and have been hooked ever since.
Ferguson brings an anarchic spirit to the late-night format, with an improvisational feel to his comedy bits and interviews, from the conversational monologues delivered directly to camera – he avoids the rigid setup/punchline format of his late-night cohorts – to the moment at the start of every interview segment where he tears up his blue note cards, announcing to his guest and audience his rejection of pre-planned patter. That results in occasional awkwardness with guests unaccustomed to going off-script, but it’s magic with stars who are able to roll with the punches, like “Late Late Show” regular Kristen Bell.
In 2010, the show introduced Geoff Peterson, an animatronic gay robot skeleton built by “MythBusters” star Grant Imahara and voiced and operated by Josh Robert Thompson. After about a year, Geoff evolved from a receptacle of pre-recorded one-liners to a full-blown sidekick and is now one of the most distinctive characters on TV. The interaction between the two is sometimes cooperative, sometimes like a competitive comedy duel that keeps both on their toes.
Thompson is also a skilled impressionist, which opens the door to other guest characters, like Morgan Freeman, Regis Philbin, and various original characters like Jerry from room service, and Alfredo Sauce, the leader of an unseen studio band called the Shy Fellas.
Ferguson’s subversive skew of the late-night format – which also includes a second sidekick, Secretariat, played by two men in a chintzy horse costume – evidences his keen intellect, which the self-professed “late-night douche” downplays with self-deprecating barbs, but this thoughtful side reveals itself during occasional trips abroad, when he chucks his usual in-studio routine for loosely structured journeys around Paris or Scotland, exploring his childhood home, or waxing philosophical during candid conversations with the likes of Mila Kunis, David Sedaris, and the late Michael Clarke Duncan.
One of his best shows last year featured gay actor and activist Stephen Fry, with whom he discussed religion and human rights. Ferguson apologized at the outset for the episode’s relative lack of comedy content, but he should never apologize for having a meaningful conversation with an interesting guest on a talk show, and in fact other hosts should try it more often – though I’m not sure how many other late night douches could pull it off.
Ferguson jokes that he’s only able to get away with his signature weirdness because CBS doesn’t know he’s on the air, but I think he’s only half-kidding. Undoubtedly, his under-the-radar time slot and lack of behind-the-scenes controversy have earned him a lot of free rein, which is why I was glad he wasn’t promoted to Letterman’s desk, for which there was a stipulation in Ferguson’s contract. Moving up an hour would have brought with it pressure to go mainstream. (Fingers crossed for Colbert for the same reason.)
Now that he’s leaving, there’s going to be a lot less experimental whimsy in late-night network TV. CBS may decide to take a chance on another paradigm-shifting comic and leave him or her alone to create something unique, but I suspect we’re likelier to see more setup/punchline monologues and pre-planned celebrity patter. If so, Ferguson’s departure from late night is not only sad for his fans, but for the format.
Ferguson has already earned an Emmy nomination for the show, albeit a long time ago – Individual Variety Performance back in 2006 – so the TV academy is aware of him.
He’s not only a respected comedian but an actor with credits including “The Drew Carey Show,” “Saving Grace” (a 2000 feature film he also wrote), and voice work in “How to Train Your Dragon” and the Oscar-winning “Brave,” so he is familiar throughout the industry.
The news of his departure could bring newfound attention to his show, and voters will be aware that this may be their last chance to honor him.
Operating under the radar is good for creative autonomy, but bad for getting awards.
CBS has been shut out of Best Variety Series and Best Variety Writing since 2009, when Letterman was last nominated.
Voters tend to nominate the same variety shows year after year, which makes it much harder for an outsider to break in.
Are you rooting for Ferguson as much as I am? Watch one of his recent segments below, and discuss “The Late Late Show” in our forums.