(Every week on late-night round-up, one of our writers watches a week of one late-night talk show. This week, Todd VanDerWerff looks at The Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson. Next week, Meredith Blake watches The Colbert Report.)
There are few television shows that make me laugh as much as The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson. There are better written shows. There are probably funnier shows—even in late night. But something about Ferguson’s cheeky demeanor and the many weird gimmicks he’s built up on his show makes me laugh more than just about anything. If forced to put my finger on it, I guess I’d say that his goofiness is oddly charming, and that makes it fun to laugh along with him. But sometimes, you just can’t quantify comedy. You’re either laughing, or you’re not.
There are few late night shows that prompt as much argumentation as Ferguson’s, actually. Most of the time, people generally agree that a late-night talk show is doing pretty well or isn’t all that amusing. (And by “people,” of course, I mean “people on the Internet,” because I expect if you brought up Jay Leno’s terminal lack of humor with certain members of my family, they would beg to differ strenuously.) But say that Ferguson’s funny—or not funny—and you’ll get dozens of people who will tell you, in detail, just why you’re wrong. I’d wager most people who’ve seen Ferguson more or less like him, but he seems more suited to passionate cult love—or passionate cult hate—than anything else.
Again, I’m not sure why that is. I don’t always watch the show, but having watched four days of programs—three of which featured the voice of Tom Lennon as Khloe Banderas, Antonio Banderas’ brother who lives in the actor’s crawlspace and occasionally takes over the consciousness of Geoff Peterson, robot sidekick—I wonder if it’s perhaps because the show’s format doesn’t change. Now, that’s not something that should come as a shock about late-night talk shows. All of them have fairly hidebound, traditional formats, and they rarely do much of anything to vary those. But something like, say, Conan does its best to have a handful of different sketches and segments, and it offers up a wide variety of types of jokes. If you don’t like one gag in the monologue, another will be along right after.
Late Late is doing something very different. To a real degree, whether or not you like the show is pitched entirely on whether or not you like Ferguson (and, to a lesser extent, his robot sidekick). The monologues are rambling and discursive and are rarely about topics in the news—though he did toss in a reference to cops pepper-spraying protestors this week, which was disquieting, as my local station kept breaking in with news of the Occupy L.A. protests being forcibly disbanded. The place where a “skit” would go is taken up, instead, by Ferguson reading e-mails and Tweets he’s received while Geoff provides occasional commentary. (My favorite version of this this year was when Geoff was voiced by Larry King, who just kept talking about nothing in particular in response to queries.) He typically has the one guest who sits and talks with him, then he’ll bring in a musical act or a comedian. But throughout, the focus of the show is on Ferguson in a way that I’m not quite sure is true on, say, The Daily Show. There, Jon Stewart is always front and center, but the jokes are of primary importance. Here, Ferguson very often is the joke.
This is not to say that Ferguson doesn’t boast a talented writing staff, and I’m sure said staff does a good job of helping him craft his monologues and get material together that he and Geoff might riff on when the time comes to read those e-mails and Tweets. But the show has such a loose, improvisatory feel that it’s tempting to assume that he’s just making it all up as he goes along. The temptation too often when talking about something on TV or in a movie that made us laugh is to assume that there was improvisation involved, because spontaneity and inspiration can be funnier than something that’s been pored over and crafted within an inch of its life. But the basis of good comedy is usually good writing, and I’m hesitant to make these sorts of comments about things that make me laugh as much as this show does.
Yet everything about Late Late feels like it’s happening off the cuff. This week’s interplay between Ferguson and Lennon—who voiced Geoff-as-Khloe on Monday through Wednesday—seemed so in the moment that it was hard to assume that any of it had been scripted before (even if the two had almost certainly talked some of it out). Ferguson’s just good at creating this kind of impression, I guess, since his eyes suggest that he’s always thinking about something that he’s going to say in just a few minutes, even as his brain is actually paying attention to whatever’s happening on stage. Ferguson and whomever’s voicing Geoff also play to the studio audience more than most late-night hosts, referencing people we can’t even see by name, making us feel as if we’re really there, to some degree.
If Ferguson’s had a low point over the years, it’s been in his interviews. He’s very good with certain guests—I always make sure to tune in when Kristen Bell will be on the program—but if the guest isn’t willing to play along, he can seem a bit at sea. On the other hand, Late Late is one of the few places where you’d ever see, say, Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly, who stopped by the program this week to discuss the fall season and talk about how much he doesn’t like The X Factor. Ferguson also gave over a huge chunk of time to David Sedaris, of all people, and it was quite a fun interview. I still wouldn’t name Ferguson the best interviewer on late night today, but he’s improved enough that I don’t flip off the TV after the first half hour. He’s engaged and entertaining, and his mix of guests is often a lot of fun and almost always unexpected. (Even the expected celebrity guest this week—Kristin Chenoweth—was mostly there to banter with Ferguson and tell a story about a blind date that went very poorly.)
All of this might seem a long-winded way of saying that I don’t entirely know how to explain why I like this program so much, since it all boils down to liking the guy at its center (and the robot off to the side). But all the same, if you’re not the kind of person who cracks up laughing when Khloe Banderas attempts to explain his complicated backstory or when Ferguson tells Sedaris that he can’t just claim any bird he sees outside as “his bird,” since it doesn’t work that way, then I’m guessing we don’t share much of a sense of humor at all. The Late Late Show is at once charmingly old-fashioned—in that it’s built almost entirely around its host’s appeal and around doing things with a certain degree of sincerity in between the cheeky winking—but it’s also possessed of a surprisingly modern sensibility. It’s a show that feels like it could have been made in 1956 that, nonetheless, seems tailor-made to chop up in chunks and toss on YouTube.