We’re in the middle of a major late-night shift, that’s for sure.
We saw Jimmy Fallon take his seat as host of The Tonight Show in February with a star-studded affair, and Seth Meyers started just after, both in terms of timeslot and premiere date. David Letterman announced his retirement, and just a week later Stephen Colbert was announced as his successor. Larry Wilmore will be taking Colbert’s timeslot. Chelsea Handler ended her show with plans to move to Netflix. James Corden, someone virtually unknown to American audiences will be taking over The Late Late Show in March instead of a woman or person of color.
By the time Letterman officially retires on May 20, 2015, Jon Stewart will be the longest-reigning host, with Jimmy Kimmel leading the pack on network television. Conan O’Brien will be the most seasoned man standing, but he was off TV prior to his exit from NBC and move to TBS.
Last taping today of my tenure on the LLS. Thanks for 10 great years a'body. Pre recorded live show airs tomorrow. #nolatenightshowsarelive— Craig Ferguson (@CraigyFerg) December 18, 2014
I may have even too, for a time.
It’s safe to say that we don’t view late-night television anywhere near the same way as our parents did. For them, there were only a few channels to watch at any point in time, so once they found the host they liked, they stuck with him. My dad, for instance, fondly remembers watching Johnny Carson and his variety sketches when he was in his 20s; when I asked about it, I could barely get him to stop talking. Now my parents fall asleep to Letterman, but they still enjoy the Fallon and Kimmel clips that I send their way or that end up on the morning shows.
For us, those who grew up with cable, premium cable, and now Netflix and YouTube, we’ve had a lot more options. We could watch late-night talk shows; we could tune into the satire news shows Comedy Central offered; we could binge-watch a cult favorite or even catch up on the latest hot show. We had options, so we spread out what we watched more widely.
I don’t watch late-night TV enough to say, “Yeah, that’s my ‘guy’” to any of the hosts who were on in my lifetime, and I certainly don’t remember a certain episode of any show as vividly as something like getting my first Harry Potter book or starting Lost. The closest I’ve probably ever gotten to “that guy” is Craig Ferguson.
Ferguson began his run at The Late Late Show on Jan. 3, 2005, after beating out three others for the spot. I didn’t watch it, probably because it aired way too late for then-high-schooler me, but he was fairly popular at first. Although the Scottish host might not be everyone’s cup of tea, he achieved the show’s highest ratings since the show started in 1995. While he and his writers never won an Emmy for their work, he was awarded the Peabody Award in 2010 for his interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Regarding the honor, the Peabody selection committee wrote that “one of the silliest hours on television (what with the trademark hand puppets and skeleton robots) could also be one of the smartest.”
It was actually his interview with Tutu that led him to eventually leave the show.
“This is a man who talked to some crazy motherfuckers,” Ferguson told Jim Rash at the Paley Center for Media Monday night. “He said to me, ‘You’re crazy—I don’t mean to be rude.’ I said, ‘I thank you, Father Tutu.’ He said, ‘No, you are crazy, but the type of crazy we need.’ And, this is not your agent, you know, he’s not like, ‘Keep doing the crazy thing!’ It’s Desmond Tutu saying ‘Be as authentically crazy as you are.’ It was kind of like God saying ‘Just be as crazy as you like.’ I felt weirdly released by that.”
When I did tune in—somewhere around my late high school or early college years when I became a night owl—I found something there I hadn’t noticed in the other late-night hosts: warmth.
From Ferguson’s decree of “It’s a great day for America, everybody!” to the nightly recap in his “What Did We Learn on the Show Tonight, Craig” segment, The Late Late Show felt less like a rigid, scripted affair and more like storytime with a slightly eccentric uncle. It’s a pity I haven’t been able to watch more than I have.
No matter how much experience you have watching late-night TV, you’ve probably realized that most of the hosts pretty much have one thing in common: a script. The monologues (or in Stewart and Colbert’s case, their reports) are scripted, the variety sketches and surprise appearances are well-planned and executed, and when the guest comes on to promote something, the host probably has notecards for questions and the guests obviously primed for certain talking points. It’s a formula that’s worked for decades.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, and for Fallon and Kimmel in particular, it results in millions of YouTube views a week.
But after some time on the air, Ferguson decided to go off-script. When a guest came onto his show, he always started the interview by dramatically ripping up his note card, which, according to NPR’s David Bianculli, was “signalling to the audience, and to the guest, that this conversation need not be rigidly managed.” It was a strategy that scared people at first, but guests kept coming back to talk to him. He mostly ad-libbed his daily monologue, and things on the show got weird. It may not have been what you have come to expect from the CBS mold, but it was a perfect fit for the show.
And it was a weirdness I wasn’t seeing anywhere else on late-night TV. Although I never had to hide my geek side, my family didn’t really understand some of my passions and I always held back among friends who might’ve been overwhelmed; although I never felt isolated by it, it was at times a bit lonely. And since I didn’t really let my geek flag fly online until much later, it was mostly internal nerding for years. Watching Ferguson geek out over his guests (especially in one episode he devoted entirely to Doctor Who) was comforting in a way.
He managed to invite guests into his (admittedly) small studio that weren’t always the kind of guest that would end up on every other show. By making his interviews freeform, I always felt like I learned something instead of watching this celebrity or that one tell the same three stories. It was also never invasive, and he always seemed to be genuinely interested in most of his guests—and if he wasn’t, he was good at faking it. He responded to viewer emails, and while he often ended his interviews with an awkward pause or a prize, it managed to make something that might have been awkward a little more fun.
With the additions of Geoff Peterson (Ferguson’s robot skeleton sidekick created by Mythbusters’ Grant Imahara), the pantomime horse Secretariat, and the occasional use of puppets, things could easily go off the rails in an absolutely delightful way. They were just as much part of the show as Ferguson himself.
But just because his interviews were mostly easy-going didn’t mean it was always a playground on the show. When his parents died in 2006 and 2008, he eulogized them on the air. He’s referenced his sobriety and his struggles with addiction over the years; he’s currently more than 20 years sober. He eagerly shared his enthusiasm with his audience after becoming a U.S. citizen.
When national tragedy hit, he abandoned his usual cheerful nature on the show and gave sober monologues to the audience; Time listed his monologue after the Boston bombing as the top late-night moment of 2013.
In recent years, Jimmy Fallon offered tough competition while he was the host of Late Night. The ratings went down, but so did every other show’s. While present, Ferguson’s YouTube channel never really took off, and he has nowhere near the number of clips (or subscribers) as his fellow late-night hosts.
Although at one point Ferguson admitted that he might not renew his contract, he always stood publicly by Letterman, renewing his contract in 2010 and extending it in 2012. And when his final year as host of The Late Late Show hit, Ferguson would go out in a way that most late-night hosts hadn’t previously: overshadowed.
It started off with a retirement.
Letterman announced his plans to retire in early April, and while Ferguson’s name was among the list of people CBS looked into to fill Letterman’s set, he was never the clear frontrunner: Colbert was. In an environment when the guy who aired after the big host was expected to take up the mantle, it said a lot. According to Mashable, Ferguson “has never been seen as the heir apparent.” His contract reportedly had a clause that stated he would get a cash payout if he didn’t get Letterman’s job.
A few weeks later, Ferguson announced his plans to leave his show in a very Craig Ferguson way—with his usual wit—and called it “conscious uncoupling.” He later told Larry King that he wanted to announce his exit sooner but he agreed to wait until everything died down with Letterman’s retirement.
Although Ferguson stated the decision to exit was his own, others seemed to feel he was getting the rough end of the deal, and Letterman’s obligatory comments on his exit appeared to some as being “detached.”
I think CBS and the media treated Craig Ferguson pretty shabbily— Bill Maher (@billmaher) April 29, 2014
Ferguson announced his final air date in November as Dec. 19 with Jay Leno as his final guest, but there he would be overshadowed yet again; Colbert announced his final air date for Dec. 18 in October. As the final week for both Colbert and Ferguson comes to a close, the difference in how each of them has gotten noticed is apparent. I’m only just seeing it mentioned online, and I’ve informed more than one person that Ferguson is leaving this week.
While Colbert’s exit marks the end of a character—the perfect execution of satire—Ferguson’s departure is something much quieter: the farewell of the loose-form talk show Ferguson excelled at, one that felt more natural and conversational than any of the other talk shows. While CBS is rebuilding itself with Colbert and Corden, it may opt to go for the more variety-oriented (but still very much scripted) sketches that are getting Fallon and Kimmel the views.
In most cases, an outgoing late-night host and his successor showing up on the same stage together would make headlines. Ferguson and Corden’s on-screen meeting was much more low-key.
Ferguson will be just fine without The Late Late Show. He’s currently hosting the syndicated game show Celebrity Name Game and may host a new half-hour comedy talk show that’s reportedly aiming to launch fall 2016. Geoff and Secretariat are set to join him.
I hope that Ferguson’s final show will be just as wild and weird as he wants it to be. It might not be as wacky and star-studded as Colbert’s grand finale, but I feel like Ferguson might be OK with that.
And this time I’ll be watching.
Photo via Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)