Contrary to what headlines may suggest, Stephen Colbert is not the only late night host bowing out this week. Tonight marks the end of a very special show, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. And I am a super fan.
I wasn’t a nightly watcher during the first few seasons. If someone I specifically wanted to see was a guest that night I’d tune in, but the show didn’t become a permanent fixture in my TV-life until a few years ago. But when it came, it never left.
Something (or someone — I think it may have been Shirley Manson) caused me to record The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson one night, and it spoke to me. There was something about Craig’s very weird, special breed of humor and a show built on inside jokes that I got — and that I felt got me. It was a pretty rough time in my life — I was struggling with severe depression — and I found something about Craig deeply therapeutic. If he had announced his departure two years ago, I would not have taken it well at all.
From a good-TV standpoint, and not the over-enthusiastic fan perspective I’ll get to in a minute, he’s going out on top. He’s taken a program that was utilized by mid-level celebrities to promote their most recent projects and made it absolutely his own. While I obviously enjoy the guest segments, his relatively-solo first half hour and the last five minutes are my favorite parts of the show. And I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that way.
Here are just a few of the very best things about The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. A show ahead of it’s time, I tell you. Sheer brilliance.
His deconstruction of the format
Craig was never shy about the fact that the whole goal of his show was to upend traditional late night. His roots are as a Glasgow punk rocker, and that authority defying punk attitude defined the show. They don’t do rehearsals, for one thing, and it’s not unusual to see him kick his crazy-socked feet up on the desk and stare at the producer for a few minutes in silence just because he knows he’s supposed to go to commercial. He cusses as often as he likes — even if it does get bleeped — and he regularly trashes Los Angeles, CBS, the show, and himself. It’s all in fun, of course, but he keeps us on our toes in the best way.
The incredibly loose format means Craig can talk about whatever’s on his mind, and like anyone else, he goes through phases. There are things he loves and always references, such as David Bowie, gritty detective novels, and Doctor Who. And there are the TV shows, books, and music he’s into at the moment. When he was reading the Harry Potter series with his oldest son, he often referenced the books and praised the brilliance of J.K. Rowling. He still declares himself a Gryffindor from time to time. I’ve personally benefitted from his recommendations, as he turned me on to Downton Abbey, the NatGeo show Flying Wild Alaska, the works of P.G. Wodehouse, and the British WWII-era detective drama Foyle’s War.
Craig has insisted repeatedly that he’d never want to be on any earlier because he wouldn’t be able to get away with as much. But for him, the 12:30 a.m. budget also means no band and no human sidekick. For years, he worked alone, but in 2010, Grant Imahara from Mythbusters created a robot skeleton companion for Craig. Initially, Geoff Peterson only said a few previously recorded phrases, but today he’s fully interactive and voiced by comedian Josh Robert Thompson, who has no problem matching the irreverence and lightning-fast wit of his boss. He also voices the rhino that hangs above the fake fireplace and every other disembodied voice you hear on the show, including a famously accurate Morgan Freeman impression. Some of the best moments on the show happen when Geoff makes Craig laugh so hard he has to take a moment to compose himself.
His highbrow jokes
The dude is obviously well-read. He regularly invites authors, journalists, and scholars to his stage, and he’s not afraid to make the occasional Kierkegaard joke, which he follows up with, “You’re welcome, two people.” His 2005 novel Between the Bridge and the River, which includes Virgil and Carl Jung as characters, is a perfect example of how he can discuss topics like religion and existentialism without seeming the teeniest bit pretentious.
His lowbrow jokes
On The Late Late Show, anything can be turned into a double entendre. When either Craig or Geoff make a statement that sounds even remotely dirty, the other usually responds, “Is that code?” Kierkegaard is always a possibility, but so are penis and fart jokes. He’s silly, but he’s also a class act.
There are countless running gags on Craig’s show. Even the practice of using a joke past what would normally be a reasonable expiration date, is a joke in itself. And it totally works.
It’s widely known in Hollywood that Craig doesn’t drink. He’s been sober for 23 years, and he often jokes that he doesn’t remember the ’80s. The man has overcome great difficulty to be where he is, and he isn’t afraid to admit that he brought most of it upon himself. In his autobiography, American on Purpose, he details his childhood in a working-class suburb of Glasgow, dropping out of school, the time he spent drumming in punk bands (with “Skins”and “Doctor Who” actor Peter Capaldi on the mic at one point), his descent into alcoholism, his marriages, how he started in stand-up, working as an actor, getting sober and becoming an American citizen, something he’s incredibly proud of. The cover of the book features him in a leather jacket, combat boots, and an American flag kilt.
Both as a comedian and as a late-night host, it’s Craig Ferguson’s job to make fun of people. Politicians, celebrities, historical figures — they’re all fair game. But over the last several years, he’s made it a point not to kick people when they’re down. It’s one thing, he says, to poke fun at the Kardashians or Bill Clinton, and it’s quite another to target someone like a 2008 Britney Spears. He isn’t going to contribute to the public humiliation of someone who is clearly troubled. He is a Gryffindor, after all.
Technically, I’ll still be able to watch Craig every day. He’s the host of Celebrity Name Game, a syndicated game show, but it’s not on at 12:37 a.m., and it doesn’t feature half an hour of his unleashed humor. However, if moving on from the show means more movies like his Saving Grace and more books like Between the Bridge and the River, I guess I can let him go. But I’m really going to miss that comically flamboyant German accent.