I was going to make this post regardless of what happened tonight on CBS. This is a happy coincidence.
The nights of my high school years were owned by David Letterman. College and the couple years that followed my drop out were the property of Conan O’Brien (after a brief transition period). As much as I enjoy both hosts (and I still love to check in with them from time to time), I left the land of late night television for a couple years.
Enter Craig Ferguson.
I watched a little of Ferguson (oh, that English guy from The Drew Carey Show) when he initially took over for The Late Late Show from Craig Kilbron in 2005 (Kilborn being an apparently reliable predictor of when a show is about to get good; see also Daily Show, The). His style was free-form and silly, frequently referring to the audience as “cheeky little monkeys,” pulling out ridiculous celebrity impressions for oddball sketches, and delivering a delightfully unrehearsed and sometimes educational opening monologue that avoided the cheap Paris Hilton-is-a-slut fare endemic to late night shows, revealing Ferguson as a masterful entertainer and storyteller.
Then I didn’t watch TV at all for some time. But a couple months ago, I stumbled across the show again. Ever since, I’ve been hooked, planning my weeknights around being in front of my television at 11:35 p.m. (in my region). He’s taken what initially made his show so charming and refined it into one of the coziest, most refreshingly intelligent and personable shows to grace television. His interviews come across more like conversations than publicity appearances, often straying away from typically stupid on-set stories into a real rapport and a connection of personalities. Sometimes the topic veers into serious topics, especially Ferguson’s history of alcoholism, but it never feels exploitative.
Ferguson has a sharp mind and a curious intellect. His delightful smile, his faux outrage, his real outrage, and the traces of his punk rock past mix into a vital and continually interesting experience. The combination of the cornball with the intelligent is what makes Ferguson’s show so winning. Ferguson’s sketches are quite unlike anything I’ve seen, bumbling, careening affairs where Ferguson hams it up in some ridiculous costume opposite some brilliant actor playing the most ridiculous role in his or her life.
To wit, my favorite sketch thus far, from the June 23rd show, featuring Ferguson as Angela Landsbury as Jessica Fletcher and Alfred Molina as Sherlock Holmes:
Ferguson recently became an American citizen. Every night’s monologue starts with the host commenting that “It’s a great day for America, everybody!” Lately, this has been subverted a few times, with Ferguson’s moving September 11th speech. It seems more and more frequently, he’s been indulging in his burning, righteous (and, thank God, reasoned) anger. His passion for what he believes this country stands for is actually quite inspiring; and appeals to my patriotism are not easily accomplished. He gave a memorable speech recently about the civic responsibility in voting, something that as a new citizen, he apparently is thrilled about.
Tonight, notably, he went on a tirade about the absurdity of John McCain’s “suspension” of his campaign (something Letterman, who was shafted by McCain earlier in the day, also railed on him for, noting the lack of a Sarah Palin), particularly honing in on the word “suspension.” He pondered aloud about the precedent this could set in holding up the democratic process, noting several leaders who “suspended” democracy in times of peril, namely Castro, Napoleon, and Caesar. “No,” Ferguson bellowed. “Democracy first, first, first!” He’d return to this line of thought (as well as railing against the $700B Wall Street bailout in an incisive analysis of the relationship between democracy and capitalism) throughout the night, closing his nightly “What Did We Learn on the Show Tonight, Craig?” segment with a reminder that you do not suspend the democratic process.
And, then, of course, there’s the fact that he deferred to Salman fucking Rushdie to introduce Three Six Mafia on the show.
Thank you, Craig. For me, you’ve made television worth watching again.