Craig Ferguson guest hosted The Late Late Show for two nights in October 2004 — an on-air audition for the permanent job — and met producer Peter Lassally for the first time.
“This should be a lark,” Ferguson said.
“This is not a lark,” said Lassally, who had previously produced The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson and Late Show with David Letterman. “I want you to take this seriously. I have few discernible talents, but one of them is finding guys like you. I watched you as guest on Letterman and Kilborn and Conan, and if I’m right about you, you are lightning in a bottle.”
Forget lightning in a bottle. For the past decade, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson — which airs its last episode Friday night at 12:30 a.m. — has been the thunderbolt of late night, a strange and wonderful mix of serious monologues, sexual innuendo, puppets, a robot skeleton sidekick, a pantomime horse and Michael Caine impressions. The Scottish-born comedian has deftly managed the mash-up of grown-up conversation and child’s play.
“I think my show is probably closer to Pee-wee’s Playhouse than anything else I’ve seen, and that is an aspiration,” Ferguson said in 2009. Later that year, he celebrated his 1,000th episode with an entire show starring puppets. It was hosted by Wavy Rancheros, a crocodile with a Cajun accent, which was voiced by Ferguson.
A few months earlier, he spent an entire episode with Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
TUTU: When you don’t forgive, frequently you feel it in your tum-tum.
FERGUSON: I was told that resentment was like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die.
The Late Late Show won a Peabody Award for the show.
Monologues. An early turning point for Ferguson came about three weeks into the job, when Johnny Carson died on Jan. 23, 2005. Ferguson didn’t know Carson, but he talked about what he meant to him — his father laughing at The Tonight Show during their visit to America and his recent marathon of watching Carson’s work to prepare for his new show. Lassally thanked Ferguson for what he said about his old friend. Then he said: “This is it. Whatever you did just there, that’s how you do this show.”
Eventually, there were no jokes written for the monologue — just bullet points or Ferguson’s stream of consciousness thoughts. Then more somber monologues emerged. Ferguson was honest, eulogizing his father and mother, ranting against the FCC and sympathizing with those in Haiti, Aurora, Colo., and Boston.
Then there was Ferguson’s finest moment: his monologue about Britney Spears on Feb. 19, 2007, the day after the pop singer spent less than 24 hours in rehab, then shaved her head. Ferguson said he would do “no Britney Spears jokes,” that “comedy should have a certain amount of joy in it,” that it shouldn’t include “attacking the vulnerable.” Then the 12-minute commentary transitioned into his 15 years of sobriety and his addiction to alcohol that almost ended in suicide. “It’s embarrassing to admit you’re an alcoholic,” he said.
American On Purpose. Ferguson’s long love affair with America was requited in 2008, when he became a U.S. citizen. He shared footage of his citizenship test and the swearing in ceremony on the show. His first official act as an American was performing at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Later that year, he did a monologue about voting, expressing his excitement about his first presidential election and complaining about voter fatigue. “If you don’t vote, you’re a moron,” he said. The following year, Ferguson published his memoir American on Purpose.
It’s a talk show. Ferguson is the best conversationalist in late night, the best since Carson. Two things helped make the natural talker even better.
1. He ripped up those standard blue pre-interview cards every night as the guests sat down. It deconstructed the talk show, removed the phoniness.
2. Most late night shows split their interviews in half with commercials. Not Ferguson. His interviews were uninterrupted conversations.
There are two YouTube accounts — Flirting Masterclass and Craig Ferguson and the ladies — dedicated to Ferguson’s flirting prowess. There is just something about his Scottish. It is cheeky but non-threatening, allowing him to trade double entendres with Kate Beckinsale, Brooke Shields, Malin Ackerman, Amy Smart, Cobie Smulders, Alice Eve and on and on. Ferguson’s flirting game made hot actresses improve theirs. But it must be said: He was no match for Alison Brie or Kate Mara.
Maybe Ferguson couldn’t book A-list celebrities. Maybe he didn’t want them. He had his B-level favorites: Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, Henry Winkler, Adam Goldberg, Joel McHale, Rashida Jones and Angela Kinsey. He was, of course, great with comedians like Robin Williams, Steve Wright and Dave Attell. Jay Leno will be his last guest.
Ferguson and Ricky Gervais got along especially well. In his first appearance, Gervais said: “This might be the best chat show ever.” In his second, he said: “That thing when people say — dance like nobody’s watching. This is like a chat show — you’re doing it like nobody’s watching.”
After Ferguson’s first night as guest host, he and Lassally talked again.
“I loved the way you actually had a conversation with the guests,” the producer said.
“I thought that was the job?” Ferguson said.
“It used to be.”