The Cheekiest Monkey of Them All

I have watched The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson on a regular basis since January 2009. The program’s theme song is my ringtone. I bothered to view Winnie the Pooh and How to Train Your Dragon purely because Ferguson provided the voice of a minor character in each. (Granted, the latter is well worth seeing, anyway.)

Accordingly, I can say with more authority than most that when Ferguson claimed that his newly-announced decision to leave The Late Late Show at the end of the year was his, and his alone, he was absolutely telling the truth.

Yes, of course, it had been only a few weeks earlier that David Letterman announced his own pending retirement from The Late Show, which immediately precedes Ferguson’s program weeknights on CBS. And it was only days later that CBS revealed that Stephen Colbert, of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, would be Letterman’s successor.

As Ferguson himself conceded, it would be perfectly logical to assume that his actions were a direct consequence of Letterman’s and the network’s. That Ferguson had been hoping to inherit the Late Show gig himself, and that when he was passed over, he took it as a signal that CBS was no longer interested in his services, and so he opted to take his ball and go home.

Don’t believe a word of this. The truth is that Ferguson has long desired to jump ship, both from CBS and from late night television in general, and has merely been waiting for an opportune moment to take the plunge.

How do we know this? Because Ferguson has said so during every Late Late Show episode he has ever filmed. As regular viewers well know, not a night goes by in which Ferguson does not make an embittered dig at CBS, his producers, his counterparts or the late night format itself.  (In lieu of a billion examples, I’ll provide one.)

Sure, Ferguson mostly takes care to cloak his ennui in hammy, playful cheekiness, to ensure his audience is entertained and his overlords are kept at bay.

But that does not mean the mild contempt underlying these comedic slings and arrows is not in some sense real. Having viewed some thousand-odd installments of his show, I strongly suspect that it is.

Now that Ferguson’s looming departure is fait accompli, the pertinent question is not why CBS declined to anoint him Letterman’s heir, but rather how on Earth he has managed to keep his enterprise going for as long as he has.

The central fact of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson is that its host is an inherently odd and improbable presence at the desk. That is the show’s appeal for its admirers—Ferguson has certainly milked this conceit for all it’s worth—and it’s also the reason it was never going to last.

Ferguson has explicitly made the point that his is “not like any other late night show.” Indeed, since he took the reins from Craig Kilborn in January 2005, The Late Late Show has essentially morphed—devolved, perhaps?—into deconstructionist performance art. It’s a program that mocks the conventions of network talk shows while nonetheless qualifying as a member of the genre it purports to be sending up. That’s quite the trick to pull off.

For instance: All such late night franchises feature a “sidekick” foil for the host. Well, Ferguson’s is a six-foot-tall animatronic gay skeleton named Geoff Peterson. (There’s also his pet horse—or rather, two interns in a horse costume—known as Secretariat.)

Other late night shows feature carefully-calibrated interviews with Hollywood stars. Ferguson begins each interview by dramatically tearing up the blue index cards with the questions he’s supposed to ask.

Other hosts strenuously avoid talking about serious or controversial subjects, except as the setup for a joke. Ferguson once devoted an entire monologue to the story of his near-suicide and rock-bottom alcoholism. As well, he will not shy from musing un-ironically about, say, the resemblance of Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler or the breathtaking awfulness of cable news networks.

One of the longer-running Late Late Show gags is Ferguson’s assertion that CBS’ executives don’t even know he’s still on the air, and that’s why he is able to get away with being so freewheeling and bizarre.

Indeed, the joy in watching him comes from the sense that he’s getting away with murder. That he slipped onto the TV screen when no one was looking and has been pushing his luck ever since, seeing how far he can go before CBS decides that enough is enough.

Whether that is what finally happened, I cannot say for certain.

But what appears beyond dispute is that Ferguson is utterly at peace with the prospect of leaving the job to which he has devoted nearly a decade of his life. His secret, I think, is that he has never taken it any more seriously than absolutely necessary, thereby providing himself the freedom to experiment, to take risks, and to fail.

Would that more people in public life had such nerve. I will miss Craig terribly once he’s gone.

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