Sebastian’s back Guest-clacking for us again….
If you follow my guest-clacks here over the last month, you’ve most likely already discovered that I’m a sucker for all things “real.” I love shows that feel right, things that fit, stories that could happen. I like to laugh because it makes me feel warm and cuddly inside. I like to feel for the people on screen. I love stories that could happen.
The reason why Craig Ferguson is the best talk show host there is is simple. He’s real. He’s so unlike all the other guys with a desk and a chair and a sofa.
For starters, his show doesn’t have the regular opening monologue. When he started to do his show back in January 2005, they tried to make him read cue cards, let him make jokes his writers came up with and try to be funny. Which failed miserably. Every now and then, he has guests return that he had on his show in that abysmal first week — and they remember with him how bad that was.
Although I never saw one of those shows, through him remembering we know that he himself felt that he wasn’t honest, that he wasn’t there to entertain people but rather perform an act. And he didn’t like it. So they changed the format. They simply let him go on stage, one or two jokes prepared beforehand for the monologue, and simply let him riff on the things that happened that day –- one reason why every monologue seems to start with “It’s a great day for America” -– and then he tells us why.
You now might object that guys like Leno and Conan and the countless other (dare I say hacks?) guys with late-night talk shows do just that. But honestly no. They don’t. Listen to a couple of examples about what Craig talks in his monologue:
The death of his father (his eulogy on the show earned him an Emmy nomination):
About alcoholism (concerning Britney Spears):
And recently about the death of his mother:
I came into contact with the show via YouTube, and Craig is well aware of the fans he’s made via that website — maybe one of the reasons why he reads emails every night from fans all over America and the world. This and especially the internet rumors about him being gay is something he frequently coquettes with.
Compare that with the other cue card-ridden shows like Leno or Conan. Every line, every joke seems to be meticulously planned and then delivered. On shows like Letterman (who’s also real but more in a not-giving-a-damn kind of way) that’s even more evident with the guy recycling whole monologues and on top of that repeating certain jokes until you just want to hurt the guy physically to make him stop. Spontaneity is something these guys won’t poke with a stick.
You especially notice the shallowness of the other hosts in interviews where you see them actually connect with their guests. Once Letterman is really interested in something he can’t let go until he gets what he wants. He’s special friends with the Teutuls of American Chopper fame, for instance, and in a way politically interested. But again, when you see Letterman playing that down, pretending as if he were dumb, not knowing what’s going on in the world of show business and politics, it just insults me as a viewer. You know he is more intelligent than that and he plays the dumb guy to connect to his (sorry) dumb viewers.
Something that Leno has perfected. “Jaywalking” is something making that very evident. Leno doesn’t connect with anybody. He’s so self-involved it hurts. Not that he’s not funny or that I’d say he’s dumb. No, he knows exactly how to do the show he does; he has perfected it and you can only admire him for that. Same goes to Conan who found his audience and they like him for what he’s doing. But again, there are moments after the monologue, after all the schticks and intended bad cues, bad jokes etc., when you see him talk to somebody he’s really interested in, it sometimes shines through that he can be interested in a person and then the really intelligent, interesting interviews develop where you get something out of the whole thing instead of the guest just sitting there, telling a story, the host nodding and then sending the person off when they’ve plugged the movie/book/CD enough.
On The Late Late Show all this is the exception and not the rule. Of course there are a lot of interviews where you quickly find out that the people are just there to plug something, that’s just a given. But even in those, you see Craig try to get something out of the person, something that other hosts have given up on ages ago. You just have to love interviews where the guest shows real interest in The Late Late Show or that they bring something with them that’s genuine. In these cases you can really see the energy spark in Craig, his eyes light up, he gets incredibly invested and time and time again you feel as if you are watching a conversation in a bar between two buddies talking.
Nice examples of this from the last couple of weeks are Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Denny from Grey’s) who had to remind Craig he already told the story of Craig meeting Michael Caine on a plane a couple of weeks ago, and Jim Parsons becoming a “Friend of the Show” for The Late Late Show being his first late night talk show ever. He returned a couple of days later to perform in a skit. And John Corbett told the audience that Craig kept calling him during the last couple of months asking Corbett to perform with his band on the show.
On top of this, Craig more than once had to say that he was sorry about not plugging the thing the guest was there for in the first place. That’s charming, that’s what makes this show unique and makes you want to tune in every night (or better watch the TiVoed thing the next day, who on earth can stay up that late except maybe me?).
This all might stem from the problem that The Late Late Show has a problem with attracting A-List guests, especially because it is on so late, competing with infomercials on other channels. Maybe it was the need to make the guests feel welcome for Ferguson to treat them like that, but I don’t think so. Videos on YouTube from way back when he started the show display the same amount of investment as today.
All in all, you get the sense that you are invited in to this guy’s living room every night. You see that he’s nervous all the time, you just know that he tries to do his best. Some people have dismissed that as trying to hard, being overly sensitive and all in all displaying asskissery towards the audience. I say this guy is genuinely interested in delivering the best show he can every night in a timeslot that is undeserving of his qualities.
He has embraced these difficulties and makes the best out of the circumstances every night, which might be some kind of problem since you would think that if he moved to another timeslot he’d have to improve -– but I guess we can worry about these things should they ever come to pass. At the moment I’m more interested in Craig prolonging his contract. With The Daily Show and The Colbert Report he forms an evening of must-see TV for me. He makes you feel connected, and that’s what I love so much about him.