We Come Here to Praise Craig Ferguson, Not to Bury Him

Craig Ferguson has been delivering the best monologue on late night for years now, can conduct an interview that actually feels candid, and has a stable of great recurring bits. So why did he never feel right for the 11:35 slot?

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Craig Ferguson's announcement yesterday that he will leave The Late Late Show after ten years came as a surprise to no one, following CBS's decision to hire Stephen Colbert as David Letterman's successor. That decision came as no surprise either—despite Ferguson's ten years of excellent work in the hour following Letterman, at no point was he considered a serious choice to succeed him. But I come here to praise Mr. Ferguson, not to bury him. I'm no longer an avid watcher of his show, but I've long been a fan. Ferguson has been delivering the best monologue on late night for years now, can conduct an interview that actually feels candid, and has a stable of great recurring bits. So why did he never feel right for the 11:35 slot?

After playing the mean boss on The Drew Carey Show for seven years, Ferguson was hired to replace Craig Kilborn and follow Letterman after weeks of guest host showcases hosted by candidates like D.L. Hughley and Michael Ian Black. Unlike Late Night, which had forged a very specific identity when David Letterman was at the helm following Carson, The Late Late Show had always been a weird beast, with Tom Snyder's four years functioning as a serious interview show, and Craig Kilborn doing a more straightforward late night clone that never left much of a mark.

Ferguson's tenure has done the most to define The Late Late Show brand, which has never attempted to be as youthful as NBC's 12:35 hour and has always taken some pride in its bare-bones status. For years, Ferguson languished on a tiny set that he used to his advantage, drawing the audience as close as possible for his monologues, which he'd deliver very close to the camera in a much more conversational style. He had no house band, no sidekick (until they built the robot Geoff Peterson in 2010) and often barely seemed to have prepared a straightforward monologue. Obviously Ferguson had a writer's room cooking up one-liners just like any late night host, but it's a credit to his skill as a performer that he made things look so easy.

Just look at Conan O'Brien, who's been doing this nonsense for more than 20 years, or Jimmy Fallon, who took over at Late Night after Ferguson got his job and has already leapfrogged into the 11:35 slot. Both of them do their monologue duty every night, and more often that not it feels like a stilted affair, like they're faintly echoing the truly memorable work of the men who invented the late night monologue. Ferguson actually managed to make the beginning of his show feel different. One time, Ferguson had to run his show with the power down in the studio, and though it might sound cheesy, it was a testament to his incredible energy as a host.

Not that Ferguson didn't lean on creaky comedy traditions himself: he would often begin shows ducking beneath the camera and performing puppet shows for the audience, a trope that's, I don't know, about 3,000 years old. He would also occasionally use his monologue to address more serious issues. His only Emmy nomination for the show came from the 2006 eulogy he delivered for his father, who had died the previous weekend. Even though Ferguson has always been a candid and open performer, it was still a beautiful moment, one of those rare times on television when a performer seems as personally close as a family member.

Ferguson, a recovering alcoholic, was also resolute in which targets he would pick for mockery in his opening monologue, and shied away from criticizing celebrities who had similar substance abuse problems or were obviously going through profound suffering in public. It's a tough line for any comedian to walk, and Ferguson would probably be the first to admit he broke his own rules, but his willingness to discuss the issue also set him apart from other late night hosts.

When I moved back to New York in 2008 and got a cable box, the first thing I set up on my DVR was a season pass for Ferguson, and I'd make sure to at least watch his monologue the next morning. But his bits were great too, even if they just amounted to him putting on a dumb outfit and standing in front of a green-screen yelling jokes and doing dodgy impressions until he ran out of energy. He always did his best to make guest interviews interesting, without any real prepared stories or topics to run through, and was at his most fun (like any late night host) when one of his regulars was on the couch, like Kristen Bell, Chris Hardwick or Neil Patrick Harris.

Ferguson's best-known recurring bit was Secretariat: two people in a horse costume who would dance in anytime to stupid music Ferguson rang a bell at his desk and yelled "Who's that at the door!" in his Scottish brogue. Like any late night bit, it was a one-joke gag that escalated beyond the point of ridiculousness, with Secretariat visiting other countries and eventually getting a permanent place on set. But its simplicity exemplifies Ferguson's brilliance: there's almost nothing at work here beyond a simple sight gag, but the show sells it with its gleeful energy. That's also exactly why Ferguson won't be getting the 11:35 slot or following Colbert once he does. He's part of an older tradition that CBS is necessarily putting a cap on, reflected in Ferguson's ratings decline in recent years. But I hope that doesn't mean his unique tenure in the late night landscape will be forgotten.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.