The Late Late-Night Talk Show Revolution

Craig Ferguson Asks Viewers to do the Unthinkable: To Think For Themselves


Published: November 17, 2010

To retain some semblance of mental health during the mid-semester slump, I decided to get away from myself for a bit and watch some television. After a little cable news, some TV Land sitcoms, the requisite cop drama and a large dose of David Letterman, my mind was blissfully at ease.

But with everyone in bed, the room dark except for the glow from the television set, I was alone with my daytime concerns once again. I was close to giving in to my anxiety when I decided to shift my attention back to the television. Craig Ferguson, that excitable Scotsman who comes on after Letterman, was speaking intently with a rather eccentric looking man wearing a timepiece. What were they talking about? Oh, they were just discussing David Hume’s “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.” Wait, what?

While other late-night talk show hosts keep to the traditional format, cracking wise jokes about headline politics, celebrity gossip and the weather, Craig Ferguson is busy subverting network media. Of course, I love all late-night talk shows, and I enjoy how little the genre has changed since its inception in the mid-1950s. There’s something about its simplicity—its harmlessness—that is thoroughly entertaining, even comforting. Some hosts (i.e. Conan O’Brien) cater their voices to devoted niches instead of going after broad appeal, but the form remains fairly conventional.

Enter Ferguson. No one really noticed when he took the “Late Late Show” over in 2005, but he has since gained a formidable fan base—a large portion of which are college-aged. Ferguson humbly claims that most people only watch his show because they are high on “marijuana cigarettes,” but for someone supposedly catering to bored, high kids, he shows his viewers an amount of intellectual respect unmatched by his network contemporaries.

Of course, there are other viewing options late at night. Cable, with its movies, its reruns and its porn, has created an endless supply of afterhours entertainment. If people are tuning in to a network talk show, it’s because they want to see a network talk show. Working within those thin parameters—he has a desk, he wears a suit, he chats with guests—Ferguson has completely re-invented the genre.

The borderline absurdist humor, hand puppets and poorly-executed comedy sketches are enough to set Ferguson’s show apart from its competitors. His frequent rants about Hollywood and the ridiculous nature of interviewing uninteresting, shallow people—usually right before introducing a guest—are self-referential and self-mocking in a way that is largely unheard of in network media. But these, like the minimalist set and his unadulterated silliness, are not the most notable aspects of the show. Unique to Ferguson is his lack of fear in taking on controversial issues with complete sincerity.

On paper, this might sound unpleasant. Who wants to be lectured to at 1 in the morning? Approximately 1.8 million viewers, actually.

There are plenty of shows that address “serious issues.” Several, including “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” “The Colbert Report” and “Real Time with Bill Maher,” are comedy shows. The difference is that these shows, whether or not they claim comedy as their primary concern, are highly political. Ferguson seemingly has no agenda other than educating his audience and himself.

Frequently, Ferguson takes on institutions such as religion, left-right politics and the media—ironic, as the late-night talk show is in many ways the poster-child for television media. Going against the “customer is always right” mentality that pervades most of the media, he does not hesitate to chastise his own viewers, and we love him for it. One of his most watched clips on YouTube is entitled “If You Don’t Vote, You’re A Moron.” Guess what he’s concerned about.

Just as controversial is his openness to speak about spirituality, patriotism and morality—taboo subjects for most P.C., secular commentators—and particularly surprising on a show that is supposed to be largely fluffy and innocuous. He asked Archbishop Desmond Tutu how he finds forgiveness in the face of evil, and socialist philosopher Cornel West how he deals with despair. All the more inspiring is that Craig is not a blow-hard, or what we typically think of as an “intellectual.” A high school drop-out and recovering alcoholic, his broad range of knowledge comes entirely from self-motivation.

It is my hope that Ferguson is the first in a new wave of media. Ours is a generation that is fast becoming fed up with political correctness, secularism and being talked at by the media. Mindless entertainment has served as our only shelter from this onslaught of information and punditry. Ferguson, with his blend of joyful comedy and serious contemplation, provides an appealing alternative. He is not mean-spirited, he is not partisan, he just is.

Overcome with emotion by this point, I cannot possibly come up with an adequate way to conclude. So instead I’ll quote Desmond Tutu. Beaming, he told Ferguson, “I think you’re crazy… a different kind of crazy. We want you’re your crazy.” I know I do.