Tuesday, April 12, 2005

A better Craig

For those of you who go to bed at normal hours, this post does not apply.

In January, with decidedly little fanfare or promotion, CBS installed a new permanent host of The Late Late Show -- the post-Letterman talker. After Craig Kilborn (formerly of ESPN and The Daily Show) ended his five-year run at LLS last September, the CBS suits rotated a bunch of stand-ins and potential candidates for the remainder of the year. The final candidates included Michael Ian Black (quirky comedian, you may have seen him on Ed), D.L. Hughley (The Hughleys, Original Kings of Comedy), and Damien Fahey (Total Request Live, post-Carson Daly).

The winner was Craig Ferguson: a Glasgow-born comedian who is well-known in the UK and western Europe, but whose only recognition in the US was as Nigel Wick on the Drew Carey Show. Ferguson took the job without the three weeks of rehearsals typical of the format -- instead, he popped out shows with only his trial runs months earlier for practice.

So here's a small tribute to Ferguson: he is at worst the third-best late night talk show host already (after Letterman and Leno, better than Conan and Kimmel), and he's only in his third month.

Why? First, he's quick and funny without the goofball tactics when interviewing guests. Second, he's a better interviewer than the rest of the bunch because he does not stick to talking points or promotional garbage and instead goes for what interests him (and the guests have given him EXTREMELY high marks). Third, what interests him will appeal to a broad cross-section of the population because he is a fairly regular guy: middle-age, has a son and a friendly relationship with his ex-wife, has had his own troubles (recovering alcoholic, struggling comedian), and is engaged by a variety of things. He's a normal American Joe who speaks with a mild Scottish accent. Fourth, Ferguson doesn't just book the star-and-singer types, he's interviewed authors, movie directors, screenwriters and human interest stories.

Some examples of Ferguson's unique guests: Last month, he interviewed the first legally blind competitor in the Alaskan Iditarod. Last night, his musical guest was Hensley -- an UNSIGNED group that he saw in a club and asked to appear on the show, something that is unheard of for network TV (and they didn't suck). Best of all, Ferguson's ratings are better than Kilby's were overall, and especially among men over 25 and women.

Sure, there have been bumps in the road, the format largely is still the standard monologue-comedy bit-interview-interview-music/comedian routine, his set is a Letterman/Conan chair-chair-desk variant, and some of the pre-interview comedy has been weak. But Ferguson is approaching the Carsonesque equivalent of the Bob Costas vehicle from the late '80s, Later, where the real focus is on the guests and the interviews, which are generally high-quality, not on the first 15 minutes' worth of nonsense.

Good stuff.

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