It is a bit jarring to watch Craig Ferguson the first time. He stands close to the camera, crowding it and fidgeting, a dark minimalist studio behind him. He touches the camera, prodding it, reaches around it as if tapping your shoulder, but then quickly spins and smacks the camera as if smacking you on the ear. Ferguson has an air of alcoholic madness, of unpredictability and slight Scottish menace (though an ex-alcoholic he seems to permanently channel a stiff buzz) He’s like the most whacked out guy you knew in college, who you hung around just to see what he would to do next — especially when he had some beers in him.
If comedy is about finding an edge to prod our sensibilities, then Ferguson has got razors to spare. He might begin the show operating an alligator puppet and raving with a twisted bayou Scottish accent, or doing a group karaoke to Hanson’s “MMMBop,” or just glaring and blinking at the camera. You get the sense he might not have any writers, that it’s just him winging it. In another bit of minimalist virtuosity he always begins the desk segment by reading e-mails (the most basic talk show form) and consistently turns it into rip roaring fun.
There is something aggressive and egalitarian about him, as might be expected from a former drummer of a punk band. He is also quite unpolitically correct, drawing upon his recent immigrant status for the mantra: It’s a great day for America! His rants have a working class feel. Then he might flash a smooth operator, narcissistic grin and you can’t help but smiling and liking the guy. He has a touch of Johnny Carson — a guy who is purely liked and who knows it.
No one is more skilled at getting more from an interview, or rather, getting more from a guest and making it an encounter, an exchange, something worth waiting on, where something exciting might happen. You’ve got to roll with him and be real. He has no patience for sacred cows and boring shit, and seems to size up guests quickly and decide if they’re his kind of people or not. If not, if he detects a certain proud air, he might give them a hard time. He clearly had Julia Louis Dreyfus on her toes, then ended the interview thirty seconds early, letting her squirm for his entertainment and ours. Refreshingly, he ended a goofy Mitch Albom college football story, by capping it off to his liking and zinging Albom that his way “gave the story some edge.” He tests celebrities to see what they’re made of — thank you! — and is smart enough to keep the upper hand.
Conan O’Brien has made an uncertain beachhead in Hollywood, and seems to be chafing a bit under the weight of the Tonight Show crown; he’s pressing. A bitterness has set in with Letterman, and an annoying political bent. Jimmy Fallon is trying to get noticed, and is doing a lot of dancing. Jay Leno’s ten o’clock gambit is both formulaic and schizophrenic. Of this late night pack, Ferguson is furthest out on the edge and also the funniest. He is worth watching more than the rest.
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