For my money, Craig Ferguson did the best late night talk show of this millennium.
Not as searing and politically astute as Jon Stewart, not the populist cheerleader that Colbert has become, never built for the viral era that Jimmy Fallon and James Corden excel in, he was just good at being funny, flippant and making every interview — even the clunky ones that were never destined to go well — amusing.
You can find his chats from the “Late Late Show” all over Youtube, and many of these are marvels of quick wit, “performed” flirtation (way over the top, immunizing him from #MeToo, but they probably wouldn’t fly today) and bemused empathy.
Any model or starlet booked on the show had to be prepared for a level of joking around that could either make him, the burlesquing lech, or her look dizzy and foolish. It was usually him, no matter how dim the interviewee might seem.
An addict who recognized a drowning woman’s cries for help, he told people to back off Britney Spears. And after some grousing, they did.
I especially adored his conversations with his fellow Scots and sympathetic Irish — Billy Connolly, Ewan, Gerard Butler, Kelly MacDonald et al.
He seemed unusually good at things Letterman and Leno and all who followed them lost, the ability to listen and have a conversation. Colbert might get there, if he can get away from his note cards. Fallon, Kimmel, Conan and Noah are all poor interviewers, although Noah can summon up the seriousness necessary for big subjects and Colbert can be tough when he’s not phoning it in.
And we’d all kind of like to see how Samantha Bee might handle a full bore conversation show, and not one in the Oliver/Bee rant “reporting” style.
Ferguson’s done a legitimate memoir, “American By Choice,” which came out during his run on late night. “Riding the Elephant” is a collection or memories and musings in a philosophical line, anecdotes about the first member of his peer group who was facing early death, about how action hero and amateur pilot Kurt Russell read an earlier book of Craig’s and decided he was a “control freak” who didn’t really fear flying (and was right, apparently), and helped him get flying lessons.
Ferguson muses on psychotherapy, religion, running the table (almost) from “that ludicrous” “E-Meter” to “GuyWhoseNAmeYouCan’tEvenSay (not Voldemort)”, and the weight of growing up in Scotland and the UK, which he surmises has suffered through a century-long malaise thanks to the incredible losses the country endured in “The Great War,” World War I.
Yes, he had a near #MeToo scare, involving that very flirty/naughty interviewing “technique.” “Ribald,”he calls it, and the women who engage in it with him seem to agree.
He’s always most on point talking about addiction, his own alcoholism and the assorted “helpers” who pointed this out to him and finally convinced him to turn all that around. Like a lot of addicts, he presumes expertise and can be wearing in his self help sermonizing.
Sexual experiences, breaking out of being a bad punk drummer to become a bad standup before he got to be good at it, a Princess Diana anecdote, blistering criticism of what Britain’s royal family has really done to the country (ruined it ever becoming a “meritocracy,” for starters), the downside of “Fame” as we see it today, fan encounters — a lot of insightful riffs are packed into the anecdotes, and some sentiment that seems more Irish than Scots, if you buy into stereotypes. Which we dooooo.
He’s a marvelously dry anecdote relator and storyteller, so this is a breezy read.
We learn what “Bingo Wings” (arm flaps of women of a no-longer-sleeveless age) and “Hogmanay” (New Year’s Eve) are in his native tongue, and get a dizzy sampling of Scots conversation, written in dialect.
An encounter with a Glasgow drunk, after his own sobriety and fame, written in dialect, is a Glaswegian hoot.
“Ah’ve never seen yer stoopit American shooo oan the telly!”
He reiterates that he was bailing out of the talk show before Letterman announced his retirement, that he had no interest in the earlier gig, and was relieved to be rid of the one he had. Unlike the ever-shrinking Conan, he got out of it with a bit of dignity intact.
And he touchingly recollects his Peak Year, 2008, when it all went right — a year punctuated with his third (still going) marriage, the death of his mother, and one of his worst sets ever — in Atlantic City, New Year’s Eve, in the middle of a blizzard.
I interviewed him several times over the years, about an indie film he’d made (pre-“Late Late Show”), in conjunction with one of his “Don’t give a f— any more” stand up performances in Orlando during the run of the late night show and when he was offered up by a studio to talk about those “How to Train Your Dragon” movies, one of the few authentic Scots in that Scots-flavored Viking cartoon trilogy.
He was funny and biting and so profane he was hard to quote on a family newspaper, the potty mouthed haggis-shagging tosser.
He’s a self-taught wit, well-read high school drop out and I’d say turns an elegant phrase on the page, just enough profanity for Scots-shock value, even when bragging about hosting the July 4 concert in Boston for CBS, featuring the Boston Pops and later, Neil Diamond.
“He put his hand on my shoulder! ‘Reaching out…touchin’ me…touchin’ you…,” which means, no matter what you may achieve in your life, I’ll always be that little bit more awesome than you.”