Photo: Join Or Die With Craig Ferguson (History Channel)
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For almost a decade Craig Ferguson hosted one of the most secretly subversive shows on TV—a late night network talk show that openly flaunted its insubordination. Defined equally by its juvenile sense of humor (like a cussing bunny puppet) and its penchant for intellectualism (the show won a Peabody for an episode featuring Archbishop Desmond Tutu discussing apartheid), The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson reflected its host’s humanistic point of view as well as his cheeky, punk rock demeanor.

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Fans of Ferguson’s Late Late Show will feel right at home with his new History Channel panel show, Join Or Die With Craig Ferguson. Each episode opens with a meandering monologue almost identical to the one Ferguson used to deliver on CBS every night. From there the rest of the half-hour show leans more heavily on the British chat show format than the American talk show one; Ferguson sits down with three guests—generally an expert and two comedians/celebrities—to discuss a historical topic. Presented with six options competing for a particular superlative (tonight “History’s Biggest Political Blunder” and “History’s Worst Medical Advice”), the panel narrows the field down to two contenders and the studio audience votes on the winner. But while Ferguson effortlessly transports his impish sense of humor to this new format, Join Or Die struggles to create a compelling reason for viewers to tune in each week.

Ferguson has described Join Or Die as his attempt to have “a genuine discussion which could be in turns funny, moving, shocking, interesting, flippant, frivolous and deadly serious.” Right now, however, Join Or Die is too focused on being funny, flippant, and frivolous to fulfill the rest of its mission statement. To be sure the show offers more thoughtful historical discussions than say, History Channel perennials like Pawn Stars or Ancient Aliens, but viewers aren’t likely to pick up more than a few tidbits of knowledge from Join Or Die’s casual conversations.

That’s especially true of tonight’s premiere in which PR expert Howard Bragman, comedian Jen D’Angelo, and late show host Jimmy Kimmel discuss the six relatively minor recent political scandals up for the title of “History’s Biggest Political Blunder.” While students of history might point to Neville Chamberlain appeasing Hitler, Jimmy Carter’s handling of the Iran Hostage Crisis, or Watergate as notable political blunders, Join Or Die can only come up with the likes of Larry Craig’s bathroom solicitation, Christine O’Donnell’s discussion of witchcraft, and Dick Cheney’s hunting accident. The crown eventually goes to Eliot Spitzer’s prostitution scandal—something even the panelist agree doesn’t come close to being the worst political blunder of the century, let alone of all time.

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There’s frustratingly little rhyme or reason to how the options are winnowed down—which Ferguson openly acknowledges throughout the show—with Rod Blagojevich’s bribes getting a pass because “that’s just Illinois politics.” At its best, the show weaves together a larger analysis of disparate historical events, such as in the second episode when “Science” Bob Pflugfelder points out that both lobotomies and pulling teeth to cure mental illness were championed by charismatic figures, which lent legitimacy to the dubious procedures. But at its worse, the panelists sound like ill-informed college students speculating on topics they half glanced over in a textbook. That off-the-cuff style worked well enough when Ferguson happened to stumble upon a meaty topic with one of his Late Late Show guests. But a show billed as an intellectual debate should at least provide as much information as a Wikipedia summary. Right now Join Or Die is only occasionally rising to that level.

On his recent appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Ferguson admitted that he felt Join Or Die was a little too timid about delving into history and hoped the show would broaden its horizons in the future. (Even in trying to sell his show to a mass audience, Ferguson can’t help but be blunt.) Tonight’s second episode course corrects a bit, moving away from American politics to discuss bizarre medical advice from throughout the ages. Again the analysis isn’t particularly in-depth, but Pflugfelder at least offers up some interesting trivia between the jokes—including showing off a bizarre electrical placebo from the 1920s. And Chris Hardwick’s intellectual enthusiasm is a good match for Ferguson’s cynical delivery.

Join Or Die is the kind of show that lives or dies by its panel members and while the show is understandably trying to stack the deck with famous faces (upcoming guests include Judd Apatow, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Jack Black, and Jay Leno), the decision to have three comedy-focused panelists (including Ferguson) and only one expert leaves the conversations feeling feather light. Either adding more experts to the panel or changing the dynamic so that the celebrities ask questions of the expert rather than stating ill-researched opinions would go a long way towards giving the show some historical heft. Thankfully, Ferguson at least keeps the conversation moving smoothly with his genuine sense of intellectual curiosity. And to its credit Join Or Die does offer a solid joke or two every few minutes, such as Ferguson referring to an ineffectual medical cure-all as “the coconut water of its day.”

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Admittedly it took the Late Late Show a while to find its feet and its possible Join Or Die will carve out a stronger voice as it goes along. There’s potential in the format, if the show is willing to cut back on the riffing and commit to actually discussing the topics at hand. Join Or Die has reportedly already filmed 22 episodes, including scintillating topics such as “Most Influential Band,” “Greatest Founding Father,” and “History’s Biggest Frenemies.” But as it stands, the real draw is for those eager to have Ferguson—and his jokes about the physical similarities between Paul McCartney and Angela Lansbury—back on their TV screens.