For 10 years Craig Ferguson quietly led a rebellion against late night TV. It wasn’t a particularly influential rebellion, nor was it a well-watched one. But throughout his tenure, Ferguson displayed admirably little interest in following the rules of what late night TV should be. He preferred instead to push the boundaries of what it could be. With a sense of humor that oscillated from lowbrow to highbrow at the drop of a hat, Ferguson was somehow the most cynical and the most optimistic host on TV. It felt like anything could happen on the endearingly low-budget The Late Late Show. And even Ferguson never seemed to know what was coming. On Monday’s show the host jumped from a dick joke to a discussion of Charles Dickens’ socialist leanings back to another dick joke within the span of the show’s cold open. That’s hardly what one expects from late night banter.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ferguson’s brand of humor wasn’t for everyone. The Late Late Show never drew anywhere near as many viewers as its competitors, nor as much attention in the pop culture zeitgeist. Stephen Colbert’s celebrity-filled exit from The Colbert Report made headlines, while Ferguson’s departure was a much quieter affair—although no less celebrity-filled. The likes of William Shatner, Rashida Jones, Marion Cotillard, Matthew McConaughey, Weird Al Yankovic, Lisa Kudrow, and Samuel L. Jackson saluted the host in a musical montage set to “Bang Your Drum” by Scottish indie band Dead Man Fall. The pre-recorded video then transitioned into a joyful live performance with Ferguson singing atop his desk. It’s an opening that likely brought tears to the eyes of many long time fans, myself included.
Really the only thing marring this otherwise excellent last week of shows was final guest Jay Leno—the human embodiment of the late night conventions Ferguson has spent a decade rejecting. While the two gentlemen got along just fine, it was a rather odd way to wrap up Ferguson’s mold-breaking tenure.
Perhaps because of his past as a punk rock drummer, Ferguson brought an air of insubordination to his show. He regularly insulted CBS and enjoyed swearing profusely just to annoy the censors. He stood uncomfortably close to the camera during his opening monologue and invited celebrities to end their interviews with an “awkward pause.” He’d set up a segment about reading viewer emails only to suddenly throw them all away and do an improvised bit with his skeleton robot cohost Geoff Peterson (voiced by the immensely talented Josh Robert Thompson, who made a well deserved onscreen appearance on Thursday). When a recurring bit involving puppets got too popular, Ferguson decided to retire it—much to the chagrin of fans—for fear the comedy was no longer as fresh (although not before he did a puppet-hosted show to celebrate his 1,000th episode).
It’s easy to mistake Ferguson’s devil-may-care persona for ingratitude. He dubbed his final string of shows “Craig’s Last Week In This Dump” and proudly announced, “We haven’t cared since 2008.” But it’s clear Ferguson cares very deeply. Above all he wanted to use his platform to put some good into the world. Sometimes that meant doing something wildly silly, like dancing with two guys in a horse costume. And other times that meant doing something wildly humanistic, like inviting Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak about apartheid (Ferguson won a Peabody Award for that 2009 episode).
If a 10-year-career can be summarized in a single moment, Ferguson’s came on February 19, 2007. After a bald Britney Spears became the butt of every late night joke, Ferguson announced he wouldn’t be making fun of the singer on his show. As a former addict himself who once considered committing suicide, Ferguson argued that the 25-year-old mother of two needed help not insults. He delivered his message with the kind of earnest, funny vulnerability that still remains breathtaking seven years later.
In an age where talk show hosts and guests regularly act out the beats of a previously agreed upon script, Ferguson preferred spontaneous conversations (he symbolic ripped up his note cards at the start of each interview). That allowed the comedian to ask about things that genuinely interested him (seldom the project his guests were promoting) and forced his guests to stay on their toes. So instead of Larry King recounting some well-rehearsed anecdote when he stopped by on Tuesday, he instead started a conversation about Bee Movie and ended up recounting an experience with a poltergeist in Miami. It was the sort of bizarre stream-of-consciousness conversation that could only happen on The Late Late Show. I, for one, will miss having a space for that kind of weirdness on network TV.
Ferguson was never better than when he and a guest really hit it off. Over the years he’s amassed a long list of delightfully off-kilter interviews with recurring guests like Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, Ewan McGregor, and Russell Brand. And for his final week of shows, Ferguson and his longtime producer Michael Naidus (the man Ferguson jokingly accuses of being a racist most nights) stacked the deck with a slew of Ferguson’s favorites. He discussed Icelandic politics with a bearded Jon Hamm, congratulated Tim Meadows on his 42nd appearance on the show (the most of any guest), and discussed aging with Jim Parsons. Betty White stopped by on Wednesday to share the news that a baby hippo had been born at a zoo she works with. To celebrate, Ferguson surprised her with a dancing purple hippo and a choir performing “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas.” A vast majority of the audience was likely confused by the surreal performance, but White was overjoyed. Making one woman happy at the expense of popular appeal? That’s Ferguson in a nutshell.
Right up until the bitter end, Ferguson remained committed to absurdity; he encouraged Geoff to improvise a brand new character for the final show (they wound up with Pipey McPiperson, the talking pipe). In the finale’s closing moments, Bob Newhart and Drew Carey helped Ferguson parody Newhart’s infamous ”it was all a dream” ending. It was a fittingly strange and unexpectedly sentimental end to 2,058 episodes of madness.
Ferguson has plans to launch a new talk show elsewhere (complete with Geoff, Secretariat, and Naidus), but the end of The Late Late Show marks the end of an weird, hilarious, moving, and always excellent era of late night television. Earlier in the week, Ferguson joked that he’d reassured incoming host James Corden by saying, “I’ve left the bar low for you.” Ferguson fans know that isn’t true at all.