Sunday, January 17, 2010

Jay Leno or Conan O'Brien? How about the Tonight Show with Craig Ferguson?

With NBC late-night airing its dirty laundry for the past week, everyone has been piling on Jay Leno and Carson Daly, as my last post, Tonight Show - Leno or Conan?, shows. Oddly, both shows have been doing fine for NBC, raking in cash even at reduced ratings due to their relative cheapness.

Carson Daly's influence with younger viewers is underrated and despite airing ninety minutes later, he often gets ratings close to the suddenly-relevant-again Jimmy Kimmel. The Leno Show's ratings were more than high enough to keep it profitable simply because it cost a fraction of five ten p.m. dramas.

But ultimately, this new war for late-night's most coveted time slot has revealed cracks in the talk show format itself. I confess, I can comfortably watch Letterman, especially when he's pissed off about something and Conan is a writer's comic, with a terrific appreciation of what has gone before and a delightful sense of the surreal. But they're still doing the same thing over and over.

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are not headlining talk shows per se, they're lampooning the news and serving a healthy dose of satire every weeknight.

The Boston Globe describes hilariously, vicious comic Chelsea Handler's show on E! as turning "celebrity-watching into a blood sport for laughs." I find Chelsea absolutey hilarious. But she's so relentless and (let's face it) mean spirited I only catch her once or twice a month.

So who's left?

Why, my one, late-night, talk show, true love, standing proud and true - The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson.

Night after night Ferguson takes giddy delight in his show and that energy is contagious. The difference is evident even in terms of his monologue, a much more personalized experience than those delivered by his peers. Ferguson treats the viewers and his studio audience like his mates, inviting us all to join in the fun in a playful, conspiratorial tone. Ferguson doesn't hit his mark the way others hosts do, choosing instead to resist the formality of a stationary delivery.

The camera is raised several inches above eye level, looking down on Craig with, I think, a wide angle lens so we see the set behind him. This allows Ferguson to look up at the camera and the audience and keep his notes out of site below. But it also allows him to move around in the frame, sometimes backing away and sometimes leaning right into the lens to mug or share some some tid-bit, just between himself and several million of his dearest friends.

Craig's delight in comedy is infectious and he's tremendously skilled at keeping you on your toes. He can zoom from serious to silly in a snap and keep you riveted. Recently, the Philidelphia Weekly's Cup O' Joel blog summed up Craig better than I ever could in this post - Screw Jay Leno and meh to Conan O'Brien: watch Craig Ferguson instead.

The honesty in Ferguson's meandering, storytelling comic style draws you in. And how many talk show hosts would choose to do as candid a monologue as Ferguson's President's Day appeal from one comic to his audience and one alcoholic to any alcoholic who may be watching? Now, how many comics could do it and still score real, deserved laughs?


But hey, don't take my word for it. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu agrees, Craig Ferguson is crazy. No fooling.

I rest my case and will turn over the final comments to Mr. Ferguson himself.

In this monologue from last week Craig puts this late night flap into perspective.

Live the adventure.