Ferguson plays coy. He makes the most of the freedom he's afforded… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)
The most interesting person on late-night television is a 47-year-old Scottish reformed alcoholic high-school dropout, drummer, actor, comic and novelist named Craig Ferguson, who since 2005 has been hosting "The Late Late Show," which follows David Letterman's "Late Show" on CBS. He is not the only talk show host whose work I like, or even the only one I'm tempted to call a genius -- the other would be Letterman, whose Worldwide Pants produces Ferguson's program -- but he's doing something that, though constructed within the recognizable parameters of a late-night American comedy talk show, is all his own thing: personal and free, mindless of rules and yet in control of the medium. It is direct and intimate in a way that hearkens back to earlier, less frilly days of television, and it is also hilarious.
There has been a "war" in late night, as you certainly have heard -- well, not so much a war as a schoolyard brawl between one of the older boys, Jay, and one of the younger ones, Conan, that saw the former transferred and the latter expelled. Catcalls flew in from the sidelines, but Ferguson, though he has had some fun at the expense of NBC, who whipped up the fight in the first place, has remained basically neutral as regards the combatants. He also likes to say that he is not exactly in the same game as they are. "I know this isn't really a late-night talk show," he told his viewers recently, "it's just something that happens about the same time." The truth is, he really isn't in the same game.
Time slot, as much as viewership, is how importance is measured in late night: The later your start, the fewer people left awake to watch you, the less you matter in the world that defines success by numbers. Conan O'Brien's insistence that a show that began at 12:05 was by definition not "The Tonight Show" was, among other things, a matter of chronological status: It meant that he'd be competing not against Letterman but Jimmy Kimmel.
Ferguson goes on even later, at 12:35 a.m., and though he has been regularly mentioned as a likely successor to Letterman, he seems in no rush to see his boss retire.
"I have no ambitions beyond being comfortable in what I do for a living -- and earning a living," he said recently in his office at CBS' Television City, where "The Late Late Show" tapes in a surprisingly small, converted photo studio. He was stretched out on a couch, beneath a plane's-eye-view of a landing strip. (He earned a pilot's license to conquer a fear of flying.) He was naturally more muted than when he is being "TV's Craig Ferguson," as he introduces himself on air, but he is volubly passionate about maintaining the independence and the integrity of his work.
"We have no promotion, we've got no money -- it's the cheapest budget of any of the late-night shows -- probably Carson Daly's too. We get nothing. But we do have a huge advantage in that they let us do what we want. And I would take that trade."
Like no other
What Ferguson does is not so much make lemons into lemonade as exploit the actual properties of the lemon itself. He has no band, no sidekick. (He will "sidekick himself" as the need arises.) "What it feels like on this show," he said, "is that all the kids are by the riverbank fishing and I have a stick with a piece of string and a bent hook and the rest have fantastic equipment, but every now and again I catch a fish, to the surprise of everyone else -- and me."
Yet the lack of amenities is also the foundation of an aesthetic, refined into something relaxed and strange and -- though it can involve shark puppets and a frightening impersonation of Larry King -- pure. Ferguson's set has grown simpler since he started: It's empty enough now to play Beckett on, just a couple of chairs and a desk empty but for a mug in the shape of a coiled rattlesnake.
What fills the space is Ferguson himself, mostly as himself, though sometimes in costume and sometimes at the unseen end of a hand puppet. He carries the show from first to last, a protean excursion that begins with his customary "It's a great day for America" and ends with the question "What did we learn on the show tonight, Craig?" or "¿Qué aprendimos en el programa, Señor Craig?" since his vow to learn enough Spanish to do a whole show in that language by the end of this year. What happens in between will be done in a variety of voices and attitudes, in colliding waves of sense and nonsense.