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Late Night Prepares to Shift Again, And Ferguson Already Is Experimenting
February 24, 2010  | By David Bianculli

tonight-show-leno-10-M01.jpgMonday evening, after the Olympics are over, Jay Leno will return to NBC's The Tonight Show, and is bringing a pair of Olympic medal winners with him on opening night. Meanwhile, as Leno plans to return with a big splash, another late-night TV host is quietly experimenting, with no advance publicity whatsoever...

Craig Ferguson, on Tuesday night's Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson on CBS, quietly tried something new. For him, anyway, though it actually was something old. He did away with the studio audience, and talked intimately with his guest (in this case, actor-writer-comic Stephen Fry) just as Tom Snyder had before him.

Leno first. The former and next Tonight Show host, after weeks of laying low, has used NBC's Olympic platform to trumpet his new late-night lineup. For anyone with Olympic fever, Monday's show, featuring Lindsey Vonn, is a big draw. Tuesday's is an even bigger catch, with Sarah Palin appearing -- and she gets to enjoy the added benefit of appearing opposite Leno's rival and her nemesis, David Letterman.


And later in the opening stretch, The Tonight Show offers a mock game show featuring certain cast members of MTV's Jersey Shore, including the infamous Snooki. No getting around it: That's three more reasons to watch Jay Leno, out of simple curiosity value, than he gave us the last few months of his prime-time Jay Leno Show.

Over on CBS, Letterman is presenting original shows, and featuring such guests as Jerry Seinfeld, who was leno's inaugural prime-time guest. But if Conan O'Brien is going to appear, even as a silent cameo, no word has leaked as of yet.

But offically, the latest round of the late-night wars begin Monday. Give it two weeks for viewership to find its own level, and for us -- and NBC and CBS -- to learn if, and how much, Leno's prime-time failure will cost him in his late-night rebirth.


Meanwhile, Craig Ferguson, without any advance fanfare, devoted Tuesday night's hour to a single guest with no audience. It had an intriguing feel, robbing Ferguson of his usual double entendre asides to the audience, but allowing for an even more free-flowing conversational path than usual. He and Fry talked about American vs. British attitudes, the success of Fry's old comedy partner Hugh Laurie, bipolar disorder and cocaine abuse, and so, so much more.

At the end, Ferguson confessed to being uneasy and awkward, especially at first. Yet many of his now-signature bits, including post-show loosed-tie wrapups and hand puppets, began as off-the-cuff one-shot experiments.


Ferguson would be unwise to scrap or revamp his talk-show format at this point for a no-audience version -- he's too funny for that. But it's a nice change, a distinctive wrinkle, and shows him off in a way that most of his rivals would be ill-equipped to emulate. Why not keep trying the no-audience thing for a while, but only once a week -- as, say, a series of Casual Friday specials?


On those production days when The Late Late Show takes two shows nightly, having one of them be audience-free could be a logistical boon as well as a stylistic shift and emotional lift. At least, at any rate, Craig Ferguson is juiced enough to try something new, and challenge himself.

Over the next few weeks, we'll see if that applies to Lay Leno as well...




Thank you David for covering Craig Ferguson's attempt at experimental television. To me it was a very interesting and engrossing hour of television. Having grown up in the 90s I have only known talk shows that have the same tired standard of monologue and multiple guests (Jon Stewart having done the best with this format). I hope Ferguson continues taking bold steps like hour long conservations with a single guest without an audience, no side kick and of course puppets and robot skeleton armies!

Comment posted on February 24, 2010 9:58 PM

Sally W. said:

I caught a little bit of the Craig Ferguson interview of Stephen Fry. I'm a bit of a Fry fan anyway (Fry and Hugh Laurie - got to love them as one of the best comic duos from the other side of the Atlantic!), and thought that their interview was really fascinating and so erudite (Fry has quite a mind).

I like your idea about Craig doing a different format once in awhile (I really enjoyed his interview with Desmond Tutu - it was such a refreshing thing to see on network television, and so rare too). I don't think it should hurt Craig at all to do it, and it would make him very unique among the late night folk (and he's already pretty terrific as it is!).

Comment posted on February 24, 2010 10:32 PM

Carina said:

Oh, Craig gave us advanced notice, you just had to be following him on Twitter, which is where he dropped the news.

[True -- but I presume he'll settle down soon about his skeleton robot Twitter army, and post less, and enjoy it more. I was referring to TELEVISION promotion, but you're absolutely right. -- David B.]

Comment posted on February 24, 2010 10:51 PM

Bear said:

Once again Craig entertains us in a very smart way with fantastic guests. Ferguson is so much better than any other Leno or Letterman combined. I hope he will do the same kind of interview with Hugh Laurie in the near future. Now if PBS could get the Fry & Laurie TV series on Saturdays as British funnies that would be the cherry on top.

Comment posted on February 24, 2010 11:24 PM

Shauna said:

I just went home at lunch and watched the first half of this show from my dvr. I was first turned onto Craig by you when you blogged about his puppet show episode and I've had him on my dvr ever since. I don't watch every single one, but I do like watching him a couple of times a week for something that feels much less uptight and tense than the other talk shows. I loved his references to Tom Snyder because my brother and I used to stay up late to watch his show as young teenagers (yes, really) and we always enjoyed his simple, straightforward talk. I think that Craig can take a similar style and make it a little bit funnier and more modern and still have the same basic feel. The once-a-week suggestion is spot on because we certainly don't want him to lose his other strong point which is the human interaction with his live audience.

Comment posted on February 25, 2010 1:28 PM

Mac said:

The Leno part of the story has a certain degree of fascination. Really no one there worth spending any time time for me. Most sports figures (including 98% of the Olympics) have few people worth a chat. Palin? Letterman's jokes at the same time could prove more interesting. Doesn't she get it that McFarlane wasn't making fun of her child (hey,he was EMPLOYING an actor who is also autistic to do the voiceover-this from a guy who employs a white guy to voiceover a black guy). McFarlane was making fun of St.Sarah, patron Saint of the Humorless and Thinskinned. And Jay won't do anything but give her a bigger platform (network TV vs. O'Reilly's cable spinfest) and throw softballs. Musical guests include Brad Paisley, a competent current country throb, but no edge here. Letterman has showcased Melody Gardot while Ferguson recently had Patty Griffin and Nellie McKay - nowhere near the marquee names of a Paisley,but each lightyears more interesting. Leno has Morgan Freeman during the first week, but Charlie Rose brought out the serious Freeman a few weeks ago and Ferguson let Morgan cuss up a storm on pseudo promos (the CBS News one should be the real take). Leno will do neither. Same old, same old, followed by Lorne Michael's throwaway hour with Jimmy Fallon. NBC - No Body Cares.

Comment posted on February 25, 2010 1:48 PM
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