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Late-Night TV Chess: Thanks to a Bishop, Craig Ferguson Is King
March 5, 2009  | By David Bianculli
CRAIG-w-Tutu-know-a-little-.jpgArchbishop Desmond Tutu showed up for an improbable, unprecedented visit to CBS's The Late Late Show with Craig FergusonWednesday. It's the show the Ferguson folks should submit for Emmy consideration this year -- and it's also the show that should end all sensible speculation regarding the late-night TV wars.

I have seen the future of late-night TV, and his name is Craig Ferguson..

I've been enthusiastic about this Scottish import since he first appeared on The Late Late Show -- even before he got the job, when he was one of many guest hosts given on-air tryouts. But what he's done since taking over -- shaping his show, finding his voice, and every so often shifting gears from the silly to the serious -- couldn't really have been predicted by anyone. Probably not even Ferguson himself.

With his quick wit and friendly manner, Ferguson has a gift for putting guests at ease: He's a world-class flirt, but charms men as easily as women. He has note cards on his desk for each interview, but makes a big show of ripping them up at the start, signalling to the audience, and to the guest, that this conversation need not be rigidly managed.


The decision to book Desmond Tutu to counter all the fuss of Jimmy Fallon's opening week as Conan O'Brien's replacement on NBC's Late Night is, in itself, all you need to know about Ferguson. It's not going to get the ratings, not this week -- but it should get lots of attention. In any case, it makes a very strong statement that Ferguson's talk-show sandbox, on occasion, is big enough to accommodate adults.

Ferguson isn't the first late-night host to conduct lengthy, serious conversations with important guests outside of show business. That would have been Steve Allen. Then Jack Paar, whose conversational style Ferguson most emulates. Both of them made room for special shows featuring politicians, poets, physicists , artists and others. And, more recently, Johnny Carson (on occasion, as with Carl Sagan on astronomy), Dick Cavett, Tom Snyder, Bob Costas and David Letterman.

Right now, Letterman's the only other one in late-night, besides Ferguson, who could interview Tutu competently. Letterman's recent interview with the U.S. Airways "Miracle on the Hudson" crew demonstrated that he's still got strong skills when he wants to tackle serious topics, and talk to people outside the normal Hollywood orbit.

But Ferguson did much more than that, something unique and invaluable. From the very start, he let the studio and home audience know that this visit by Tutu was something different, and special. Then he did an off-the-cuff lengthy monologue that amounted to nothing less than an entertaining, understandable, shockingly thorough history of South African politics and colonization.

It's easy to recognize Ferguson as a natural entertainer, but in Wednesday's show, I saw something new: He's a natural teacher as well. What a wonderful lecture, putting the next guest, and the issues they were about to discuss, in perfect perspective. The best lectures don't feel like lectures, but like stories, and Ferguson told his chosen stories beautifully, punctuated by very funny asides and jokes.


And when Tutu came out, the Archbishop laughed when Ferguson ripped up his note cards, and giggled with glee even before Ferguson asked his first question. "You're crazy," Tutu told him, but with an admiring tone. An Archbishop may not often be greeted with such breezy irreverence -- and it may be just as rare to be talking to someone with such a comfortably conversational command of such topics as religion, politics, history, marriage, faith and forgiveness, all of which Tutu and Ferguson discussed for the rest of the show.

I can think of three times when an interview on a TV talk show has proven inspirational, to me, almost beyond measure. The first was when Bill Moyers interviewed mythologist Joseph Campbell on PBS. The second was when a dying Dennis Potter, author of The Singing Detective, was interviewed on British TV and spoke about treasuring life. (In this country, Letterman's final interview with Warren Zevon, with his advice to savor every sandwich, is a rough analogue.)

Ferguson's talk with Tutu ranks as the third.

"Have you found out how powerful telling one's story can be?" Tutu asked Ferguson at one point.

"A little bit, yeah," Ferguson replied. "I know a little bit about that."

Ferguson could have elaborated, and explained to Tutu that he has come out on his TV show, at certain times, to drop the jokes and speak seriously and honestly: about his past alcoholism, the death of his father and the death of his mother, to name just three unforgettably powerful TV hours. But he didn't. He let Tutu keep going. The show, that night, wasn't about Craig Ferguson -- and knowing that was what made it so fabulous.


Near the end, Ferguson asked Tutu about his reaction to the election of Barack Obama. Tutu danced in his chair, told a story, then made a remark that Ferguson politely challenged, ending the show on a marvelous discussion about American foreign policy and perception.


Well, almost ending it. The show actually ended, as usual these days, with "What Did We Learn on the Show Tonight, Craig?," a segment in which the host removes his tie, puts his feet on his desk, and summarizes the preceding hour of TV.


Usually, it's nonsense -- but on this occasion, there was a palpable sense of awe, and maybe even an understandable undercurrent of pride.

"That," Ferguson said of Tutu, "is the single most impressive human being I have ever met."

Everyone interested in the late-night TV wars must seek out an online replay of this hour with Tutu. CBS should replay it in prime time, as a substitution for one of its Saturday night reruns. Or pre-empt The Amazing Race for a week and replay the "Tutu Talk" right after 60 Minutes, where the audience, and the flow-through, would be perfect.

To me, though, Wednesday's show marks the end of the late-night chess match. Thanks to the bishop, Ferguson should be crowned the new king. All the other newcomers and contenders are just late-Knights. Or pawns.





Nancy Benstead said:

A great show. Further proof that Mr. Ferguson is much more than he appears.

Comment posted on March 5, 2009 11:39 AM

Rosie said:

Thank you. I've not watched this show yet, but will tonight as I have it TiVo'd - as I do every Craig Ferguson show. It is very nice to see someone else truly appreciate what this man brings to TV, especially late night TV.

Comment posted on March 5, 2009 3:03 PM

Greg Kibitz said:

Can't help but agree with you.

Ferguson so finely tread that fine line between making some funnies and drawing out a bit of Tutu's lighter side and keeping it serious and infinitely meaningful. The kind of line that Letterman and even Leno have tread so well for so many years and yet in a way even better. The sort of fine line that Stewart and Colbert sometimes tread but often fall short.

As much as I love Colbert, he seems to hide behind his silly asinine character far too much at times when he really should be more serious. Most guests just go with it but at times I can see real frustration from this or that guest. And sometimes this may be the only time I may see that guest so I want something real from them without having to wait for them to come on Charlie Rose.

Stewart tends to be better in that regard, but all too often he can't seem to help but resort to the purile joke in a clutch. Not that there is anything so wrong with that but sometimes when you are interviewing very serious folks you need to have a very serious interview (only peppered with a bit of humor to set them at ease), even if you are on Comedy Central. Sometimes Stewart does hit the mark but as with Sandra Day O'Connor the other night (for instance), I felt he fell a bit short.

As to Fallon, I watched that too last night and it was mostly a train wreck (except maybe the dance off and that fabulous Save the Banker Video). His number one problem from start to finish was timing, timing, timing. (Not that I could even do half as good as he does but) He keeps rushing like a nervous child. He steps on his own punch lines and he jumps from one bit to another before we the audience even have a chance to take things in.

I don't think there was in essence anything wrong with the bits he did. I can imagine those same bits on Conan et al. It all seemed to be a problem of execution and timing. The simple use of effective reading of the text and then the proper pauses but he just can't seem to do it anywhere as well as he did when he did Weekend Update. I think that only worked because of the tag team thing he did with Fey. As we all know, Tina has perfect timing and I think she brought out Jimmy's best.

Worst of all are Fallon's attempts to bring members of the audience in to do things that really require trained and seasoned professionals. Sad (but true) but few of us can even read off of cards when randomly brought in front of cameras on national TV. So why even try?

The only thing that seem to work for Fallon is when he interviews someone that he already has a personal relationship with. But even then I feel more like an outsider in a private club, a voyeur if you will, than just another person at the party listening to the popular kids shoot the s--t. And based on what I saw with DeNiro, I fear that when Jimmy has to start interviewing those he does not know, it will all fall to pieces.

Of course, maybe this is all just transitional and Fallon will improve. One can only hope. But if I had some advice for NBC, I would have done what CBS did when greedy Kilborn quit and run many weeks of on air auditions and maybe just maybe they can find their Craig Ferguson too.

Comment posted on March 5, 2009 3:12 PM

Sally W. said:

I really enjoyed Craig Ferguson's interview with Archbishop Tutu. Plus, I thought that Archbishop Tutu had such great spirit to be on too - it just made for great tv.

Comment posted on March 7, 2009 1:00 AM

Robert said:

Thank you for pointing this out. it was fantastic.

When they ran out of time, Craig should have kept taping to play another day. It was too good to stop.

For those that missed it, it's available on the CBS web site, that's where I watched it.

Comment posted on March 9, 2009 12:24 PM
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