Goodbye to Craig Ferguson and his robot skeleton sidekick

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There was a brouhaha a little while ago about shake-ups in the late-night-television world. Leno was leaving, Fallon was replacing him; Letterman was leaving; Colbert was replacing him. I watched a little bit of Fallon, enough to know that his fawning would always grate on my nerves. Colbert I watch a lot, but he’s taking on a new persona for the late-night gig.


With all that going on, it was easy to miss the announcement that Craig Ferguson would be wrapping up his “Late Late Show” in December. Some speculated that his departure might be related to his not getting the Letterman job, but he says he made his decision before Letterman’s announcement.


He gets a $5 million bump from his network, CBS, because he didn’t get the Letterman show, so don’t cry for me, Argentina. He has a lot of options: He’s a writer, an actor, a musician (he was a drummer in a punk band), a game show host. Plus, he always has stand-up, at which he is quite good.


Not as good as he is in the show, however. Of all the late-night hosts I’ve seen, he makes me laugh the most. Steve Allen on his old Westinghouse show was good, Letterman was good for a while and then he wasn’t, Johnny was Johnny. I never did get the cult of Carson; I got what people liked about him, his timing and his quick counterpuncher’s ripostes, but he never made me laugh.


Ferguson makes me laugh. I don’t have time to watch him, and I often don’t remember to TiVo him. But I decided to take another peek, and he still makes me laugh.


He has a robot skeleton, an Ed McMahon figure made of an advanced plastic and sporting a metal Mohawk. He is in fact an animatronic robot skeleton, designed by Grant Imahara of “MythBusters” fame. His name is Geoff Peterson. He is voiced by Josh Robert Thompson, who does voices in cartoons and video games.


Thompson is very funny; his interactions with Ferguson (100 percent improvised, he says) are surreal. They do a kind of stream-of-consciousness humor, building through repetition to a conclusion they probably didn’t know was there. It’s a nightly virtuoso performance, occasionally vulgar – vulgar is sort of a given on “The Late Late Show” – and often just weird. But funny.


And of course, one partner in the comedy duo is a robot skeleton. That does lend an edge to the proceedings.


Ferguson also has a pantomime horse named Secretariat. Occasionally the horse dances, but he is always mute. And that’s it: a robot skeleton, a pantomime horse and Ferguson either prowling the stage or sitting behind a big desk. It looks as if the budget is about 17 cents.


Ferguson does a monologue every night – he has not escaped that convention of the late-night talk show template – and often the jokes are pretty lame. None of the show’s writers are as good as Ferguson taking off into unexplored comic territory, which he does frequently.


He talks about the immigrant experience (he’s from Scotland, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen eight years ago) and about his long-term sobriety. He mentions his checkered past frequently, and has talked about his brush with suicide before he stopped drinking.


But he’s not really being confessional; all of that biographical material is just on the way to a joke or a frisson of recognition. Mostly he wants to play with language. Mostly he wants to twinkle around, using pauses and catchphrases and strange new insights to form a kind of fantasy web of comedy.


His approach to interviews is similarly improvisational. He ostentatiously tears up the interview cards that have possible topics to ask about. “I do it to indicate my contempt for the medium,” he said just last week.


He certainly knows what his guests are out there for – for the usual reason, to promote a TV show, a movie, a book, a boxed DVD set – and they get their say, their plug. The rest of the conversation can be about anything.


He is comfortable with awkward pauses. He is in his element when the conversation peters out and the guest has nowhere to take it. As every interviewer has learned, silence is a good thing – it often makes people rush into the gap, to say almost anything to get the conversation flowing again.


And what happens next is often surprising, and it’s Ferguson’s job to turn it into something useful for comedy. People tell stories that they may not have been planning to tell on television. Ferguson eggs them on. And somehow the whole thing acquires a punch line, a satisfying end to a brisk trot through the unconscious.


An unknown amount of that may be scripted; it’s hard for an outsider to know. But much of it isn’t; much of it is a guy making use of limited resources to be the funniest show on late night. And now he’s going away. Darn it anyway.


Mostly it’s B-list cable stars and celebrities past their prime, but it matters not.


“I speak severely to my boy, I beat him when he sneezes, for he can thoroughly enjoy

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