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Saying Goodbye to Late Night's Brightest Mind

From Where I Sit

By Greg Wilson

I said goodbye to an old friend, Friday night. Makes little difference I never met the man.

Craig Ferguson signed off his final “Late, Late, Show” on CBS Friday night with the same tv-is-not-to-be-taken-seriously attitude that marked his 10-year run. You can catch it on if you haven’t already heard the payoff.

But while Ferguson was the master of silly, his approach to deconstructing the format to which he was attached was unmatched.

“I do a show,” Ferguson once said. “It comes on late at night on TV. And if that means I'm a late-night talk show host, then I guess I am, but in every other regard I resign my commission, I don't care for it.”

As someone who started watching late night televison when Jack Parr was a year away from handing over the reigns to Johnny Carson, who (even though his wishes were ignored) passed the torch (if not the tonight show) to David Letterman 30 years later, there is no one I will miss more than Craig Ferguson.

It was Letterman’s brilliant, snarky, mocking of the talk show format that built the platform from which Ferguson launched the neutron bomb which blew up completely up.

From tearing up the screener’s questions on air before every interview, to his never-ending stream of consciousness monologues which generally reached the desk afterward, he was never a part the joke machine fraternity that even the best of the others who populate the format have not overcome.

During the last weeks he got a haircut (he called it “more mohawk, less anchorman”) which he asked the audience if it made him look more Samuel Beckett or Adolf Hitler. Actually, his resemblance to Beckett was striking. All the while he engaged in conversation with Geoff Peterson, his gay robot skeleton sidekick (and his dozens of spot-on celebrity voice impersonations) who shared the spotlight with Ferguson across the stage from two guys in a horse suit for the last half of the shows run.

Don’t get me wrong, Ferguson is wickedly funny. I have seen most of the top-tier stand ups, from acts at the Comedy Cellar in New York City and the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, the high dollar tours of legends like Bill Cosby and Bob Newhart. None of them can match the raw energy and diamond precision madness of one of Ferguson’s live shows. At one 90-minute set, I was astounded that he managed to get funnier and funnier as the night went on. Think Robin Williams channeling Steven Wright and Sam Kinnison with Dick Cavett as a writer and you might pick up some of the energy Ferguson generates on stage.

And he brought a lot of that to his CBS show. But what always set him apart from the others with a monologue, a desk and guests, was how he was never shy about injecting thoughtful quotes, ideas and sometimes even serious guests into the madness.

Just last week, after being censored for cursing about some news story, he tossed out “the more humanity advances, the more it is degraded,” a quote from Gustave Flaubert and maybe the most acute analysis of our age.

In 2013, after asking Stephen King to autograph a book live on the air, Ferguson proceeded to discuss the Jungian nature of King’s work and ask him about Jung’s “Red Book.”

My personal favorite quote, though was after a beautiful dissecting of why this generation is the first society that worships youth, or in his words, why everything sucks:

“I’ve figured it out. I’ve figured it out What? Everything. Why everything sucks.
Here’s why. In the 1950s, late ’50s, early ’60s, a bunch of advertising guys got together on Madison Avenue and decided to try to sell products to younger people. We should try to sell to younger people because then they will buy things their whole lives. We’ll try to sell them soft drinks, or bread, or cigars — or whatever the hell they were trying to sell them. It was just an advertising thing, they didn’t mean any harm by it, just a bit of market research.

So they told the television companies, and the movie companies, and the record companies — and everybody started targeting the youth. Because the youth was the place where you were going to be able to sell things.

What happened was, in a strange kind of quirk of fate, youth began to be celebrated by society. This was in a way that it had never been at any time in human history. What used to be celebrated was experience, and cleverness. But what became valuable was youth — and the quality of youth was being a consumer.

I know what you’re thinking, you’re saying “but wait a minute, Craig, in Ancient Greece they deified youth.” No they didn’t. They deified beauty. Different.

What happened is youth became more important and became more important. Society started to turn on its head. Because youth has a byproduct — inexperience. By the nature of youth you don’t have any experience. It’s not your fault. You’re just kind of stupid.

So the deification of youth evolved, and turned into the deification of imbecility. It became fashionable to be young and to be stupid. And that grew, and that grew, and that grew, and now that’s what all the kids want to be. “I just want to be young and stupid!” But you know what? That’s not what you want to be. You do not want to be young and stupid.

Then what happened is that people were frightened to not be young. They started dyeing their hair, they started mutilating their faces and their bodies in order to look young. But you can’t be young forever, that’s against the laws of the universe. To try to make yourself younger is to buy into the idea that young people are somehow better, and they’re not.”

Amen. When I heard this rant, I wondered where were the other voices that should be shouting this (until I remembered they are all getting facelifts and dyeing their hair to look good for the next campaign cycle.)

But Ferguson himself trended mostly toward modesty. He once said: “I'm a terrible interviewer. “I'm not a journalist - although I have a Peabody Award - and I'm not really a late-night host. What I am is honest.”

He was only partially right. His Peabody was for a stunningly strong interview with Bishop Desmond Tutu, one which he introduced with the the most amazing summary of what had happened in South Africa over the past 500 years. And he did it in five clever minutes. No monolog that night, no cue cards, telepromters, just passionate conversations with one of the most important figures of the 20th century.

He also managed to put any guest willing to be honest at ease. And so many were. Those who were not, he forced to think on their feet. He talked about what interested him, and pulled them into conversations.

And Ferguson was never afraid to talk about his own battle with addiction and his 25 great years of sobriety, his divorces and career struggles. He also was never one to pile on to those in trouble for some of the same things.

In 2007, while the rest of the late night world tore Britney Spears apart for her breakdown, Ferguson dedicated his monologue to defending her, opening up about his alcoholism, drug abuse and near suicide. He spent a whole episode each to eulogize his parents after their individual deaths. A man so enthusiastic in his patriotism that he reminded us every day that it was, in fact, a great day for America, he dedicated his first show back after being granted United States citizenship to his new status, including a taped segment on the ceremony and a pipe and drums performance by The Wicked Tinkers, which Ferguson joined in on to prove he was still just as Scottish as he was American.

And yet, after 2,058 episodes, Ferguson and what he did still defies an easy definition. It’s not something that makes talking point conversation around the water cooler. And that is exactly the point. Those of us who discovered Ferguson and his brand of brainy, compassionate insanity and have made it a part of our late night (or dvr) lives, are left with great memories and a nagging hope that he will return again soon, reinventing the talk show format yet again. Until that time, Beannachd Dia dhuit, Craig.

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