Craig Ferguson and the Death of the “Talk” Part of Late Night Talk Shows

July 15, 2013
“It’s a great day for America!”

With those few words, Craig Ferguson launched himself into the late night landscape. At the time, the out of left field choice to take over the slot after Letterman was mostly an unknown to audiences in America. Yet, as he found his feet, ditched the cue cards and notes, and just let it all hang out, he helped to reinvigorate one of the more forgotten parts of the late night show: the interview.

Ferguson, who recently returned to television with his new series on the History channel, staked his claim by being himself, warts and all. It’s something that most hosts in late night are loath to do, as it can sometimes make things controversial, idiosyncratic, or get in the way of the joke delivery machine that these shows are expected to be. That in turn can take a hit to ratings, since late night shows are often something to help unwind after a long day and not a show meant to challenge brain cells in any meaningful way. You want that, you put on Charlie Rose.

In fact, turn on any late night talk show and you’ll see pretty much the same thing now: plenty of white guys cracking jokes, doing some skits, and bringing on guests who they “interview” and then usually play a game with. It’s all in very good fun of course, and judging by the spike in viral video hits, it’s clearly the direction the format is going. Yet the actual art of the interview itself has faded with time. In its place now are the usual pat answers sandwiched around plugging whatever project the guest is there for. Hosts generally don’t dig in too much deeper than that.

In the early days of late night talk shows, the interview was often the part of the show where the audience would get to know a comic or celebrity more intimately. Most famously, every budding comedian wished and hoped for the wave over from Johnny Carson after their set, to be invited to the couch for an interview. It was their biggest form of validation.

Carson and Dick Cavett were both skilled in the art of conversation. They knew when to let their guests speak and go off the rails and when to prod further. Sometimes, getting out of the way and just laughing was the best way forward, even for non-comedians. It made for a give and take that was often as entertaining as any game that gets played nowadays with whomever is invited to sit down.

Cavett, for his part, seemed to revel in putting on guests that would not always get along, and the tension that would ensue made for some must-watch television. His show was far more cerebral than Carson’s, and more music-centric, as most of the biggest musical stars of the day would come on not just to perform, but to chat. Cavett used their appearances to dig deeper into the men and women behind the music, which like Carson with the comedians, helped to further humanize them to the audience.

Ferguson, who was hand picked by Carson’s longtime producer Peter Lassally as something fresh and new, figured out very early that his own innate humanity, with all its flaws, needed to be put on full display, not just for the audiences at home but with his guests as well. Ferguson wasn’t afraid to talk about his past, oftentimes mining it for comedy that hit harder because it was true:

Watching that clip, two things are readily apparent: that Ferguson is a man who can make anything hilarious and perhaps more importantly, that he is a man of great intelligence and dignity. He was welcoming, not just trying to prove how funny he was. He invited you to laugh with him, or equally as powerful, to mourn with him.

Working in a mostly stream-of-consciousness style during his monologue, Ferguson would just ramble on, making connections as they came to him. It was very shaggy dog as compared to the more traditional and polished monologues most audiences had become accustomed to, but it was also new and unpredictable. His show reveled in this sort of anti-late night vibe, between using a robot sidekick or pantomime horse and low budget green screen effects.

His interview style was just as in the moment as his monologues, as he made a habit of ripping up whatever notes and cue cards he had prior to a guest coming out and instead just engaging them in a real conversation. Whether it was interviewing the Segment Producer for a guest that didn’t show up or standing toe to toe with Russell Brand, Ferguson could turn any conversation in to a verbal tennis match and find ways to bring out the unexpected in his guests.

Watch, for example, as he goes brain to brain with Reverend Desmond Tutu, not your typical late night guest by any means:

There are jokes to be sure, but there is a weight to the conversation which comes in spite of the fact that Tutu almost completely doesn’t answer any of the “questions” Ferguson initially asks. Instead, Ferguson just talks with the man, being ever-present and in the moment, like a real-life normal conversation. There are no bits or games, just two people talking, and it veers into areas rarely seen on late night. Seriously, find another late night interview that name checks Nelson Mandela and Thomas Aquinas! That interview won Ferguson’s show a Peabody award.

Ferguson’s ratings were never huge, partially because of his timeslot and also because his show was so out there for some American audiences. Between his accent — though he eventually became a proud, nationalized citizen — and various very “British” characters, Ferguson was everything Jay Leno was not. Instead of being comfortable and predictable, his show forced you to pay attention and to really listen to the conversations. People would lower their guard precisely because Ferguson had already lowered his.

In the time since he’s left late night, there is a definite void in great conversations. Certain guests can still bring out the best in various hosts, but on the whole, the interview segment often feels like an afterthought, just something that is required for the format and no longer embraced as truly essential. It’s telling that both John Oliver and Samantha Bee got rid of interviews completely in their shows.

That thirst to dig deeper than just standard scripted questions definitely still can be found, just in other media. The most prevalent of course is the podcast, where it literally is all about the conversation.

Both Marc Maron and Pete Holmes host podcasts that get about as intimate and personal as a discussion can get. They mix both the humor and quick timing of Carson with the ability to let a guest talk and the conversation breathe, which was Cavett’s strength while interjecting the honesty that Ferguson always required of his guests since his own secrets were very much known. Maron has interviewed everyone from Lorne Michaels to our current President, but the episode that most resonates and stands out was a discussion he had with Robin Williams. Maron re-posted his interview with a heart-wrenching introduction that tried to make sense of the loss but really, was just about a fan who cannot believe the terrible news himself. Once again, by tearing away the facade that Maron has any more answers or jokes than any of his listeners, there is a connection that becomes essential. Maron humanizes himself and with his guests they chart a journey deep into the heart of comedy. It’s sometimes very dark, sometimes utterly uplifting and not to be missed.

Between these and many other podcasts, along with web series like Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, the art of the interview is still alive and well. The through-line in all of these, much as they were for Ferguson, is that they allow the guests to reveal themselves and we as the audience are all the better for it. We still laugh, like all great comedy conjures, but beyond that, we’re able to  connect on a level that is both more meaningful and long-lasting than just watching people play games.

Devin Klos is an actor and writer based in NY. You can follow his other work at Devintklos.com and on twitter at @Devinklosprod.

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