This week, Craig Ferguson became a late night talk show host.
Yes, I know, he's been a late night talk show host for five years and 1000 shows. He's gone through three or four different intros and a box full of puppets. But on the show that aired early Wednesday morning, Ferguson became a late night citizen. He stood up and swore allegiance to the talk show tradition. He called a time out, cleared the bleachers and went back to a time when frank and honest talk and intellectual nimbleness was what entertained TV audiences, especially in late night. He went old school in a year in which late night at times seemed ready to flame out like an exploding peacock.
Ferguson's big experiment was to do his show without a studio audience. Missing were the 90 or so people who usually cram into his CBS Television City studio bleachers.
He explained that he ditched the audience for a reason, to do something that never happens on late night television anymore--have a conversation.
Ferguson paid homage to Tom Snyder, who a decade ago used to run his Late Late Show audience-free way every night in the exact same studio. Ferguson accurately described Snyder as "cranky and difficult and brilliant." Me thinks that the two men have more than a studio in common.
Snyder used to engage viewers in a very intimate way and bring them into conversations with all manner of famous people. A nice touch was when Ferguson invoked Snyder's lovely "fire up the colourtinis and watch the pictures as they fly through the air."
It all set up a one-on-one conversation with Ferguson's sole guest, the brilliant and troubled Stephen Fry. Ferguson is one canny Scott and knew Fry could carry both ends of any conversation. It was wonderful to listen in on these two as they laid bare their prejudices, hang ups, addictions and even their inner thoughts. Fry's line that he was "made of corduroy" alone was worth the whole experiment.
It is our good fortune that Ferguson seems to be as restless as he is fearless. Watch the clip below and try to remember the last time you heard two men really talk like this on television:
Where will this lead? Will Ferguson attempt this again? He'd need somebody as smart and glib as Fry to spar with, but there have been nights on his show, especially when he has a mate on like Ewan McGregor, when you wish this was the format.
There are hints of a return to intimate conversation on television. Alec Baldwin brings it when he talks one-on-one with Gene Wilder, or even when he chats briefly about film with TCM's Robert Osbourne. I used to love Bob Costas' old weekly series of conversations with a single guest. Here's hoping Craigy gets bored with his usual format and tries this again soon.