SET VISIT: Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show

Horse play: Ferguson (left) with Secretariat.
LOS ANGELES—“It’s not a late night talk show, it’s a dance party!”
That’s how the warm up guy describes The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. Go to a taping and you’ll see why.
I’ve been to two previous tapings of Ferguson’s show, which celebrates its ninth season in January. It tapes at CBS Television City, the 60-year-old mid-century TV shrine at the corner of Beverly and Fairfax in West Hollywood.
Audience members are cued up outside, where a CBS dude stands on a chair and shouts out the do’s and don’ts. His patter is peppered with F-bombs, and if you listened carefully, you could hear William S. Paley rolling over in his grave. Nobody in line in 2013 seems to mind, which was good, because Ferguson and his guests swear up a storm on the show, too. (Live studio audience members get to hear every word in all its non-bleeped glory).
You can look forward to at least a half hour wait in this outdoor holding pen. You are allowed to get out of line long enough to browse the outdoor CBS store, where you can buy a copy of Craig’s rattlesnake mug for US$24.99.
The crowd is eventually herded inside mammoth Television City through a side door. The first thing you see upon entering is a giant portrait of one of the original tenants–Red Skelton. A CBS staple for 18 seasons, he was one of the few allowed to drive his car right onto a sound stage.
Ferguson has moved up to a bigger studio since my last visit. (I think The Talking Dead shoots in his old studio—once home to Tom Snyder’s CBS late show.
The new sound stage is wider but not a whole lot bigger. It does seat 150 now, and the stage area right can accommodate live bands as it did at the taping I attended. (Dale Earnhardt Junior Junior, who had the crowd on their feet.)
Once seated, it’s like a contest to see how fast things can get to the finish. The warm up guy throws candy at everybody, hands out one T-shirt and introduces look-a-likes in the crowd as actual celebrities. A bald guy who was a dead ringer for Sir Ben Kingsley sat right in front of me.
Ferguson comes out to loud applause and cheers. You can’t help but clap to his theme song. There’s much bantering with Geoff, the robot skeleton sidekick. The dancing horse nods and shimmies.
The monologue used to be a marathon but now it is cut up into a cold opening and shorter stand up. The cold opening is just that—Ferguson seems to wing it, picking up a fireplace poker and poking holes into the fake fireplace seemingly on a whim. He dons the white rabbit hand puppet and cusses out the camera. Even if he’s not really making his show up on the spot, the one-take audacity of it all instantly wins the audience over.
Compared to his rivals, Ferguson has a skeleton staff 
There is a monologue but it is shorter than it used to be. Ferguson does this bit where he steals a joke from Jay Leno which is nasty and hilarious. There were Halloween jokes about all the pumpkin carving: “Nice to see people sticking knifes into orange faces that don’t belong to Bruce Jenner.”
As it happened, Ferguson and company packed two shows into the session, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Drew Carey—Ferguson’s old co-star and boss on The Drew Carey Show—was the Wednesday night guest, with Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush appearing Thursday.
Ferguson literally sprints through his shows. Usually there are pauses between acts that are at least as long as the actual commercial breaks. Instead, producer Michael Naidus charges straight through, with barely a minute—sometimes 30-seconds—between acts.
The brisk pace made the two tapings fly by like one. It’s like a contest to see how fast this can be done.
The break between the two shows lasts only as long as it took Ferguson to change his tie. You could see him hesitate for a second while he pondered whether he could save another 20 seconds by simply doing the second show with an open collar.
I saw a bit of Ferguson’s show in the freedom and raciness of the late night television I watched on a recent trip to Dublin. Graham Norton, seen on BBC Canada and BBC America, carries the same, anything-can-happen edge. Plus the same giddiness, too, as if the guests have been enjoying a strong refreshment or three before their on-air segments.
There is also the same not-so-politically correct blend of ethnic humour. Ferguson has constant fun with accents and national traits and, as a Scot, he gets away with it far more easily than his American-born late night rivals. He and Rush ran through their German accents and it all sailed through despite the fact Rush’s new film, The Book Thief, takes an unblinking look at German people under the thumb of Hitler.
An incredibly beautiful newscaster from Peru, Univision’s Pamela Silva, came out in a skin-tight, brown leather dress and, well, Hola! Again Ferguson seems to get a longer leash when it comes to bawdy humour and double entendres (although Leno gets away with a lot of this too). Even when one or two commercial breaks did exceed the one minute mark, two babes in tight dresses strut out to dance with Craigy and Secretariat. It’s like a very loose and funny Playboy After Dark Goes to Europe.
Ferguson makes a lot of self-deprecating references to himself and his show. He practically shouts that he’s just past caring at this point, and drops loud hints that he’s not making enough money. He argued at one point that he’s not really in the same league as the other  late night talk shows, and seemed to embrace Rush’s phrase that it was all just unplanned silliness.
Ferguson’s right—his is not a late night talk show. It’s a late night Pee-wee’s Playhouse.

All the while, though, you watch him horse around–literally–with his guests and say to yourself, “damn. This guy has the best job in the world.” 

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