It’s a great day in America as Craig Ferguson gets his papers. The late night talk show host has been talking for months (or, at least, ever since his show went back on the air thanks to that interim WGA deal) about how he has applied for American citizenship. He took the test a few weeks ago and got a perfect score. After he joked, “All of you people born here, if you had to take that test, well, Canada would be building a fence right now.”
Today is the day he is being sworn in. A native of Scotland, Ferguson has lived in the States for many years, appearing as the zany boss on The Drew Carey Show before landing in the CBS Late Late Show chair in 2003.
Look for Ferguson to dress up as a randy Uncle Sam or a bawdy bald eagle or some such silly patriotic nonsense. Silly nonsense is Ferguson’s stock in trade these days as his sketches get more Benny Hill-esque with each passing week. He seems to have the most fun in late night and the enthusiasm extends right through that camera he keeps slapping upside the head.
He could still, however, be a bit more fearless as an interviewer. Last week he had Ringo Starr on for the full hour. It was a Liverpool love-in, with the ex-Beatle and his new guitar mate Dave Stewart jamming through a surprisingly spirited set of four songs, including oldies like Photograph, Boys and A Little Help From My Friends. But why didn’t Ferguson razz him about storming off Regis and Kelly Live 48 hours earlier? (Something about them cutting his song set in half.) Was he afraid Starr would ditch twice in one week?
Ferguson’s ratings are inching up on Conan O’Brien, who has had a stranglehold on the timeslot for over a decade. Credit Ferguson’s intimate style and unique opening, more of a stand up bar chat than a monologue. Having sat in his studio and watched him power through one of those 11-minute rants, I can tell you there are no cue cards, no TelePrompTers. You feel like you are on the other end of a one-on-one conversation and you wouldn’t walk out on it for the world.
Don’t credit the fact that Ferguson, like his boss, David Letterman (Dave’s Worldwide Pants owns both shows), have writers and O’Brien does not. In a surprising PR setback for the Guild, ratings for Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien continue to run ahead of those for Letterman and Ferguson. Seems viewers don’t care where the fun comes from, as long as their usual favorite guy is back behind the desk.
O’Brien has earned every single one of those viewers. His show has actually taken advantage of the strike situation and turned itself into a really cool danger zone. Last night, O’Brien opened his show from a desk shoved way up in the back of his bleachers. He tossed a full-size dummy of himself into his mostly college-age studio audience, who dutifully surfed it over their heads up and down the aisles. He stuck two turtles onto model car/rockets–one representing the New York Giants and one the New England Patriots– and had them race around the hallways at Rockefeller Centre. (Giants won, ‘natch.)
Other night’s O’Brien has worked his show from the rafters, ripped into Texas swing sessions with his band and just generally turned that opening set into a party. Since returning is early January, he’s ditched his opening monologue and kept his stock characters like Triumph off screen. He’s remained loyal to his writing staff and served notice to viewers that Late Night isn’t the same but he’s also provided a great hour of entertainment. It is a high wire act of courage and daring and creativity and he’s to be commended.
Especially since he probably doesn’t have to work this hard to keep his viewers. Since returning Jan. 7, ratings for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report–two heavily scripted series you would think would be hardest hit by a writers strike–have soared above their usual levels. Daily is up 17% among its core 18-34-year-old viewers year-to-year while Colbert has enjoyed a 21% bump among the same demo. Both shows have done it without many of their usual features, relying on their talented hosts to pull entire shows out of their butts.
Mind you, a heated U.S. primary election season plays to these show’s strengths. Still, if they’re doing this well without their writers, how does this help the Guild in their cause to pressure networks and producers into coming to terms? Aren’t the nets getting higher numbers–and every cent in ad revenues–at lower costs? The Word, as Colbert would say, is “Whoops.”