David Letterman has the adulation of his peers and eminence grise as late night's greatest innovator. Jimmy Kimmel has everyman street cred in abundance and the genre's fiercest deadpan. Conan O'Brien has the comedic heavyweight title belt, owing to 15 years of inspired mischief and his role in scripting the funniest 22 minutes in TV history. Jimmy Fallon has ... um, nice teeth and a kick-ass house band.
Craig Ferguson, on the other hand, has the most entertaining TV show airing at 11 p.m. or later on any network, broadcast or otherwise.
An awful lot has been written about late-night TV since the high-profile round of musical chairs that landed O'Brien on "The Tonight Show" and Jay Leno in purgatory. Most of the pieces have concentrated on What It All Means and Who Will Win, or at least they did until Letterman cracked wise about one of the Palin kids, which did more to boost CNN/Fox News/MSNBC loud-talkers than it did for anyone directly involved in the kerfuffle. Through it all, there's been nary a mention of Ferguson -- or if there has, it's been in passing ("CBS has a show at 12:30 a.m. too!").
I didn't regard his exclusion from the conversation as especially unfair, given the middling ratings and the library-chatter level of buzz. Then I sat down and watched a week's worth of "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson." Now I rank Ferguson's afterthought status as a cosmic injustice on par with weekend thunderstorms or the premature demise of "Carnivale."
Prior to my watchabout, I'd consumed only bits and pieces of Ferguson's show online. In its wake, I'm a card-carrying fan. If there's a more likable, more versatile comedian plying his trade on TV right now, I'd like to meet him and, perhaps, subscribe to his newsletter.
What's most amazing that Ferguson does it entirely on his own. During the past week, he went 27, 31 and 36 minutes into his hourlong broadcasts before interacting with anyone/anything other than the camera. His set is sized and styled like a cardboard box; he is seemingly lit by three grips holding flashlights, which means that he leads the late-night league in shadows.
Oh, but there's more. Ferguson's website couldn't have taken more than nine minutes to design and, as witnessed by the accidental inclusion of a Letterman monologue in its video section, reeks of neglect. The biggest insult of all: His show is the only one not shot in hi-def, which means it looks like a soggy newspaper when contrasted with the shimmery colors and crisp graphics of his competitors' broadcasts. Hell, I'm surprised the network sprung for a suit and a mic.
Ferguson doesn't seem to mind, blithely acknowledging the low viewership numbers and the no-definition visual sheen. Self-deprecation may be the key to his appeal, in fact. While every other late-night host indulges in it to a certain extent, none goes as far as Ferguson does, whether by sarcastically riffing on the demographic undesirability of his viewers ("18- to 34-year-old men, I'm not interested in you") or by referring to himself as "the Scottish Conan guy."
That isn't to say Ferguson doesn't throw more than his share of jabs. His arch side is on full display during his dismissive rush through viewer e-mail, a segment that plays to his quick-response strengths. Replying to a viewer's question about whether he should accede to his girlfriend's wishes that he get a vasectomy, Ferguson snapped, "How much do you like her? How much do you like your balls?" While he comes across as overly manic during his free-associative monologue -- the up-and-back camera approaches made me dizzy after a while -- he sells the weaker, Leno-ish celebrity riffs with a knowing glance.
As far as guests go, Ferguson seems to be attracting a higher caliber of talent nowadays. He's not booking the Leonardo DiCaprios or Madonnas of the entertainment world, mind you, but he's upgraded to the B-Plus List from the C-Minus one ("so, Sting, tell me what inspired you to take up the lute").
In a way, it doesn't matter who occupies the chair to his right. Ferguson doesn't interview his guests; he interacts with them. There's a difference. If he's relying on cue cards or running down a laundry list of prearranged topics, you'd be hard-pressed to tell. As a result, the curt interview segments have the feel of an airy bar conversation between college buddies. Hell, Dane Cook was likable during his "Late Late Show" appearance last week. Do you have any idea how rarely that happens? I bet Ferguson could squeeze six fun, coherent minutes out of Paula Abdul or Joaquin Phoenix.
To be honest, I hope that CBS, Worldwide Pants (Letterman's creative arm, which produces the show) or whoever's pulling the strings leaves Ferguson alone -- outside of, you know, acknowledging his existence and promoting him every so often. If you've got a force of personality on your hands, the smartest thing to do is get out of its way. Inadvertent or not, that seems to be the thinking behind "The Late Late Show." I don't see what an on-air foil or an audience-enlivening band would add to the proceedings.
Right now, it's all Ferguson and it's all marvelously, effortlessly entertaining. Hop on the bandwagon before it gets crowded -- and it will.