‘It’s a great Tonight Show for America everybody … yes it is!’ by Braam Smith

Posted on February 24, 2012

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In my previous article “MasterChef or Wheel of Fortune?”, I suggested that I had won six hours of my week back by no longer humouring the big red ‘m’. Alas I must now concede that I was already five hours in debt, thanks to the outcome of some procrastinatory channel-surfing at or around the 10:30 mark on a hot February night.

God Bless YouTube, for I can share with you what I stumbled upon when pressing the second of those two 1’s on the remote:

http://youtube.com/watch?v=d9TohDFQpNk&t=112

Don’t tell me that you would consider changing the channel after the comedy gold that a talking rabbit and a shiny, silvery little person. By the time the host had blatantly mocked the birthplace of Sarah Chalke (Scrubs), I knew I was witnessing something out of the ordinary.

http://youtube.com/watch?v=U7HE1tQrrAA&t=122

The love affair with “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” had begun, and is now blossoming into quite the disturbing romance.

It took a trip to the USA in the mid-90’s before I learned that Steve Vizard, who introduced me to the Tonight Show genre in 1990, shamelessly ripped off the “The Late Show with David Letterman”. Plaigiarism of the genre, I would discover much later, turns out to be embraced as part of its own fabric.

Letterman arrived on our shores shortly thereafter, as did Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien and a handful of other players. The formula? Well established:

Big band.
Host makes a grand appearance to rapturous applause.
Monologue with recycled gags, frequently interrupted with more rapturous applause.
Trademarked gags (e.g. Letterman’s “Top Ten”).
Optional scripted comedy sketches.
A-List guest with something to promote.
More rapturous applause.
Token musical guest.
Big band finale.
Roll credits.

So ingrained in the genre is this formula that the most subtle of variations to it threaten to have its promote cast out of the secret society. UK’s “The Graham Norton Show” (now having graduated from ABC2 to Channel 10), for instance, dared have … wait for it … THREE guests, whom he would interview all at the same time! I know, I know! Don’t forget to strap yourself in!

Norton’s closing segment “Stories from the red chair” epitomises his thirst for audience participation. Somewhat bold new territory for the Tonight Show.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WbV1M6XxLdU&t=33

Perhaps it is the act of varying the formula over the subtleness of the variation. More likely it is in Norton’s infallable execution that keeps each show refreshingly different from those that preceded it.

And so it is too, I think, with Craig Ferguson. Whilst Scottish in heritage, Ferguson now calls the USA home, and takes on the household names in their own backyard. Indeed the name “The Late Late Show…” is presumably such because it screens immediately after Letterman’s “The Late Show” on CBS, at something like half-past-midnight.

What I dig about Ferguson is not that he re-invents the formula, nor even varies it materially. He satirises it. He extracts the living piss from it, starting with himself and his self-assessed lack of professionalism and care factor. The result is an unprecedented balance of everything I like about a Tonight Show, against the hilarious unpredictability of a night out with your best mate.

As strange as it sounds, there is, therefore, something a little bit Australian about it.

Whilst he still accommodates the grand entrance to rapturous applause, it is preceded with a “pre-monologue” where the broadcast starts with him (or one of his alter ego’s) centre-frame. You are lead to believe this is an act of pure improvisation, optionally involving hand puppets, or (Norton-style) members of the audience. Sometimes, awkwardly, both:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQLpvKld3OY

The pantomime doesn’t end there. 1973 Triple Crown winner, Secretariat, occasionally rings the doorbell to make an appearance.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5T70NglN40&t=198

Madonna’s infamous appearance on Letterman during the 90’s featured numerous F-bomb’s. It proved an outrage for the American network television in what was otherwise a very conservative genre. Ferguson however turns this convention on its f***ing head by attacking the taboo, full frontal. It is now sufficiently par for the course that the show’s editors have crafted their own creative take on the censors’ bleep.

http://youtube.com/watch?v=acIieYTK0pY&t=274

The ultimate tribute to your work is when, Vizard-style, it is ripped off by someone in a faraway land. Ferguson recently achieved this status – seemingly without his prior knowledge. Some might have attacked the imposter or sought to shut him down. Ferguson’s response? Get him on the show!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZIlGqHfrUY&t=0

As if all this isn’t enough to get you hooked, what continues to brings me back though is his most deliberate act in satirising the genre.

For many years, Ferguson delivered the show solo. The genre’s constitution however requires some form of side-kick, who (in theory) exists to provide some means for the host to bounce comedic banter with another.

Anyone familiar with Letterman’s work can attest to the abysmal repartee that he engages in with Paul Shaffer – leader of the “CBS Orchestra”. A typical discourse would be for Letterman to say something to Shaffer and Shaffer to parrot it straight back. Hardy-har-har. Despite actively towing the CBS party line, it’s hard to believe that Shaffer was not the primary inspiration for Ferguson’s commissioning of the construction of Geoff Peterson some two years ago. Geoff takes skeleton form, dresses as a contestant from “The Price is Right”, prefers dudes, and is powered from an outlet in the wall. He is Ferguson’s own “Gay Robot Skeleton”.

Engineered by Grant Imahara (Mythbusters), version 1 of Geoff could (amongst other humourous innovations) “speak” a handful of pre-recorded phrases at the press of a remote control by the show’s Producer. Deliberate or otherwise, Ferguson in his twisted way proved that the Tonight Show side-kick could be effectively replaced by a robot with no built-in intelligence and not much more variability of intonation.

One can only imagine that Geoff’s mohawk was a request from the legal department. How else ultimately could CBS viewers distinguish him from Paul Shaffer?

Paul Shaffer (left) and Geoff the Robot

The “voice” of Geoff v1 (deliberately) lacked humanity, reminiscent more of a Doctor Who Dalek than your Tonight Show companion. Once that novelty wore off, we were graced with the voice acting talents of Josh Robert Thompson, who does a better Morgan Freeman than Morgan Freeman (amongst many others).

http://youtube.com/watch?v=JoOEZHqJAGs&t=456

Thompson became tasked with the responsibility of voicing Geoff’s pre-recorded phrases, which were (unsurprisingly) becoming more risque.

http://youtube.com/watch?v=WjHgFp_iBEs&t=316

http://www.youtube.com/embed/d5V8F9d6U-A?rel=0

http://www.youtube.com/embed/1eqWKgX4Abo?rel=0

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFWcrBadgQg&t=461

Whether by design or chance, it turns out that in addition to being a top-shelf voice actor, Thompson has exquisite comic timing and improvisional awareness. He was eventually “handed the reins” to deliver Geoff’s interjections live during the taping of the show.

http://youtube.com/watch?v=qrXbgS4dR28&t=24

This was experimental at first, as Geoff would occasionally revert back to his “old chip”.

http://youtube.com/watch?v=BW_NigkZw4M&t=467

However about nine months ago, Thompson has become part of the furniture and, through Geoff, Thompson and Ferguson interact with full comic value, perhaps more so than any other Tonight Show pairing. You know it works when the side-kick can bring the host to hysterics. Sit back and watch this one to the bitter end:

http://youtube.com/watch?v=Wag4hFAiEEs&t=73

By breaking the mould, Ferguson just may have re-created his own from his cold, dark, basement of a studio.

“It’s a great day for America everybody … -yes- -it- -is- !”

Braam Smith is one of You’re Dripping Egg’s very grown-up contributors. For more of Braam’s televsion reviews, check out “Masterchef” or “Wheel of Fortune”?

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Posted in: Television