We find ourselves at a funny crossroads with the end of My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. Letterman seems to have enjoyed himself and there’s been enough that long term fans can insist he’s brought something good to the table. Yet the idea that Letterman has maybe added something new to his substantial legacy would be a stretch at best. The two late night talk shows he did were very different beasts to this program designed to entertain every minute they were on air (whether they did or didn’t) and paced to reflect this while still padding out with formula wherever you could since the workload was so high you had to have some reliable mainstays. It is not surprising to find myself wistfully missing the band, the sketches and the up to date nature of that program to comment on whatever was making headlines at the time. On the other hand Letterman can do great interviews and the long leisurely pace of his Netflix show showed potential for deeper conversations. The remotes also showed great promise to have Letterman out in the field but as the show went on this aspect more and more seemed an afterthought or a side dish that deserved to be the main. By the way let me just say that I really enjoyed the opening theme tune by the always great Paul Schaeffer.
I started this program happy with the Obama episode but looking forward to his conversations outside his comfort zone with Malala Yousafzai and maybe Jay-Z. Looking back the obvious candidates bore better episodes President Obama and George Clooney remain probably the best episodes. Malala Yousafzai delivered what I was hoping for, of challenging Dave and I hope to see more of this in the future but Jay-Z was not as good and Tina Fey was mostly entertaining because of her considerable talent. Going into the last episode I decided Howard Stern’s antagonistic needling would probably make for a good episode if not terribly original.
Stern is on point throughout, I enjoyed the relaxed way he asked Dave about his Netflix show at the end of it but Stern surprisingly got serious about his own childhood and about the apologies he owed Letterman and others. It was honest and vulnerable and showed growth but it didn’t necessarily make for good entertainment with Stern even suggesting at one point I can get the Fartman costume in five minutes if this is bad addressing the audience. Stern a contemporary of Dave’s is still in the game I guess and still ‘hot’. It made me reflect on how after all the fanfare during Dave’s victory lap in 2015 that he is maybe a little out of the loop calling on favours to have people show up for this show.
I don’t want to beat on the show, I’m a fan and this was a perfectly good hour of viewing for me with Stern who is such a talent. But its interesting to note that what followed in the form of a bonus episode prepared by Netflix where Jerry Seinfeld and Dave sat down at an industry event as two of their stars and just chatted was far more entertaining and showed a more traditional filming dynamic. They threw back and forth at considerable pace, telling the other about the greatness of their work and vehemently denying it themselves, obviously prepared with some jokes which they fired off but also building to off the cuff remarks however the conversation threw them. At one point Jerry told Letterman he did not want to talk about his kids but he give him one thing a minute later. At another point Letterman talked about the kindness of a baseball player saying good day to him in the VIP part of the crowd. Seinfeld said that was nice of the baseball player but as Letterman insisted the significance of the nature of the gesture the former sitcom star let slip that he’s not doing this past the VIP area concluding “You’re David Letterman, you idiot.” The crowd erupted.
Watching Letterman with Stern and Seinfeld shows he can still improvise something on the spot and riff with the best after coming across unmatched with Fey. I saw him on Seth Meyers the other day and some of it was downright odd as he presented a tick in a snaplock bag from his back, so absurd I’m sure some fans of his 80s work were pleased but he also told some good jokes. So we know Letterman is still sharp and funny and under the right circumstances prickly and dignified. We know he’s earnest and curious and wanting to do good in the world. We know he can still get things out of people and can make a fascinating chat in the long time format of these interviews.
So what’s next? Come back and do another 6 or 10 episodes next year. Interview people like Amal Clooney, Donald Glover, Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Margot Robbie, Ryan Coogler, Kumail Nunjiani, Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyongo, Jordan Peele, Greta Gerwig, Patty Jenkins, or Elizabeth Warren. Maybe that’s a little celebrity heavy or whatever but just for starters. Do the remotes with those people, go with them somewhere or watch them interact with their family or crews. Go to India and look at Turbines, go wherever you like, interview whoever you like and try to change the world for the better. Because I love you Dave and I was happy to have you back and I hope to see you again soon but there’s a few things we could improve upon for next year.
A funny thing happened in Episode 5 of David Letterman’s new show, on Netflix, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. The man who’s verbally sparred with pundits, network executives, movie stars, politicians and fellow comedians just ceded territory to his guest. This is no loss or embarrassment for the 70 year old because his guest was Tina Fey and Letterman adores Fey. Not for her beauty which is striking, not for her kindness to him (Letterman distrusts gushers), but because as far as he’s concerned this is one the funniest people doing comedy today. Letterman did not deign to pass a torch to any of the many late night hosts upon his retirement the way Carson did for him but here you can’t help but notice who owns the stage in this exchange. Both come across as funny and intelligent but Fey shines and Letterman wisely doesn’t put up a fight. She won’t even let him win a point for saying one of her most recent skits was good. She deconstructs what was missing to applause. There’s nothing pathetic in this either, he states his opinions and gets quite a few laughs just by being himself but he’s delighted by how funny and intelligent she is and isn’t looking take any moment away from her.
Maybe his deference comes in this, as a liberal who has grown personally and politically in recent years and is constantly striving to create a better world with what little time he has left and worries about his young son. Maybe in Fey, Letterman thinks maybe the world will be alright and he’s not alone. Tina Fey is the gold standard of established female former SNL alumni. She’s done her own show, got some hit movies under her belt and is now doing a musical of her classic Mean Girls. She’s also a Mum and Letterman always fascinated by child rearing compares notes with his guest which is nice.
A lot of media buzz has been created by a moment where Letterman says he doesn’t know why he didn’t have more female writers on his show and offers maybe he didn’t believe they wanted to do his show. Fey who was one of the presenters when he retired, when he was awarded the Kennedy Centers Honours and the Mark Twain prize looks him in the eye and says but they did. If you’ve read The Last Giant of Late Night: Letterman by Jason Zinoman you’ll appreciate the history behind this moment. She’s not being disrespectful but she’s being direct and Letterman concedes he was ignorant. I think its important to note that this is not really a personal criticism so much as a principled statement. At this point Fey is discussing real benefits that came about as the writers rooms she’s worked in have become more diverse. Letterman seems to be in agreement and the show ends with Fey saying I can’t believe I got to meet you let alone talk to you. Yet she is maybe at the height of her powers and he is maybe past them and no kind words from either can mask that.
The remote in this episode is even odder than the one from Jay-Z previously. After talking about Fey’s days at Second City in Chicago Letterman asks for a recommendation of where to eat in the Windy City. So he meets Blues legend Buddy Guy at The Athenian where they talk a little over roast chicken slathered over some chips. Letterman wisely advices Guy not to think too hard on where the grease comes from. Then Letterman takes in a performance in a club with Guy and Paul Schaeffer on the keyboards. It’s nice to see Schaeffer again and Guy has an interesting story in himself but the whole thing feels unrelated and under explored for what it is. I don’t know now what to expect with the impending finale with Howard Stern but I hope the remote actually has something to do with Howard Stern!
For me the best thing about this episode besides Fey herself is this, I would say Fey at times seems to be intensely feeling some emotions that she keeps a handle on. Letterman gets her to talk about things in the long format, about her family, about the construction of comedy performance and I don’t know if others would’ve been successful in eliciting such a powerful hour of conversation out of her. Maybe but he did. He’s still got something to offer.
I was interested to what would happen in episode 4 of the new David Letterman show My Next Guest Needs No Introduction where he was to interview rapper Jay-Z. I don’t know Jay-Z or a lot about his genre of music. I also didn’t recall interviews between the two on The Late Show. To me it seemed like this was an opportunity for Letterman again to push outside his boundaries a little in away that interviews with Tina Fey, George Clooney, President Barack Obama and Howard Stern would not offer. Jay-Z is one of the biggest entertainers in the world and so its no surprise to find out that he was on Letterman back in the day but none of these talks seemed to have become the stuff of legend the way say ones with Stern did.
This new show disappoints and satisfies in equal measure then from what I was hoping for. For starters Jay-Z is warm, funny and thoughtful as an interview subject and he’s got a story or two to tell. Learning about Jay-Z’s life is the highlight of the program as he looks back on a father who wasn’t around, a mother who couldn’t be true to her own sexuality and a teenage boy selling crack after growing up in poverty. Music saved Jay-Z but its also interesting to note lots of people who helped him along the way. Now he is using his weight to look out for people not given enough opportunities or are treated unfairly from the justice system. If you’re inclined to argue that a justice system will target communities where crime is prolific not race I don’t think Jay-Z particularly cares. He’s offering scholarships for young people poor but smart. He’s asking does the punishment fit the crime and then fighting for those where he sees it isn’t. I’m happy to see that too.
But if you were looking to get an insight into the world of rap you will be sorely disappointed. Letterman discusses how complex the music is and Jay-Z discusses how putting something together is just like writing jokes for a stand-up. A few songs are discussed but they’re not played, something that would upset the flow of the show I admit. Also when Obama’s speeches or Clooney’s film clips weren’t shown in previous minds I didn’t mind because I knew what they were talking about but whereas here my own ignorance meant I was disappointed not to be showed more.
Also in those episodes the remotes fitted nicely into articulating an aspect of the main guest. Here we go to Shangri-La studios and talk to producer Rick Rubin on a day where they doing some recording with singer Madison Ward. Two things stood out immediately, Rubin gives Dave’s beard a run for its money and two you can be an older gentleman in shorts striking a yoga pose. I’m just sayin’. Rubin is a legend in his own right and could easily be the subject of his own show and Ward has a first rate voice. While Jay-Z discusses the artistic process of producer and singer, its obvious this is intended to give us a demonstration of it. It also perhaps hint that whatever the genre of music or the background of the artist the point of music is always the same. That’s a lovely sentiment and some of the remote is nicely edited together and the lyrics of the closing song (beautifully dueted by Ward and Lukas Nelson) echoes some of what has been discussed by Letterman and Jay-Z.
Yet you might not even be aware after watching it of Rubin having been co-founder of Def Jam records which Jay-Z would go on to become President of. You will however be painfully aware of Letterman’s high school romance with an English girl as being one of the coolest things that ever happened to him in the same hour of television where he discusses marital infidelity. Regina you’re a saint. As interesting as some of this was I can’t help think of how much more effective it would have been if we’d been in the recording studio with an actual hip-hop artist. To me the discussion of the music is where this episode misses the mark.
The show closes strongly when Letterman discusses his own transgressions and then asks Jay-Z if any of this sounds familiar. Jay-Z gives a good but perfunctory answer and they move on to another topic and then Jay-Z further articulates how you’ve got to be better than the worst you’ve done. Unprompted he owns up more to his regrets and the lessons he took from them. Some of the lessons Jay-Z is trying to learn are ones we could all learn from about how to put away ego and fear and be good to others. Letterman (who never gives easy praise) says he loves him and they shake hands. Missed opportunity or not, the show does have it’s moments.
I was looking forward to Malala Yousafzai appearing on David Letterman’s new Netflix show My Next Guest Needs No Introduction and as far as the reasons why I was not disappointed. Letterman is talking to a woman of a different age about important issue and for the first time. That means there is no established rapport and there may even be disagreements and that was one of the strengths of this episode.
Malala for example points out to Letterman things happen in other cities than New York and that she doesn’t like pizza amongst other things. With his target a polite and dignified person to interview, Dave plays the long game and brings out a little of her humour and makes her feel awkward in a good way like the way she challenges some of his presumptions. One of the most telling moments is when Dave pushes past her modesty to insist everything happens for a reason and she is doing good important work that will change many lives. We also find out that she is playing cricket at Oxford and that one of the world’s most famous students can sometimes start late on getting to work on assessment.
This is the girl who was shot by the Taliban, she’s more than that of course and this episode is a great way to learn about her as a person but Letterman as he did with wounded veterans has a way of getting to the guts of a moment in someone’s life that changes everything. As someone who was fascinated by his own quintuple bypass he has a way of breaking down the remarkable work that goes into recovering from such an injury as having a bullet go through your face and shoulder. This is Dave at his most powerful and in his search for answers and freewheeling musing he draws out what Malala really things about her own experience and where she wants to go next.
Perhaps still needing a moment where he chats to a man closer to his age, Letterman has fish and chips with Malala’s father Ziauddin Yousafzai, an advocate in his own right. This was a nice moment where her Dad has a different recollection of things showing more concern for his daughter’s safety and more pride in her courage than she can but I couldn’t help but wonder again (following on from George Clooney’s Mum and sister not saying much last episode), where is Mum? The other remote in this episode has Letterman following around a group of visiting high school students checking out the campus of Oxford led by Malala as a student representative. Letterman acts the clown quite a bit eventually winning over the kids with his unapologetic dagginess and Yousafzai playing a good straight woman to his routine. Letterman always cool by being uncool. The ironic detachment of the 1980s gone though replaced by an earnestness for the next generation to be left a better world. He jokes in the opening monologue that you can’t get much older than me. This is one of the best remotes of the series and what a shocker actually features the guest herself.
This was a strong episode and again I would encourage them to return for a second season with more guests like this. In the episode Malala talks about her home in Swat Valley and that one day she would like to return but there would be issues. Since the airing of this episode Malala went back to Pakistan for the first time.
David Letterman returns with his second episode of a 6 part series of interviews My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with celebrities he admires. Most he’s interviewed before but now he’s doing it in long form like Charlie Rose freed from the format of the ironically named “talk show” where interviewees were geared towards 8 minute bits that had no room to breath and had to constantly be full of rip-artee. Of course the well known truth is that quiet can be pretty damn engaging and Letterman seems to be enjoying himself in this new format. The people he is interviewing are well versed in engaging people too, George Clooney his latest interviewee by those standards must be the amateur of the group. Letterman always a performer who wants to be within in his comfort zone has assembled a roster of familiar faces. I would have for example loved him to interview instead Clooney’s wife, human right lawyer Amal Alamuddin which would have been a first but the two old guys looking back format still works a treat.
A fascinating subtext not to underlined too heavily is that George’s father Nick Clooney had the kind of career Letterman might have if not for the courage and support of his first wife Michelle Cook and perhaps the untimely death of his father Harry. That’s not fair to Nick Clooney actually whom first and foremost was a journalist and made a pretty damn good career out of it too, Letterman who went farther with comedy would not have had the career Nick Clooney had if he’d stayed in Indiana as a broadcaster. Similarities with George himself are in abundance as well, George Clooney is a father at the same age as Letterman became one, they’re both liberals, they’re both from the mid-west and they’re both wise-asses. As conversation pieces for fans there are some fascinating revelations, George Clooney would put pebbles in his shoes as a young Catholic boy when he didn’t tell his priest about all of his sins. David mentioned his father went to AA later in life and it helped because it allowed him to perform as well as deal with his disease. These are touching moments that speak to the nature of these men. David has a good nose for this stuff, seeing an old poster of Nick Clooney in his Kentucky home he points out that the visage is a dead ringer for George.
Speaking of the Clooney home, Letterman visits George’s parents and sister who have taken in a refugee from Iraq, Hazim Avdal. Hazim seems to have been coached with his answers but there is no denying the weight of what he experienced. He’s asked at one point would he ever back to his home town to which he informs there is no town left only mass graves. Later we see him in a nice house next to a river, the kind of house we would all like to live in. This young man has been given tremendous help but after all that he went through my heart swells to see him living in such a peaceful part of the world. He is working hard at university and when asked would he like to become an American citizen almost out of deference for people’s prejudices he simply says that he loves America and that that would be wonderful but something he does not take for granted. Through Hazim, Letterman is showing what can be gained from opening up to help others, not closing off to help ourselves. It is of course a lot more complicated than that and we have borders for reasons but by presenting a human face to such tragedies we can be reminded of much.
I would have preferred a little bit more of a chat with Nina and Ada Clooney but I am tickled pink by the immaculate way former beauty pageant champ Nina holds up a tablet for the camera as George and Amal skype everybody in Kentucky. Not having Amal and George actually there in Kentucky feels like a massive missed opportunity, to see George a son interact with his family but it allows the focus to remain on Hazim and to reveal the nature of the people who raised George Clooney into the kind of man that would try to help genocide in Africa at the same time that he gets together with a friend to invest in a house tequila.
Families are fascinating, Letterman consistently turns to child rearing for conversation in interviews and with new Dad Clooney this seems more than appropriate. Letterman who has a checkered past with good women whom he owes a great deal to tellingly describes that you can say you love your mother or you love your wife but when my kid was born I felt it well up inside of him effortlessly. These moments of candour remain why you tune in to such a show.
I still would have liked to see George with his whole family, I think Letterman understands this missed opportunity too because they do a remote at LAX with just George and Dave. It’s funny, its cute, it bookends the episode nicely. It’s another strong episode but I keep on coming back to the idea that Dave should be talking to new people and maybe people that will challenge him. Perhaps this is why I am most interested to see what happens next month with the guest for that episode being Malala Yousafzai.
I’m struggling to find a succinct way to speak about David Letterman and The Late Show. How can you sum up 15 years of watching someone. I’ve started several drafts of this piece rambling on about the other late night shows, Dave’s career, the qualities I admire in him and those I do not. Words upon words before even remotely coming close to mentioning the new show on Netflix. I will try to keep this short and about the new show.
It’s a little late to the game for newcomers to discover Dave but I hope some do. Letterman is doing six episodes on the streaming service interviewing what appears to be all people he admires and most that he has already interviewed before. I will be interested to see how that plays out. His first guest is former President Barack Obama who Letterman is clearly in awe of. Their body language speaking volumes as Letterman appears relaxed and in charge while still deferring to Obama. The format has changed, Letterman takes to the stage in a university theatre and speaks to a crowd before introducing his guest. They sit and talk in two comfortable leather chairs miked up and with clips playing throughout including Letterman walking with Congressman John Lewis across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Montgomery. Almost identical to the kind of seminars or talks a retired talk show host would do and ones that Letterman has done in recent years. You miss Paul and the band (Schaeffer did contribute the snazzy new theme tune) but not really the sketches. Letterman in his later years did one thing better than any of his late night competition. Leno, Fallon, Kimmel, Stewart, Colbert, Ferguson, O’Brien and Handler. He did interviews better than all of them and to see him spread his wings away from network television with no ad breaks is very enjoyable.
The two retirees (Obama significantly younger and busier is still looking back) are reflective most likely by design. As a legacy project Letterman does not so much attempt to reinvent his glory days as lean into his age and focus. These are two old guys talking about the old days and worrying about the future. Not just worrying though but on some level asking what they can do in the time they have left. Obviously for Letterman it is to ask questions, inform others and yes push agendas. In this sense by going back to basics the rebel in him is alive and well.
A few themes are nicely conveyed in this episode, for example an Obama presidency is only made possible by events like the one at Selma with a young John Lewis. Another example is in one breath the former President speaks of being a child home schooled by his mother while living in Indonesia. In the next he is talking about that woman’s granddaughter going off to college. Two polished speakers nicely delivering anecdotes and even hints of regret. Obama wonders if social media so integral to his 2008 campaign has not now been misused, while he is proud of his stewardship through the global financial crisis he candidly expresses that far too many people are left behind in the current economy (a clear expression of failure and regret if you’re paying attention).
Trump is not directly criticised by President Obama but John Lewis makes mention of him. I might have liked Letterman to point out that in 2012 the President spent more money on his campaign than Mitt Romney and whether he thinks that led to a slippery slope. To press him more on what he regrets more. There is a moment where Letterman is needled and he fires back a salvo and you wonder if we could get a little bit more of that banter.
If you’re a fan of either man and their work you’ll find lots to enjoy here. I do hope the show continues for a long time past these six episodes but I do hope it involves more remotes and guests that will challenge him. Imagine Leno or Dubya being interviewed. Maybe that does not fit with the legacy though, Letterman is moving forward and asking questions about how we can better to each other. Not picking fights. A classic moment for me is a closing question from Letterman to Barack. “Why was I not on that bridge?”. Who got The Tonight Show hardly seems important anymore. Dave long since earned the legacy and he’s putting it to good use.
I was inspired by the recent X-Files revival to muse on a long held lament of mine.
That of the disappointing television series finale. Warning spoilers ahead for any TV show being discussed.
Television is long form story telling affording the opportunity to make characters part of our lives with weekly catch-ups. It rewards staying power making you feel like a confidant who really lives with these people and understands them.
Yet most TV shows never have a plan for the arc of the show, are cancelled prematurely due to low ratings, lose actors to personal volatility, creative differences, ambition, etc. When a show is successful it often runs too many years and show runners and/or stars can leave before it closes. If not then often without a plan for a finale the show will suck. Lately the greatest way to cop out of a prestige series is simply leave an ambivalent ending ala The Sopranos. While in my opinion it works well in that series I can understand how some fans of David Chase’s series felt cheated. The X-Files was the longest running science fiction series of its time ending after 9 years. Part of its appeal had been a long convoluted conspiracy mythology that had already started to contradict itself long before the series ended. After 9 years all we got was our heroes on the run and an alien invasion set date of 2012 which seemed a million years away in 2003. What a fucking cop out. I was never a regular viewer and true fans have told me that the mythology is not such a sticking point for them since most of the show’s best episodes were about stand-alone plots. Still five years later a movie came tying up no loose ends and doing a standalone plot. Eight years after that we got six episodes which varied in quality but overall made the series viable ongoing for continuing adventures. Now there’s talk maybe another series and a third film to wrap up the stories. This is for a show that started in 1993 and peaked around about 1998. I was in high school, now I am middle aged so please to all involved…
What is served by delaying for another series or two of six episodes? Tales unless they are The Canterbury ones should be finished, even those should have been finished!
This brings me to Buffy the Vampire Slayer that I did watch regularly. I was 18 when Buffy and Angel got it on and he lost his soul in a cliff-hanger halfway through Season 2. Every episode after whether filler or not had us fans wondering when and if Angel would get his soul back. Every episode was taped on the VCR and played again during the week with my siblings as we quoted Whedon’s witty one liners and mused on how it would all play out. In that moment I loved that show possibly a way I will never love another show because anything from when you are a teenager becomes sacred. I was after all finding out about love at the same time Buffy was. Angel did get his soul back and get sent to hell before returning in season 3. At the end of that season Buffy graduated high school and Angel left for L.A. Their love story having begun to repeat itself would now be put on hold as David Boreanz got his own spin off. Season 3 was a great year for the show with the introduction of rogue slayer Faith and the Mayor being a superb villain. My little brother noted to me that the season finale felt more like a series finale and sadly his words would prove prophetic.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was never the same show for us after that, the writing became inconsistently funny and new storylines were far less enjoyable then the high school set ones. Which is not to say I regret the following four years Spike and Anya became fantastic main cast additions and there were some serious stellar episodes like Hush, Restless and Once More with Feeling.
Chosen brought Angel back for a cameo and but also acknowledged how much Spike had become just as interesting and popular a love interest. More importantly it had a stunning set piece finale, changed the status quo for the hero (giving every potential Slayer their powers automatically)and gave each character a chance to shine.
Angel which was probably a more consistent quality show over its five year run ended with our heroes in an alley about to go out fighting a horde of demons. It too had been a satisfactory finale but after eight years Buffy and Angel had not rode off into the sunset to live happily ever after. I know that shouldn’t be what I expect or want but after falling in love with these characters and their relationship despite how both shows had evolved over the years I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. In 2007 a Season 8 Buffy Comic followed and then a Season 6 Angel comic. I got to the end of both with not many answers and very disappointed how they had turned out despite the TV show writers being involved. Hence my central lament.
If there is a show that I feel more frustrated with it is Ally McBeal which I really discovered in 2011 but still carries a nostalgic factor due to watching some Season 2 episodes with my younger sister. If you’re a fan, you know Season 2 is really the best one. That show about a single female lawyer trying to find love in the modern era had its ups and downs but season 4 saw Robert Downey Jr. come on board and give the show new life. But his drug abuse eventually got him written off just as the two characters were to be married in the season finale. Season 5 attempted a reboot before I think the term was coined with a set of new characters for the firm as the most likeable character John Cage made fewer appearances. Typical of a David E. Kelley show interesting characters were left hanging with no plotlines and new characters were introduced randomly and then magically disappeared. A late add of Jon Bon Jovi and a daughter for Ally went nowhere and the show feeling a million miles from its fresh, oddball and original first season bowed out. Did Ally get back with her true love? No she left town with her daughter. John Cage alas was friend zoned after having made more interesting pairings with Portia De Rossi’s Nelle and Anne Heche’s Melanie. All these years later I still wish for a telemovie to show Ally reunited with Larry but Robert Downey Jr’s career success has made that a pipe dream.
Interestingly enough Boston Legal which perhaps was a better Ally McBeal 2.0 with boys did end right. Remaining characters were paired off, the firm survived, everybody got to stay together and do their jobs and Denny and Alan got married so Alan could be Denny’s power of attorney.
Well those are the season finales that I feel most passionately upset about. Let’s consider some that maybe stuck the landing. Feel free to disagree.
The best thing to come out of the Writer’s Strike of 2008 may be the reduced run of the BattleStar Galactica reboot series. Season 3 had felt a little bit like buying time but season 4 continually raised the stakes as the ship literally started to fall apart. Some fans don’t like the Series Finale where the fleet is flown into the sun after Earth is finally found, the Cylons are allowed to leave to find their own world, President Rosselin dies and Lee Adama decides to go walk about while Starbucks is revealed to be a Spirit and vanishes. What I adore about this finale is if you don’t agree with a character’s decision the story is left open for you to reverse it. Lee Adama is a born leader, I know he’s going to go exploring but soon he will return and he will lead people because that’s what an Adama does. How many shows develop their characters and their worlds so well that after all that time you can feel the freedom and confidence to do that following a finale.
The Wonder Years
Possibly my favourite series from my childhood, the finale after years of obsessing over Winnie Cooper had Kevin and Winnie lose their virginity in a barn. A voice over prologue at the end declares that Kevin’s father died, Winnie went to Paris and remained friends with Kevin who married somebody else and had a kid. Wait…WTF! Somehow though even at 13, I somehow understand after talking to my own Dad that life can turn out like that. The finale may be contentious for some but for me the show was always honest about life’s realistic turns and the wistful nostalgia Daniel Stern’s voice over carries for those days becomes so much more poignant when you realise that Kevin only has memories of his father from that time really.
Sitcoms notoriously run too long and lose talent and stop being funny. This maybe the gold standard though for how to do it right. If you cast back to the mid-80s and Sam and Diane getting engaged and moving in together you might have been very excited to hear that Shelley Long would return for the finale. Last time she was walking up the steps away from the bar declaring she would be back in a year. Old slugger Sam knew better and watched her departing figure go repeating “Have a nice life.” The writers knew something about those characters and about life in that exchange that went beyond Shelley Long leaving a popular show to pursue a film career. All those years later when they wrapped the show they displayed that wisdom again. Sam and Diane did not ride off into the sunset however much some fans may have wanted them to. No instead Diane went on with her career and Sam returned to his bar and its regulars. As each character got a send-off in a late night smoking session to welcome Sam back, Norm was left to declare that Sam all along had stayed with his one true love. Friends saw Ross and Rachel get together, Monica and Chandler have a baby and the friend stay friends while dramatically moving out of the apartments but Cheers has the greatest sitcom finale of all time.
The Late Show with David Letterman
Essentially a glorified clips show David Letterman’s sojourn still has big ticket guests doing an excellent Top Ten and the man himself holding centre stage in an honest speech saying goodbye. The montage of images played while the Foo Fighters close with Evergreen though is the kicker. So many memories and then Letterman steps up onto the stage waving to the crowd. Perpetually beginning for posterity’s sake as the show ends for good.
Repeating a feature of several later episodes the finale chews up valuable time with Don going to a retreat isolated from the rest of the characters back in New York. Where will the story end we wonder and then he quite possibly makes a breakthrough emotionally. We follow a montage of characters Peggy finally happy in a relationship and at work, Pete reunited with his family and hitting his peak like Don before him before his inevitable decline, Roger Sterling happily seguing into retirement and travel with a likeminded companion, Joan finally the boss, Betty in control of her life but sadly at the end of it and the wise rebellious Sally accepting responsibility in the family. When Don opens his eyes is he about to return to advertising with the famous Coke campaign that closes the series or is it just a gentle mocking of Don’s industry and our subsequent consumerist culture? These ambivalent endings can feel like cheats but when it comes to The Sopranos and Mad Men I am fairly happy with the results.
So what are some of favourites or least favourites? How do you rate the finales of Airwolf, Alf, Alias, The A-Team, Breaking Bad, Boston Legal, The Cosby Show, CSI, ER, Family Ties, Frasier, The Golden Girls, Hill Street Blues,Knight Rider, Lost, Magnum P.I., M.A.S.H., N.Y.P.D. Blues, Seinfeld, The Shield, The Sopranos, The West Wing?
Post Super Bowl programming deserves sports parlance as much as anything and in the case of CBS this year you could describe it as Stephen Colbert fumbled a great opportunity and James Corden showed up to play.
Late Night Talk Show Hosts are cults of personalities. Always have been. Johnny Carson the story goes turned to a young producer once about a show he was about to start. The producer had been explaining the skits, the formula, the guests, the production values. When the producer was done Carson leaned in and told him “These shows are all about the guy behind the desk.” They are and I can tell you this because without my guys Craig Ferguson and David Letterman the genre has held less appeal this past year. All that remain are talented entertainers but they’re not Craig Ferguson and David Letterman and so I have not felt compelled to write about them. Where I live and with the technology I have I semi-regularly catch whole shows of Stephen Colbert, James Corden and Jimmy Fallon. I chase down viral bits from Conan, Kimmel and Meyers on YouTube. Alas I’m not catching anything from Comedy Central because “I’m an overseas viewer.” Their loss or mine? Who knows in this social media driven culture. What I see I like and champion.
Coco’s ratings scores have been as low as 300,000 viewers during the low season and he has never crested a million on a regular night in years. Yet a little Cuban special snagged two million viewers taking in DVR recordings after the telecast last year. Relegated to TBS O’Brien has a social media presence and a youthful demographic that belies his years. He is the epitome of punching above his weight. Kids watching him now may not even know about the Leno fiasco of ’09 but they know about Uber, Tinder and Grinder, Ride Along with Kevin Hart and Ice Cube, Call of Duty, Archer, Magic Mike XXL and crucially they know funny and Conan O’Brien remains as funny as he has ever been. At 53 he is out doing remotes when Letterman was sending Biff Henderson and Rupert Jee into the fray. His cultural reach far exceeds his real numbers. Sure some of the interviews are boring, sure sometimes the monologue is lame. Who cares? This man shows up to work again and again and rather than coasting on old NBC bits he’s been reinventing himself for a new generation. GO COCO!
Fallon is King and moment to moment I doubt there’s anybody funnier that’s why he regularly rates higher than his competitors. You tune in for Trump on Colbert. You watch Fallon no matter who’s appearing because Fallon is appearing. His monologues actually make me laugh; he has an easy rapport with his house band The Roots which amongst being bonafide musicians all have unique personalities which are comfortable to get involved in sketches and on the spot riffing. It’s true they’ve had six years to get this down pat but they’re running like a well-oiled machine at this point. The question remains when will we get tired of this routine. Will Fallon ever mature into the statesman Carson and Letterman became? Does it really matter? Jimmy Fallon has no edge, so what? Late last year he asked a question of Trump who replied “These were not the question we agreed to.” In this simple gesture he made Jimmy Fallon more badass than any question he was going to ask would have made him. He once turned to Hilary Clinton and asked “Why don’t you release the e-mails? I’m sick of hearing about it, aren’t you?” and she agreed. He asked the question and he put it in terms that were on most American’s minds. Frustratingly they just moved on but that is not to say Fallon is a push over. He has actually been very steadfast that he wants to make a fun show and he wants his guests to have fun on his show like everybody else. You can tell Fallon’s politics as clearly as Colbert but like Conan O’Brien his show is not about politics but about having fun. As long as that is happening I don’t think he’s going anywhere. Can he be the fun guy for multiple generations? Can he do dance offs with the next pop sensation when he’s 55 or will it lose something when it isn’t a peer like Justin Timberlake? Time will tell but the man is incredibly talented, hardworking and he has the most entertaining show on late night television consistently. However short the reign he has not been a flash in the pan. He is the current King of Late Night Television. Fact.
Colbert is booking CEOs, civil rights leaders and journalists in a way nobody else on network late night television is. This is classic counter programming which won’t place him in No.1 but will hopefully snag enough of a high income audience to justify his existence. The thinking person’s alternative though lost to Kimmel and Meyers throughout the month of December and those guys provide some of what he is selling to audiences as well. That makes it tricky. Plus nobody really bitches about Meyers lack of viralness because his lead in from Fallon makes him the highest rated in his timeslot by a country mile. The Colbert Report was so good for so long that we took for granted what an upheaval a new show would be. Colbert a former improve actor could sing and dance, his quick wit and intelligence was undeniable, his interviews in his old persona were actually really insightful and on top of it all he had a youthful openness, a yearning to ask questions and find answers rather than accuse and demean. Yet The Late Show with Stephen Colbert has been rife with teething problems of any first year out program. Jon Batiste is a talented musician and Colbert and he appear to genuinely like the other but chemistry comes from a variety of factors and right now… they don’t have it. Joe Biden’s interview on Colbert was a gift that reminds us what a great television moment of authenticity can be. A man clearly laying bare his emotions in a public forum without anything to gain from it as it turned out since he didn’t end up running.
I like a lot of the sketches Colbert has established written by his clever writers like “A Big Furry Hat” and even more so “Big Thoughts with even Bigger Stars.” Yet Colbert’s celebrity interviews are often as awkward as Fallon’s ass-kissing routine where everyone is so great and so funny. An easy rapport with Chris Pine and Josh Brolin recently had me questioning why can’t all Colbert interviews be like that? This may not be entirely fair for someone who just renovated a theatre on Broadway and has big numbers in it but Colbert doesn’t seem to do remotes. Neither does Fallon to an extent but you feel it with Colbert. The guy is busting his ass, dabbling in live shows and doing five nights a week but when you take a break six weeks after your debut it feels lazy.
Which brings us to the Superbowl.
CBS took the unprecedented step of following their Super Bowl 50 coverage with a live telecast of their late night programs The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and The Late Late Show with James Corden. The Late Show started strong with a monologue that involved him throwing the football to first soldiers overseas, an astronaut and then the President. It’s the kind of extra expense stuff you save for such shows which also tugs at the heart strings of Americana. Support the troops, we can reach outer space and our Commander in Chief enjoys a throw of the ole pigskin as much as we all do. It got even better when Colbert involved in some meta humour. The President pointed out he was in a pre-taped bit to which the host insisted he was doing the show live. President Obama proved his point by bringing Colbert onscreen in the bit to talk to his live studio self. It was a neat sketch and was true to Stephen’s comic sensibilities.
Unfortunately the rest of the show was not as strong at all. Colbert followed with an interview with Tina Fey and Margot Robbie that was average despite Fey usually being funny. It was awkwardly interrupted by a cross to the Super Bowl stadium to have a satellite interview with MVP winner Von Miller. When it concluded Fey joked “Now about this movie.” Will Ferrell followed with a neat joke about being a new animal expert for the show and refusing to talk about Zoolander 2 which he was there to spruik. Yet I couldn’t help but flashback to his lip sync battle with Kevin Hart last year on Fallon and just feel these were half measures. A popular sketch from Key and Poole related to football also made an appearance before finally Megyn Kelly showed up to engage Colbert in the type of interview that he’s good at but at that point the hour had drawn near. 22,000,000 viewers watched this fucking show. Two decades ago at the height of his powers with a four network landscape and a Winter Olympics lead in David Letterman mustered 14 million on a weeknight. Last year when he retired he pulled 13.7 million. You’ll never get 22 million again, this was a golden opportunity to draw a wide net and grab some extra casual viewers over the long haul to hopefully remain a viable competitor. To be fair it wasn’t for lack of tyring, Key and Poole, Fey and Ferrell are all comedy superstars and were well chosen. They referenced football, they got the President and the First Lady to show up and Megyn Kelly is a high profile reporter and brings an audience that doesn’t tune into Colbert. It was the kind of aisle crossing inclusivity the late show host has practiced since he booked Jeb Bush on his first night on CBS. Yet it didn’t flow seamlessly, it was a mess of ideas and priorities. Look here’s celebrities but we’ve got to cross to an actual footballer. Here’s a sketch from another show because it involves football which means it will be fifty minutes before I talk to Megyn Kelly which arguably is going to be the best bit but will not be funny and we need to be funny right?
James Corden On The Other Hand
The Late Late Show followed and scored a franchise high of 5 million which is impressive when you consider some affiliates were going with local news at that point after cutting Colbert’s last few minutes. So let’s talk about James Corden. James Corden a portly British television and theatre star has spent twelve months on his show embracing American culture including kicking a half time field goal at a local game and hanging out at a tailgate party.
Following this formula he did a similar thing with his signature sketch- he did Carpool Karaoke with Elton John. This part of the show referenced nothing about the Super Bowl but it was Corden’s superstar sketch with a major superstar in it for his biggest audience ever. That’s how you do it. By organically filling the rest of the show with football the Elton John bit did not need it and since Carpool Karaoke is such a signature Corden bit its inclusion did not feel awkward or out of place either in the Super Bowl special. Speaking of Carpool Karaoke, a recent one with Adele has hit 67,000,000 views on YouTube. That’s more than anything on YouTube from any late night TV show. The Late Late Show with James Corden is not perfect but I marvel sometimes at it. It has a spirit of fun, has established its own identity within weeks of airing for the first time, Corden’s chemistry with Reggie Watts is easy and Watts is not a sidekick but his own thing. One night I tuned in and James Corden and Tori Kelly went out to restaurants in a remote and sang for their supper. Working outside the studio with a shaky premise and uncertain of how crowds are going to react makes for exciting if awkward television. As it advanced Reggie’s house band came out and Tori Kelly got people up and dancing to her song Nobody Love. The punch line made me smile.
Zoologist Jack Hanna of Letterman fame showed up with Betty White a great animal lover along with Amar’e Soudemire. Rachel Platten closed with a powerful rendition of her pop hit Stand By You. My God it was fun!
When legends retire, you stand up and you applaud. For the past month of shows the audience in the Ed Sullivan Theatre have been rising to their feet as David Letterman walks out to do his monologue at the beginning of what are to be the last episodes of The Late Show with him at the helm. The monologues are not the strong suit of the show and five minutes later only one good guffaw may have been unleashed. Still they are on their feet clapping. Most likely not for the monologue or even the show to come. Most likely not for the guests on that night. Possibly not even when things are going particularly well. No they’re rising to their feet and giving a standing ovation for over 6,000 shows over 33 years. A lifetime of memories that Letterman gave us from a lifetime of work. They’ve come from around the country, most are long-time fans, and they’ve paid money, booked tickets and waited outside. They haven’t done this for nothing. They’ve done this because they want to see the man in the arena either one last time or for the first time because one more times are fast running out. A pilgrimage to let the man know it mattered, what you did mattered and we are grateful. Part of this is nostalgia and sentiment for time passing. Would we have appreciated him signing on for another year of not being Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel? But the outpouring of love and reminiscing runs deeper.
Letterman’s origins come from so long ago we kind of take for granted how much he changed the comedy landscape. Tenure gives you respectability as Letterman has pointed out adamant that he is no Johnny Carson but Judd Apatow, the two Jimmies, Conan, Jon Stewart, Ray Romano, Stephen Colbert to name a few have cited the importance of how 80s Late Night show changed everything. The hyperbole of the moment includes Late Night television will never be the same. You hear laments about how talk has left the genre of talk shows. So it’s important to remember in September there is going to be a lot of buzz devoted to Colbert’s arrival as the second ever host of The Late Show and the ensuing interest to see if Fallon can stay No.1 and if Fallon remains king what will this mean for all the new players.
Time marches on and the world continues to turn. In a moment as we all get misty eyed about Dave and his achievements it’s easy to forget sometimes that he’s been a little lazy in recent years, a little a bit of a prick to people who didn’t deserve it, a little too awkward around young starlets. So why the love? Seriously is it all for the revolution that was Late Night in the 1980s? I mean why didn’t Jay Leno get this much press last year? Seriously he didn’t. 22 years at the top in the ratings, far nicer to people and probably on average funnier moment to moment than his rival. Partly this was due to the fact that Leno had gone away before and come back but also because critics have never loved Leno as much as Letterman.
Maybe it’s because Letterman is 33 years of Late Night, the last link to an age when Johnny Carson was still on the air. Conan O’Brien has become the elder statesmen and he is only has 11 years to go to match Dave’s record, Kimmel has 20 years, Colbert has 20 and Fallon has 27 years to go. Although television as we know it going to be around in 2022 let alone 2042. They might make it and hell if any goes with 20 or 25 in the bank it will deserve our recognition. However this is about more than longevity. It’s about more than all that the gap toothed youngster did in the 1980s. All this love is about Dave.
I’ve been watching David Letterman since 2001; I was a university student living in public housing in Australia with a TV and five channels. In the middle of the night if you didn’t want to watch Tony Robbins infomercials The Late Show was it. This was before torrents. Before YouTube. Before cheap DVDs. I had seen Jay Leno on my parent’s cable and thought he was funnier and nicer. Kevin Eubanks seemed more hip than Paul Schaeffer and the bigger stars seemed to be on Leno but this was nothing else on so I watched. Then something funny happened. One night I was over at my parents place and I asked my siblings to turn the channel over to him at the allotted time. They didn’t get it. They mocked it but that’s when I knew, I was a fan.
Was dropping random objects in a giant water tank mesmerising television? No it was not. As sexy and talented as a grinder girl was I don’t think I needed to see her that many times or hula-hoops lady either but stagehands Pat and Kenny reading Oprah transcripts –that never got old.
Alan talking sexy to the camera. Love it.
When Biff yelled out at a jogger with a bullhorn “You’re going to die anyway.” While passing by in a car I laughed so hard.
Letterman himself played over and over a clip from a Gap Jeans commercial just because he liked the girl in it. Given at the time he was 30 years her senior that is perhaps a little leery for today but it spoke to my youthful hormones and on some level you knew Jay wasn’t doing stuff like this. Dave was the rebel and as the years ticked away that became why I loved him. When you think about some of his best interviews some of the ones that immediately come to mind were distinctly unpleasant. Letterman would milk the awkward tension and unpleasant vibe for all it was worth.
A personal favourite was Paris Hilton coming on the show after her time in jail.
I’ve seen the clips of Cher, Madonna, Andy Kaufmann and Harmony Korinne from before my viewing time as well. They’re all solid gold as well as any number I watched live with Bill O’Reilly though they have mellowed around each other somewhat.
Regis Philbin who was an unknown to me here in Australia has been on the show more than anybody else for a reason. Some of the best shows Dave had were with Regis. Just two old guys on a couch arguing like an old married couple. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFx3n6DSD9E
But other interviews I’ve loved with Letterman had nothing to do with awkward pauses and glib putdowns. If Dave has become known for openly showing disinterest in the parade of young stars with repetitive products to shill he has become the go to guy for former Presidents, current politicians, war heroes and journalists to be interviewed by.
Some of the celebrity ones have been stellar.
I’m not interested in pointing the finger at younger rivals and complaining that they can’t do this. The Dave of Late Night couldn’t have brought gravitas like the Dave of now. They can grow into it just like he did.
Yet Dave does bring something only he can. I don’t know if it’s the Midwest in him or his interest in wordplay but there’s something deeply unique and profoundly simple in the some of the way he talks about things. On Robin Williams he described his comedy force arriving at the Comedy store in comparison to the other comedians. “We’re like morning dew and he comes in like a hurricane.” When jousting with Bill O’Reilly “You’re putting words in my mouth just like you put artificial facts in your head.” Or when returning to the air after September 11, 2001 “We are told these attacks were carried out by zealots fuelled by religious fervour and if you live to be 1000 years old will that make any sense. Will that make any Goddamn sense.”
Johnny Carson tucked America into bed for 30 years. If nothing else David Letterman did it that night. He still has that power. Letterman was the last to return to the air after Robin Williams’s sudden suicide and we waited to see what he would say about the man he had known for 30 years having passed away. By recounting the early days of the Comedy Store he acknowledged the extraordinary talent and generosity of the man. There was no homespun homily either. After a clip throughout the years he closed with “I had no idea the man was in so much pain, that the man was suffering. Robin Williams what a guy.”
David Letterman doesn’t lie. This is troublesome when he’s bored by someone you or the populace likes. Yet that brings its own reward. When at 67 years of age he bounds onto the stage and says the indie rock band playing was good you know he means it. When he introduces a guest as the very funny or the very talented it’s high praise.
Not lying allowed him to interview Warren Zevon and not gloss over then fact that he was dying. Zevon is a musicians’ musician who amongst other hits wrote and performed Werewolves of London. But in 2002 when Dave has Zevon it’s fair to say he wasn’t the biggest star in the world. Long-time Letterman fans knew him thought from multiple appearances including sitting in for bandleader Paul Schaeffer. He devoted the whole show to him and me who didn’t know Zevon or their mutual history was mesmerised. “It’s lung cancer.” Zevon told him and David responded “That’s tough.” with a heartfelt grimace having gone through a quintuple bypass a couple of years earlier. Mortality was circling the now middle aged rock’n‘roll baby boomers.
You can hear a pin drop in the clip as the audience goes deathly quiet. Zevon cracks wise throughout the interview and looks great if a little thin but does not shy away from what is happening. Death is a part of a life but seldom is it dealt with on television with such authenticity. It is here. Hear Dave’s voice crack when he tells “Stop it Paul” who is offering Warren to play the songs in any order. Warren Zevon performs three songs on the night and while his voice can’t quite ascend to its full range during the ballad Mutineer he is right on point throughout his last public performance. Looking over at his fellow musicians in recognition and thanks at the end of every song I am always moved by the concentration on every band member’s face as they nail the horn finale of Mutineer.
During the interview Letterman asked Zevon if he knew anything about life that he did not know yet. Zevon answered “To enjoy every sandwich.” The sentiment is so simple and so profound it shows the similarity of their two sensibilities. At the end of the final performance Letterman strolls over and advises Zevon and us all to enjoy every sandwich.
It immediately spoke to him and he repeated the exchange in a tribute show to Zevon the following year when the news came that he had passed away. It was a lovely touch earlier this month when a cover of Mutineer was played and Letterman mentioned Zevon by name after. That whole show was just so real and I pray to God that tradition is maintained in the late night shows to come.
Not lying has brought him forgiveness too. Coming clean about having an affair with staff was an incredible low point. I used to watch Stephanie Birkitt on the show that is a few years older than me and I had a big crush on her. We’ve all got our own sins to make up for but I am pleased to see Dave trying as much as the rest of us, maybe even more and while it’s none of my business I hope Regina is now happy and at the time gave’em hell. I hope Birkitt and also those affected will be allowed to get on with their lives from this moment. But when Dave says he did a terrible thing and he has a lot of work cut out for him it kind of makes me happy to still count myself as a fan.
I just like Dave. But I also like the entire crew that he has brought in front of the camera. Rupert Jee from the Hello Deli, the aforementioned Alan Kalter, Pat and Kenny, Biff Henderson. Then there is Paul Schaeffer. Paul Schaeffer it turns out was just as hip if not more hip as Kevin Eubanks. He’s backed some of the biggest names in the business on the show and made some of the most magical musical moments on the show possible. Every night as the commercials have come and gone I have gotten used to the bands rendition of this song and that. I can’t believe they’re not going to be there anymore. This would have been more than an achievement but Paul has become one of the funniest sidekicks on TV even sometimes nailing a punch line as Dave searches for one. This supporting cast of characters has been as much fun as Dave has.
Yet it all does come back to Dave. When I think about my favourite bits from the last decade I usually recall stories he told at his desk in between the monologues and the guest interviews. One day he told a story of stealing the car keys of paparazzi following him while he jogged. When he threw the car keys away he closed with the line “I felt like Clint Eastwood.” Another story about a bear breaking into his house is a well-known classic https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWRTglU3GXU
as well as the countless riffs on the Conan vs. Jay war of ’09
Last year when announcing his retirement he again was in story mode and it softened the blow beautifully while also making you realise the one thing you were going to miss most about him – that of the storyteller. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l5sVI_-LRCI
For two years I had Craig Ferguson and he became my favourite but he’s already gone. Maybe that’s a good thing because while I was still watching Dave these past few months have reminded me why Letterman was my Late Night host for all these years. I’ve seen a lot of clips of Johnny Carson and I get why 1992 was such a pivotal moment in American culture. Carson was everything. When Letterman says he is no Carson I understand what he means but Letterman is Letterman and that in itself is something special so let me put it out there in this little obscure part of the internet. Dave always feel free to come back and do anything you want big or small. It won’t taint your legacy and we’ll be happy to see you. Adam Sandler struck a nerve with me when he sang “Because you’re the king of comedy, my best friend on TV.”
When Craig Ferguson’s last show aired in the middle of the night I stood up alone in my living room in my boxers as Craig finished singing and the audience applauded. I smiled sheepishly knowing how stupid I was behaving but wanting to feel connected in some way.
No doubt I’ll be on my feet again this Thursday. Because that’s what you do when legends retire. You stand up and you applaud.
Two more weeks and then Craig Ferguson will no longer host The Late Late Show.
If ratings are anything to go by this is hardly the concern of most but a few.
I count myself as one of those proud few.
There I was one night recently lying on my couch watching Ferguson at 11:30pm and I just smiled. It had been a long long day and the sandman was at my door but I had held on, left the TV on. Because he’s my guy, it’s my show and I just smiled.
This is my Late Night TV show. My favourite. I only started watching two years ago when I got a digital TV. Maybe only a year ago did I discover all those old clips on YouTube and start mentioning to my friends that they should watch.
And now all too soon he’ll be gone and that will be that.
So it’s important to savour these last few nights of a truly unique late night talk show.
What do you get with Ferguson at the helm that you don’t get with my David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel?
I’ve been a long time watcher of Letterman who has the best interviews and the relaxed style of a veteran that can only exist by having been around. Watch him announce his retirement or pay tribute to Robin Williams, Jimmy Fallon the King of Late Night currently doesn’t have that gravitas nor storytelling ability. Fallon might grow into it. As a host celebrated for his boyish good looks, social media savvy and youthful enthusiasm people fail to notice he regularly acknowledges the history of the medium and seeks guests who are part of its rich history. Kimmel will keep Letterman’s snark alive and well. His comedy has edge and his most classic bits are just as newsworthy as any of the endearingly daggy games Fallon gets big guests to play. I really would have liked to have seen Conan O’Brien get a fair shake at The Tonight Show. I doubt that he would have been the success that Jimmy Fallon is now but for my money he is a better host. Conan felt like my generation’s Carson. He lampooned the things I knew and loved. He had the guests on that were my popular culture and his bits were just my sensibility.
But Ferguson…Craig Ferguson is my favourite. For starters I love double entendres, the more obvious the better and Craig has made an art of doing the obvious ones and doing several in an episode.
I love how he flirts with many of his female guests. Sometimes the way he fawns over how great an actress looks and then quickly mentions a male guest is looking good does raise concern of whether he comes across as someone who places too high a value on the way a woman looks. But he seems genuinely a fan of Shailene Woodley not just because she is beautiful but because she is smart and confident. While he happily flirts with someone younger like Kirsten Bell whose many appearances on the show have become legend because of their easy rapport, he is also flirts with peers like Robin Wright, Mary McCormack and Sandra Bullock and more venerable guests like Betty White. Some of the best bits have been when the women call his bluff and not only flirt back but confront him with doing something else. His nervous smile and clear discomfort with Kate Mara or Berenice Marlohe show he is happily married and out of his depth. Gwendoline Christie who plays Brienne of Tarth of Game of Thrones was on recently and is a great example of this. For a woman I know for being dressed up in armour, being stern and heroic and noted for her height it was a fantastic change of pace to see her being sexual and funny.
Secondly I love the zaniness of the show. This might have cost him in the end a shot at the 11:30 timeslot but that race had probably already been lost when Geoffrey Peterson and Secretariat became permanent fixtures. He has great chemistry with Josh Robert Thomson who voices, wait for it, The Gay Robot Skeleton Geoffrey Peterson. Yes Craig has a skeleton mannequin off to the side of the stage and also two guys in a horse suit named Secretariat off to the other side in a stable. I figured this was pretty weird but hardly off putting in this day and age. So imagine my delight when I found my baby boomer mother was put off by Geoffrey. “He’s a symbol of death, it’s kinda creepy.” She’d tell me. No offense Mum but your discomfort kind of makes Geoff and Craig just a little bit cooler and I thought at 34 I was way past these delights. Ferguson stated in several interviews that Thomson and him will be working together in the future. I’m not surprised. Often the best lines of the night belong to Geoff Peterson and not in a threatening manner to the lead host. Part of their act is essentially Ferguson throwing to Peterson for a punch line or at least to help him build to one. At least twice every night when a joke stalls Peterson pops in one that did work a few minutes before but in a mocking manner as if the show really never pulls off anything.
That’s part of the appeal for me too. Since the show airs at 12:30 at night in the States it’s like a best kept secret. It’s production values look cheap and half the time it’s guests are B-Grade. I cannot back up if this is actually true but the impression they try to sell is that Craig comes out and rather than do a monologue written by ten writers and put on cue cards he rattles off a few points of interest from the day and see where it takes him. This means when everybody else is referring to Governor Christie or the Presidential elections Craig might be mentioning an obscure International Day of… There’s a devil may care attitude to proceedings and an acknowledgement this late in the game that the people watching aren’t mainstream America but fans most of which aren’t casual viewers. You either get this or you don’t and if you get it you’re not normal-you’re one of us. That’s a terribly nice feeling when you sit down to watch something. If you think you’re odd, you’re not alone and maybe you’re a little bit cool because you get it and not everybody does. The opening number written and performed by Ferguson implores you to stay up and that you’re part of a group. It’s hard to stay up. It’s been a long long day and the sandman is at your day. But hang on. Leave the TV on. And let’s do it anyway.
Let us do it anyway.
The show follows a standard format. Monologue (kinda), a section where Craig reads tweets and e-mails from viewers while riffing with Geoff, interview 1, interview 2 and finally a summation of the night with What Did We Learn on the Show Tonight Craig? I’ll admit that I look forward to the monologues and tweets and emails reading most nights. The only difference between the two is the stimuli and that he stands up for the monologue and sits down to read the e-mails and tweets from viewers in the second one. Both rely on repeated jokes that are told every week and appear to be adlibbed by Ferguson and Thomson to hopefully come up with a punch line that will be successful enough to end the segment on. When you think about it, this is gutsy live performing that is a wonder to behold. Nobody else does this. Everybody else had monologues that are polished, topical and get smaller laughs more often. Craig and Geoff crack me up though and there’s an energy that comes from the comedians themselves not knowing how they are going to get to where we’re headed. It’s two mates basically trying to crack each other up.
The interviews can be hit or miss but it’s not because Ferguson is a bad interviewer. Ferguson is interested in ideas and owing to the later start time he gets on people that don’t have to be big celebrities. Novelists, old comedians and the former Mayor of Reykjavik sit down on his couch and not just to plug some product but to merely tell their story. His interview with Reverend Desmond Tutu won him a Peabody Award and he had a whole episode where he discussed a range of topics with Stephen Fry. The latter being a tribute to the former format of the show under Tom Snyder who really did a TALK show. When somebody sits down for an interview he asks the kind of random casual questions you’d do with a friend you haven’t seen in a while or stranger you just met at a party. He infuses every interview with a sense we can talk about anything. Many years ago he had an interview with Alec Baldwin and he read his cards for the interview which were prepared by his staff. The first question was “How have you been?” He tore up the cue cards and has made a point of doing so ever since. Anthony Hopkins talked to him about being in the army not so much his latest movie. Kevin Bacon talked about his Mum’s cooking not so much his new TV show. Shailene Woodley talked about pipe smoking and Matthew McConaughey about acting and Don Cheadle about colonoscopies. Ferguson will rope in things going on in his life at the moment like becoming a vegetarian or a new love for British TV show Foyle’s War or an incident of road rage. They often feel like genuine conversations with people he is either friends with or is getting to know. I doubt this is true but that’s what it feels like. So much so that I am surprised when I see them show up on other talk shows. Kevin you bitch?! What will Craig think? Why didn’t you ever do a Footloose re-enactment on his show? Yeah silly I know but that’s how friendly they sometimes seem. If the guest and him are struggling to find a focal point he may pull out his pipe and pretend to be a therapist. This works on so many levels. First off it mocks the LA mentality that everybody, especially rich famous people, are seeing a therapist. Secondly it invites celebrities to talk about their secret fears, hates or dreams. To share something real and personal. Thirdly in a very real way it has gotten quite a few quests to mention they have done therapy. This has opened up to a wider audience however subtlety that everybody goes through a range of issues of emotions in their lifetime and if you need to see a therapist then you are not the only one. While we’re on the topic of acceptance having a gay sidekick however not real is a step in the right direction too. There may be a lot of play on word jokes but honestly after you’ve heard of Geoff’s active sex life isn’t this making more conservative people used to hearing about a gay person having an active sex life. Yes I know he’s a skeleton and he’s not real. I still love him and still think it’s a relevant point. A mainstay of the show is him closing with an awkward pause. Like a lot of gags they can get too repetitive but there’s something comforting in the repetition and most times it leads to something amusing if not hilarious.
I think it’s high time we get someone on Late Night who isn’t a middle aged white guy and I’ll tell you why. Because while Ferguson is those two things he is also a Scotsman and that alone has brought an outsider’s perspective to proceedings. He’s well-travelled, well read and refers to pop culture that sometimes Americans don’t know about. The aforementioned Foyle’s War and Doctor Who for example. He’s taken the show on the road to New Orleans, Scotland and France. There is something wonderful in that. The idea to introduce your audience to large ideas, a wider world and obscure entertainment that nobody else knows about. Compare that to a company man like Fallon who only mentions what’s coming up next on the show this week.
Finally I just like Ferguson. He’s not mean like Letterman or Kimmel can be. But he’s more real and honest than Fallon and less zany than O’Brien. In the serious moment of the show he talks about his aim to be honest with everything he does with the show. That kind of nobility can only come from a man who’s lived life. The son of a postal worker and a teacher. A former punk rocker who became a stand-up comedian who worked odd jobs including bouncer and construction worker. A Scotsman who brings an outsider’s perspective to Americans and yet as a newly minted citizen has an idealism and deep love for his adopted nation. A man who is well travelled and well-read who in between the smutty humour will quote Kaufman, Beckett and Freud. An actor who I remember fondly playing Mr Wick on The Drew Carey Show, an author and a screenwriter. A doting father and happily married husband who knows the pain of divorce. An alcoholic who hasn’t had a drink in two decades. This all informs his act and beneath the scramble to make you laugh is a determined journey to make you engage. Even I can recognise that Craig makes it a little bit about him sometimes but in doing so it draws us in as viewers and I believe has drawn in some of his regular guests. Mary McCormack a regular spoke on last night’s episode that she loved when he spoke about his Dad. He said he’s never gone back and watched it but at the timehe just had to do it. It was almost ten years ago when the show had been on the air for a year when his father passed away and he talked about his father in the opening monologue. It says something about how real that love and loss is and it was about his father and not him when he says he’s never gone back to look at it. As soon as I got into Ferguson and read up about him I immediately youtubed it. Fathers and sons are a particularly pertinent topic for me and this did not disappoint. He talks about a man who loomed large in his life and that he looked up to. A man who was tough and taught him right from wrong but also looked out for him. The man couldn’t let his father pass without acknowledging it and the same was true after the Colorado shooting or the Boston Marathon Bombing or his mother’s passing.
How could he make us laugh when something sad had happened? He had to be honest in that moment and about how he felt. His feelings are faultless because in remaining true to how he felt he has honoured the dead. That honesty was even more powerful and profound when he spoke about his alcoholism in the wake of Britney Spears being carted off in the back of an ambulance with a shaved head. Here was someone famous and wealthy who couldn’t keep it together and so was throwing it all away. In our ignorance we may have judged her a little for risking it all through bad decisions. You can’t beat this rap with money Ferguson said and then wished her good luck. To not hop on the band wagon with such insight into addiction and some courageous openness about his own past sealed the deal. Craig Ferguson is my favourite and I will miss him when these two weeks are up.