Better Late than Never

Better Late than Never

Better Late than Never

TV and popular culture.
Jan. 8 2005 3:40 PM

Better Late than Never

The high point of Surfergirl's week.

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OK, I know y'all will say it's the drugs, but seriously—objectively!—this was the best Late Late Show so far. First of all, the opening theme is even better than I realized: a kind of reckless challenge to the nocturnal viewer ("It's hard to stay up/ It's been a long, long day … /But hang on, leave the TV on, and let's do it anyway") that ends with a near-Shakespearean affirmation of nihilism: "Tomorrow's just a future yesterday." Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow … an endless succession of future Late Late Shows with Craig Ferguson, until the last syllable of recorded time. Out, out, brief candle!

Monologue: Still sucks. I've figured out why Fergie's standup jokes never work: because he has no self-deprecating backup schtick, no "that joke didn't work, did it?" patter. Everyone has some version of this: Carson had it, Leno and Letterman have it, O'Brien's comedy is essentially made up of nothing else. But just now, Fergs told a weak joke, got no laugh, and repeated it. Just flat-out retold the joke, as if he were explaining it to a child. Cue sound of wind whooshing through studio.

Commercial: I feel perfectly normal, but I guess I must be a little high, because when the announcer in a commercial for a line of cruise ships says that the price of a cruise "includes air," I find myself thinking, of course it includes air! How could a cruise ship deny air to its passengers? Then I realize: Oh, they mean airfare.

Comedy Bits: He just did it! Scored his first out-and-out laugh of the week! Unscripted, of course—if you left it to these writers, no one would ever crack a smile. During a dull new feature called "A Cup of Tea and a Chat," in which the host takes questions from the audience while enjoying tea and scones at his desk, Fergie—for reasons too involved to explain here—suddenly felt inspired to improvise a bit of physical business wherein the teapot became a runaway car, zooming across his desk. It was a sweet, childlike, and completely spontaneous bit of play, utterly unlike the forced merriment of the rest of the show, and the studio audience (and I) cracked up out of sheer surprise. The rest of the comedy bits: excruciating, as usual.

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Guests: Jeremy Piven, who plays the amped-up agent on HBO's Entourage, is a dream talk-show guest: funny, quick on his feet, and well-prepared for his interview (unlike Craig Ferguson, who, on hearing that Piven was starring in a Neil LaBute play called Fat Pig, asked, "Is there a pig in it?"). There's one moment between them that makes the whole week of watching worthwhile. When Fergs asks Piven if he has a girlfriend, Pivs responds, "I do not, but the night is young, and I'm a straight man, but I do find you attractive. Is that awkward?" The audience squeals in delight, and the two men proceed to lock eyes and flirt for the next full minute. And it's not that fake-awkward straight-guy kind of flirting that makes shows like Friends so unwatchable—it's a daring tease, a tongue-in-cheek but brazen come-on that only resolves when Piven all but offers himself up for an end-of-show encounter: "It's the end of your first week, I thought you could go out with a bang." Snap! Way to make the frat-boy demographic squirm!

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Dana Stevens is Slate’s movie critic.

The second guest, Harvard anthropology professor Frank Marlowe, is so electrifying I could listen to him all night. He studies a group of tribes on the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, some of whom are the only known people on earth to remain completely uncontacted by outsiders. (Apparently most of the Andaman Islands population survived the tsunami by fleeing to high ground, but because of their isolation, it's difficult to know.) They're hunter-gatherers with Stone Age-era technology and no agriculture who shoot at intruders with bows and arrows (including a National Geographic photographer who was wounded 20 years ago trying to snap a picture). It's fascinating stuff, but Fergs is asking the worst questions—dumb gags about whether the tribes should be paying taxes, etc. The almost-majored-in-anthro nerd in me goes wild, and I'm literally yelling at the television screen: "Ask about their language! What kind of tools do they use?" Thank God I'm home alone.

Commercial: What's this "Oveglove" that's suddenly all over late-night TV? Some kind of thermal heatproof glove you wear while changing lightbulbs around the house? I'm no marketing expert, but it's not clear how this product is creating a niche for itself beyond the regular oven mitt.

Musical Guest: After being bumped from the show on Monday (see below), G. Love is back, picking an electric guitar as he sings a bluesy hip-hop song called "Booty Call." It's catchy, but I can't stop free-associating on his name. G. Love. Glove. Oveglove! It all makes sense.

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And so ends my journey of discovery with Craig Ferguson. I may catch the show from time to time, but we'll never be this close again. I'll miss his sad, Scottish roué face, the poignant wave as he says, "Goodnight, everybody." He reads a list of guests for next week: John Goodman, William H. Macy, Patricia Arquette. Great. At the end of my week in the trenches, now he starts to attract the A-list.

Friday, Jan. 7, 2005

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William Blake once encouraged  his readers to "see the world in a grain of sand/ And a heaven in a wild flower/ Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ And eternity in an hour."  Maybe sitting through Hour 4 of my weeklong engagement with The Late Late Show just feels like eternity, but I think I see Blake's point: If you contemplate anything long and carefully enough, the essence of the object will begin to emerge. This week, I've looked too deeply into the world of late-night talk shows, and I've come to understand a few crystalline truths:

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The essence of Fergie

Monologue: Craig Ferguson is Everyman, trapped in a world he never made, speaking lines he never wrote into a vast, uncaring void. His resolutely unfunny standup routine is an illustration of this existential dilemma. If he ever actually told a good joke, it would only sully his purity.

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Comedy Bits: After flashing a set of different gag calendars for 2005—"Famous Shins," "Sir Ben Kingsley and his Smokin' Hot Wife"—Fergie plays his first interactive game with the audience, which involves recruiting two volunteers to see who can stack the highest tower of donuts. I'm disappointed to see that the good-hearted host has a hard time connecting with the crowd. The man and woman who go onstage to pile pastries seem awkward and confused, and Fergs has no tricks up his sleeve to put them at ease. I think of Letterman, who, despite his near-pathological sarcasm, always seems to truly enjoy the everyday folks on his show.

Guests: Jason Alexander comes out, cute as a button. (Am I the only person who found George Costanza on Seinfeld attractive?) Discussing his upcoming gig hosting the People's Choice Awards, he offers Fergie a bit of free advice: "There is no upside to hosting anything." Given that Alexander was one of the early candidates considered to host The Late Late Show, this hits a little too close to home; it's the guy who turned down your job telling you that you should have done the same. The second guest, Hau Thai-Tang, is a Vietnamese-American automotive engineer who redesigned the Ford Mustang. Thai-Tang is the first non-celebrity guest of the week, and his conversation with Ferguson is The Late Late Show's first real spark of life. Ferguson (who admitted at the top of hour that he was a car nut and that the decision to have this guest was very "guy-ey" of him) seems knowledgeable and engaged, asking questions about British Formula 1 champions and manual shift vs. automatic transmission. At the end of the segment, we get a glimpse of Fergs driving the new Mustang around the show's parking lot, and the brief escape from the studio feels like (to quote Braveheart) "Freeeedom!" If I was a producer, I'd have put Fergie in the car with Thai-Tang and filmed their entire conversation on the road. Go with your obsessions, Craig. Obsessions are good.

Which is why I will pursue mine for one more night. Tonight, while Fergie talks to Jeremy Piven and G. Love, I will be taking the advice of a reader who wrote in to say, hey, if late-night television is really designed for the sleepless and the stoned, why don't you try watching it, well, that way? Against the advice of my lawyer, my doctor, and my mom (but with the tacit approval of my morally challenged editor), that is exactly what I plan to do. Tune in tomorrow (yes, Saturday) for the no-doubt-terrifying results.

Thursday, Jan. 6, 2005

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There's no separating the multiple threads of causation that may have led to Tucker Carlson's departure from CNN's Crossfire and the imminent demise of the show itself: an antiquated format? Low ratings? A better offer from MSNBC? But CNN president Jon Klein wants it known that, as the network's chief executive, he takes his orders from clowns: In an interview, he said he "firmly" agreed with comedian Jon Stewart's on-air dressing-down of Carlson last October. (Scroll down for a recap: you're a dick, go to journalism school, stop hurting America, etc.) Wonkette marvels at Klein's deft capacity for rhetorical blame-shifting, while Slate's own Mickey Kaus wonders, "Why would anyone want to go to work for this man?"

But in my opinion, one development that might have given Klein the guts to bluff this one out is the recent praise heaped on CNN (including, but not only, here at Surfergirl) for their hard-headed coverage of the tsunami. Earlier this week (scroll down), I wondered how the pretty-boy anchor Anderson Cooper would fare as an on-site reporter in Sri Lanka; by all accounts, he's redefining the network's disaster coverage, and possibly earning himself Dan Rather's anchor spot in the process. My guess is Klein is coasting on this newfound gravitas to explain what would otherwise be the slightly embarrassing demise of an unpopular show. One natural disaster, and suddenly it's all about dignity at CNN. The high-volume negativity of Fox-style journalism is out the window; the theme for 2005 is "respecting the audience," as Klein makes clear later in the same interview: ''I doubt when the president sits down with his advisers they scream at him to bring him up-to-date on all of the issues." (That's true. They obviously stopped trying a long time ago.)

One thing's for sure: If the Daily Show booking agent has half the shameless cojones of Jon Klein, he or she is on the phone with CNN right now trying to land an interview with the man who turned one comic's lament ("Stop hurting America!") into the cable network's new slogan. ... 1:38 p.m.

I'm sort of starting to look forward, in some strange reverse-Pavlovian way, to the opening theme of this show. Despite the hour of gloom this tune has come to signify, it's quite bouncy. Have a listen!

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Monologue: According to experts at the College of Comedy Knowledge, Fergie's opening utterances are, indeed, jokes: "a device for expressing humor that employs a setup which contains a target assumption to misdirect the audience […] and a punch which contains a reinterpretation […] that shatters the target assumption." They have not yet achieved the added value of being funny.

Comedy bits: Some sub-Lettermanian new features are introduced, like an ongoing sketch called "What's in My Drawers?" (Fergie opens a desk drawer to find … a roast chicken!), or an audience-interactive game called "Audience Donut Jenga." But there is one conceptually funny moment, when Fergs explains that, rather than try to appeal to "a million broke people," his show has decided to pander to one very rich person: Bill Gates. He makes a couple of deliberately stupid anti-Macintosh jokes, ending with the promise: "Bill Gates will eat that up." Unfortunately for Ferguson, Gates was unlikely to be watching last night; Ferguson's late-night rival, Conan O' Brien, actually was making the Microsoft chairman laugh, at a corporate event in Las Vegas.

Guests: Each interview tonight contains one embarrassing social gaffe, something that, if it happened to me at a party, would make me slink out. (This brings on a simple but terrifying realization: Talk shows are nothing more or less than televised cocktail parties! How do they get anyone to show up?) First Aisha Tyler, of 24 and CSI, forgets Craig Ferguson's name. She calls him "Colin." Her host politely reminds her that Colin Ferguson  was the serial killer who shot 25 people on a Long Island Railroad train in 1993. Tyler recovers admirably, though – I guess the upside of having a Hollywood-sized ego is that you're oblivious to social shame. Later, Julian McMahon, who plays the sleazy surgeon onNip/Tuck, is telling the story of how he heard about his nomination for a Golden Globe award (taking shower, phone rang … edge-of-your-seat stuff.) Midway through, he and Craig get off on a bit of business, goofing on each other's Australian and Scottish accents – Braveheart is invoked, lamely, but at least they're having fun. Suddenly, McMahon interrupts, all business: "Let me just finish this story quickly." A chill descends on the interview that lasts the rest of the show.

Tonight, Ferguson will host Jason Alexander (the Seinfeld guy, not Britney's ex-husband), along with the swaggering girl-group rockers The Donnas. I'll be there with kilts on. ... 10:51 a.m.

Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2005

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One day in, and I'm already beginning to regret this Late Late Show experiment. Shows airing at 12:35 a.m. on weekdays were never meant to withstand this kind of critical scrutiny. This is not Melville's Pierre. It's a daypart frequented mainly by stoned undergraduates and depressed insomniacs. (The jittery guilt associated with late-night viewing is explicitly spelled out in the show's new theme song, which all but begs the viewer to stay up and watch: "Hey, it's OK/ You can always sleep through work tomorrow.")

Monologue: Two direly unfunny minutes, best spent pondering the vast gulf between the material itself and Ferguson's palpable joy in delivering it. He's just so doggone happy to be hosting his own late-night show. During the course of tonight's viewing, I will realize that this is the unique quality Fergie brings to the table, if the writers could only find a way to tap into it: He comes across as a warm man, a kind man, devoid of Letterman's satiric darkness, O'Brien's annoying-younger-brother peskiness, or Leno's … well, I never understood what anyone saw in Leno.

Comedy Bits: Even weaker than last night. How long can he milk the Scottish angle? Bagpipe joke. Braveheart joke. What's left? Kilts, haggis, and the Loch Ness Monster. Cheapskates. Sheep.

Guests: Jon Cryer, from the sitcom Two and a Half Men, also on CBS—the standard intra-network cross-promotional appearance. The interview is unintentionally depressing, as the two divorced men share their thoughts on child custody. "I don't live with my son's mother either," Ferguson tells Cryer, "and it works out fine for me." Later, they reflect on the difficulty of finding good Internet porn without clogging the screen with pop-ups. I feel like I'm eavesdropping on an AA meeting. "But we're being very open," marvels Ferguson, "and I like that." Next, Sophie Okonedo, a tiny, sylphlike British actress who stars alongside Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda, launches into a long story about missing a cue back in her theater days. I find myself switching longingly over to Conan O'Brien's show, like a party guest who can't stop looking over the shoulder of her boring conversation partner at the glamorous guests across the room. This week Conan has Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jude Law. Fergie's only legitimate showbiz "get" for the week is Jeremy Piven on Friday night, when no one will be watching anyway. But let's remember, today marks Conan's 2000th show. Two thousand. As opposed to two. All I'm saying is, give Fergs a chance. I will, for three more nights. ... 12:32 p.m.

Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2005

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There's a great tradition of shooting down incoming talk-show hosts after their first night on the air. When Conan O'Brien took over Late Night on NBC, the Washington Post's Tom Shales called him a "walking shambles" and wished he would return to the "Conan O'Blivion" from whence he came. A few seasons later, Shales was crediting O'Brien with pulling off "one of the most amazing transformations in television history" and providing glowing pull-quotes for his NBC bio page.

Judging a newcomer after just one show seems as cruel as critiquing the décor of a friend's new house while they're still unpacking their boxes. So in the spirit of holiday charity, and to disprove the cliché about Americans and our short attention spans, I'm giving Craig Ferguson, the new host of CBS's The Late Late Show, the whole week to win me over. I'll spend every night this week with the Scottish comic, patiently waiting for him to make me laugh, and report back here the next day. Believe me, that's more of a chance than most men get.

Monday, Jan. 3, Opening Night:

Monologue: Fergie—can I call him Fergie?—has a rumpled, craggy British face, Gabriel Byrne by way of Colin Firth, with those long smile lines (or "junkie dimples") reminiscent of Mick Jagger. In the fresh-faced, frat-boy world of 12:30 a.m. talk shows, a little crag is a good thing. He appears delighted as he bounds onstage, but there's not a legitimate laugh to be had in the standup set, which is not exactly ripped from the headlines. One joke involves the week-old story of Liza Minnelli's hospitalization: "How drunk do you have to be to fall while you're actually lying down?" In the name of politeness, I chuckle wanly.

Comedy Bits: There's a long, tangled jumble of these, which makes the show feel unstructured and potentially endless, like an ill-planned child's birthday party. (This sense of impending chaos turns out to be warranted when the show's interviews run so far over that musical guest G. Love never performs.) A Lettermanesque bit titled "Things You Will Never See on This Show" features a sidekick called the Vaguely Racist Parrot, clearly modeled after Conan's Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. The eponymous bird, perched near Craig's desk, croaks out xenophobic clichés like, "French people are rude and smell like cheese." Things devolve: The parrot makes a penis joke somehow linked to Ferguson's Scottishness, which in the white-on-white landscape of late-night TV passes for ethnic diversity.

Guests: Straight-up B-list. David Duchovny is about as '90s a celebrity as you can get, but he's an engaging storyteller and riffs gamely on his host's exotic accent. But Fergie throws away a big chance with his second guest, The King of Queens' Nicole Sullivan. "When I first came to America," he confides to the audience before she comes out, "my first date with an American woman was with Nicole Sullivan." The actress confirms the story: Many years back, the two of them went out once, kissed, then never called each other again. This interview is a golden opportunity to work one of the talk show's most ancient tropes: sexual tension between host and attractive young female guest. But the moment Sullivan gets a bit prim about the kiss—"it would be disrespectful to get into detail. … I have a boyfriend"—Fergs backs down: "Oh, then let's get off this thing." Good interview technique, like good comedy, demands a balance of tact and aggression. If Ferguson had pushed it, this encounter could have become a delicious, self-deprecating tease; instead, it dissipates into awkward chatter. Poor Fergie. Maybe tonight he'll make it to second base with Sophie Okonedo  (or, if things get really interesting,  Jon Cryer.) ... 12:56 p.m.

Monday, Jan. 3, 2005

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Tonight, CNN's nightly news-talk show Anderson Cooper 360  will be pre-empted by a special broadcast, featuring Cooper and others reporting live from the disaster aftermath in South Asia. If this is part of a larger attempt to get Cooper out of his ratings-challenged anchor slot and back into international hard-news reporting, it's good news, both for Cooper's legions of swooning groupies and for those of us interested in decent coverage  of international stories on TV. The suave, cerebral Cooper (who, with his Vanderbilt family lineage and Yale background, has been called "the epitome of the East Coast media elite") looked distinctly uncomfortable hosting CNN's glitzy New Year's Eve Special on Friday night. The calculated cheer necessary to sustain this kind of spectacle (especially while grim headlines from the disaster provided ironic counterpoint on the news crawl) sat uneasily on Cooper's brow—but not as uneasily as the orange foam jester's cap with the promotional logo for Discover cards that he reluctantly donned at one point, telling the camera, "If you listen closely ... you can hear the last shred of dignity I had being stripped away." As the scene switched between orange-cap-clad celebrants in Times Square and cross-dressers in Key West ("You are the sexiest man on TV, honey," cooed a drag queen named Sushi), Cooper's rictus of merriment grew ever more fixed. You could just see him thinking, One more day and I'm out of here. It takes a lot to drag me away from my nightly dose of Chris Matthews on Hardball, but tonight at 7 p.m. ET I'll be watching CNN, if only to see Anderson Cooper dust off his chops as an international field reporter. ... 2:25 p.m.