Posted Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010, at 5:41 PM
In the recent battles over late-night talk-show television, one host remained in the background: Craig Ferguson, the brainy, silly, endearing Scotsman who hosts CBS's Late Late Show . Last night, Ferguson conducted an experiment: He recorded his entire show with only one guest, the English actor and writer Stephen Fry , and with no studio audience present. (You can watch the episode here.) What inspired Ferguson to try this stunt I don't know—perhaps his longstanding friendship with Fry, or his frustration with the limitations of the conventional talk show format after five years on the air. But the show left this viewer wishing that the spectacle of two adults engaged in long-form conversation would stop being a stunt and start being a show.
Fry was his usual delightful self, cheerfully tossing about high-register words like "demotic" and "tautology" and comparing Twitter's 140-character word count to Robert Graves' theory of poetic compression. Instead of occupying the usual host-at-a-desk, guest-on-a-couch setup, Ferguson and Fry simply sat face-to-face in armchairs, sipped beverages out of bizarrely ornate mugs (any guess as to what they were supposed to be shaped like?) and kibitzed about whatever came to mind: Fry's bipolar disorder, their history of drug and alcohol abuse and their shared love for American culture, the etiquette of responding to Internet trolls, and the universal assumption that everyone else in the world somehow got a memo on how to live that you missed. There was no part of their chat that wasn't something one might overhear at an interesting dinner party. But in the talk-show world, where appearances are usually pegged to publicity tours and anecdotes prepped in advance, spontaneous and thoughtful conversation constitutes a radical novelty.
A little stiff at first in the cavernous silence of the empty studio, Ferguson soon got wrapped up in the topics at hand. "I forgot that we're doing a TV show," he apologized as he interrupted Fry for a commercial break. Later, he observed as a piece of equipment clattered in the background, "Usually the audience's hooting and braying covers up these technical errors." Wrapping up the show, Ferguson recalled Fry's earlier appearances, complete with audience and couch: "I'm sorry that in our past conversations I've been so shouty." "It's your job, and you do it very well," Fry replied graciously—but it was hard to repress a sense of sadness that this brief window of intelligent discourse was about to slam shut. This morning, Ferguson tweeted : "Back to normal crap tonight." But does Ferguson's small but devoted audience really want a return to the "normal crap"? If he sat down with CBS and issued an ultimatum (in the way talk-show hosts seem fond of doing lately), could Ferguson make this an opportunity to reinvent the late-night talk show?