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Why Craig Ferguson is the new king of late-late night

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McClatchy Newspapers (MCT) - The other night I heard Craig Ferguson say that "resentment was like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die."

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Highlights

By Aaron Barnhart
McClatchy Newspapers (www.mctdirect.com)
3/9/2009 (1 decade ago)

Published in TV

What made it more than a clever little truism _ something you might overhear, say, at a Hollywood 12-step meeting _ is the fact that Ferguson was saying it to Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, leader of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and for nearly half an hour (an eternity by talk show standards), his guest on "the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson."

They were discussing the issue of forgiveness at its most challenging instance: When one person has had complete control over another and used that position to abuse them physically and mentally. And how, while or at least after that has gone on, it is vital not to let resentment boil over.

It's almost a cheap shot at Ferguson's new late-night competition, Jimmy Fallon, to point out that this is a conversation you would not likely hear on Fallon's new late-night program. For one thing, "Charlie Rose" has had Tutu on as well _ though Charlie probably didn't let the Nobel laureate finish his thought before barging in with his own.

But I draw the comparison anyway, to point out that in my 15 years of observing and recording their behavior, late-night talk-show hosts tend to be remarkably consistent creatures. They may arrive in their new time period looking a little unpolished (OK, in Conan O'Brien's case, a lot unpolished). To a remarkable degree, however, what you see in those very first shows will reappear night after night until that host signs off for good. A good late-night personality, like his counterparts in daytime TV, leaves a DNA sample on every minute of the broadcast.

To be sure, Ferguson is not so highbrow every night. Just two nights before, his big guest was Paris Hilton, and the takeaway from that night's conversation was that the host thought his guest looked very, very nice. After complimenting her appearance for the third or fourth time, Hilton revealed that her friends had told her to wear this dress because "Craig likes cleavage."

It was less naughty than it sounds. Recently remarried, Ferguson is the only network late-night host whose ratings are up since 2006, and that is thanks largely to female converts in their 30s and 40s who clearly find his weakness for the ladies not unappealing.

He is also worldlywise, interested in the politics of his adopted country. After gaining U.S. citizenship last year, he used a monologue to rant about his fellow Americans who don't get out and vote, at one point referring to them as "morons." The video reverberated for weeks on YouTube.

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He is also a recovering alcoholic who has publicly sworn off not only booze but jokes about other substance abusing celebs.

He's also the first host since Johnny Carson to engage in a peculiar form of self-abasement, whereby one dons funny costumes and plays characters, badly, in fact the worse the better. His recent parody of MSNBC's "Countdown" _ Ferguson played Keith Olbermann's drunken "guest host," Sean Connery _ was a lot sillier, and funnier, than Ben Affleck's "Countdown" parody on "Saturday Night Live."

Above all, Craig Ferguson is the best ad-libber in late night. Recently I went back and watched the first hour Ferguson hosted in 2005, a video I must confess I did not save entirely for professional reasons (he mentioned me during his opening). And I was struck how even then, he was quickly moving away from the format left behind by his predecessor, Craig Kilborn. How he was extemporizing about all variety of subjects from his desk _ an approach he would take further within a few weeks, when he scrapped the show's traditional monologue and began working without a script, relying instead on a series of topics worked out ahead of time with the show's writers.

That's not to say that Jimmy Fallon needs to be quick on the draw to be a success, or interested in politics, or have a way with women, to be a successful late-night host. But he has to be something . And so far, from watching the first two hours of "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" and bits and pieces the rest of the week, the only thing I know for sure about him is he likes technology. He put a Facebook twist on an old Carson-Letterman-"SNL" staple that pokes fun at random audience members. He had fun with Twitter, for the small fraction of his audience who know what that is. And he showed off his 108-inch flat screen on stage that would be any video gamer's envy.

But I tuned in expecting to hear some comedy bits that would start to define a new era in late night, and I was disappointed. The sad fact is, so far he is funnier on his blog than he's been on the air.

Never again will Fallon have so much time to prepare for his show. So these broadcasts ought to have been defining. Fallon's predecessor put out such a brilliant first episode that critics forgave him (well, some did) the months of bumbling and stumbling that followed. By the time David Letterman arrived on his old stomping ground to bless his successor, five months after he signed on, Conan was well on his way.

So far, I've gotten very little indication so far that when O'Brien makes a triumphal visit in a few months, Fallon will even know what to do with him. The only thing I feel confident predicting is that by then, "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" will be firmly entrenched in second place, looking up at Craig Ferguson, the new king of late-late night.

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"Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" airs 12:35 a.m. ET on NBC. "Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson" airs 12:35 a.m. ET on CBS in most markets (check local listings).

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Aaron Barnhart is online at TVBarn.com.

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© 2009, The Kansas City Star.

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