Boundary-Pushing Late Night Hosts Move On — Colbert Up, Ferguson Out

Dec 18, 2014
Originally published on December 18, 2014 3:32 pm

They both started their late-night shows in the same year, reinventing their respective corners of television by bending and sometimes breaking the rules.

But as Stephen Colbert and Craig Ferguson both say goodbye to long-running programs this week, only one has turned his showbiz rebellion into a launchpad for an even bigger TV platform.

From the cover of Entertainment Weekly to shoutouts from James Franco and Michael J. Fox, everyone seems to be talking about tonight's finale of The Colbert Report.

Including, to no one's surprise, the host himself.

But there's another long-running late-night host also saying goodbye this week.

On Friday, Craig Ferguson hosts his last episode of CBS' The Late Late Show after nearly 10 years. His departure isn't getting much attention — in part because he's leaving as CBS builds its new late-night franchise around Colbert, who will replace retiring legend David Letterman in the new year.

Both Colbert and Ferguson blew up the traditional talk show format, but each man accomplished it in his own, unique way.

Ferguson built a show that often played like an impish inside joke, poking fun at the ubiquitous talk show sidekick by having a robot skeleton sidekick built and naming it Geoff Peterson.

Because he was voiced by ace impressionist and comedian Josh Robert Thompson, Geoff turned out to be a pretty good sidekick after all, especially when he did a mean Morgan Freeman impersonation, right in front of Morgan Freeman.

On the other hand, Colbert crafted a program that touched the zeitgeist again and again — and, in his first episode in 2005, summed up all the absurdity of the modern news media in one word:

Colbert started his show after eight years on The Daily Show. On the Report, he played an egotistical, defiantly ignorant conservative pundit.

At times, he took that character into the real world, creating a superPAC, insulting President George W. Bush at the White House Correspondents' Dinner and testifying before Congress about undocumented immigrants working on U.S. farms.

Later, Colbert told David Gregory on NBC's Meet the Press that such stunts help make tough political points in a less confrontational way.

Craig Ferguson took over The Late Late Show in 2005, the same year The Colbert Report began. He was chosen from several guest hosts who tried out for the job after the departure of previous host Craig Kilborn.

He had no house band, tore up his note cards with suggested questions before every celebrity interview and improvised his monologues — including a serious vow to tone down making fun of celebrities in crisis when Britney Spears had a meltdown on the anniversary of his own sobriety.

His instincts could lead to great television, including a long-running bit centered on his successful effort to become a U.S. citizen and a heartfelt talk with Bishop Desmond Tutu.

But Ferguson also created a show filled with jokes built on past jokes, making it tough to cultivate new fans or compete in the ratings with rivals Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers.

Ferguson has said he had already planned to leave the network before Letterman announced his retirement; British comedian James Corden takes over the Late Late Show in March.

And so, this week actually marks the end of two landmark late night TV shows:

One birthed a future star of the genre and another ended as a noble experiment which never quite lived up to its potential.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Some big changes are coming to late night this week. Stephen Colbert and Craig Ferguson are both leaving their late-night talk shows. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says while both men rebelled against convention, only one used success to move on to bigger things.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: From the cover of Entertainment Weekly to shout-outs from James Franco and Michael J. Fox, everyone seems to be talking about tonight's finale of Stephen Colbert's Comedy Central show, "The Colbert Report," including to no one's surprise the host himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

STEPHEN COLBERT: The biggest question of all remains, how will my final broadcast close? Will I wake up next to Suzanne Pleshette while B.J. Hunnicutt writes out goodbye in rocks until we cut to black in the middle of a Journey song?

DEGGANS: But there's another long-running late-night host also saying goodbye this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE LATE SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) It's all triumph. It's been a long, long day.

DEGGANS: On Friday, Craig Ferguson hosts his last episode of CBS's "The Late Late Show" after nearly 10 years. His departure isn't getting much attention, in part because he's leaving as CBS builds its new late-night franchise around Colbert, who will replace retiring legend David Letterman in the new year.

Both Colbert and Ferguson blew up the traditional talk show format in different ways. Ferguson built a show that often played like an impish inside joke, poking fun at the ubiquitous talk show sidekick by having a robot skeleton sidekick built. But this one also did a mean Morgan Freeman impersonation in front of Morgan Freeman.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE LATE SHOW")

JOSH ROBERT THOMPSON: (As Geoff Peterson the robot) See when I open my mouth, it makes everything sound smart.

(LAUGHTER)

MORGAN FREEMAN: That's outstanding.

CRAIG FERGUSON: Yeah, it is outstanding. It's very, very good.

FREEMAN: First time I've ever heard myself from the outside.

FERGUSON: Yeah.

DEGGANS: On the other hand, Colbert crafted a program that touched the zeitgeist again and again.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

COLBERT: I will speak to you in plain, simple English.

DEGGANS: That's Colbert doing the first episode of "The Report" in 2005, summing up all the absurdity of the modern news media in one word.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

COLBERT: Truthiness (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

COLBERT: We are divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart.

DEGGANS: Colbert started his show after eight years on "The Daily Show" playing an egotistical, dimwitted, conservative pundit. But he also took his show into the real world, testifying before Congress about undocumented immigrants working on farms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLBERT: Now, I'm not a fan of the government doing anything, but I've got to ask, why isn't the government doing anything?

DEGGANS: Later Colbert told David Gregory on NBC's "Meet The Press" that such stunts help make tough political points in a less confrontational way.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

COLBERT: Satire is parity with a point because I've got no business doing something like that...

DAVID GREGORY: Right.

COLBERT: ...But my character thinks he does. And through him, I can say things that are hopefully in a more palatable way than I could have.

DEGGANS: Craig Ferguson took over "The Late Late Show" in the same years "The Colbert Report" began. He had no house band and improvised his monologues, including a serious vow to tone down making fun of celebrities in crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE LATE SHOW")

FERGUSON: People are dying. That Anna Nicole Smith woman, she died.

(LAUGHTER)

FERGUSON: It's not a joke, you know, it stops being funny that she's got a 6-week-old kid or 6-month-old kid. What the hell is that?

DEGGANS: But Ferguson also created a show filled with jokes built on past jokes making it tough to cultivate new fans. Rivals like Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers beat him in the ratings, and he's now leaving. British comic James Corden takes over "The Late Late Show" in March. And so this week marks the end of two landmark late-night TV shows - one birthed a future star of the genre and another ended as a noble experiment which never quite lived up to its potential. I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.