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Craig Ferguson, keeping late night off balance

By Todd Leopold, CNN
updated 3:22 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
What a year it's been. From Ellen DeGeneres' Oscar selfie to the "Guardians of the Galaxy" to Stephen Colbert signing off "The Colbert Report," 2014 has been packed with monumental pop culture moments -- both good and bad. Once you're done admiring Ellen's selfie skills, snapped at this year's Oscars ceremony, read on for our list of 2014's best and worst pop culture moments. What a year it's been. From Ellen DeGeneres' Oscar selfie to the "Guardians of the Galaxy" to Stephen Colbert signing off "The Colbert Report," 2014 has been packed with monumental pop culture moments -- both good and bad. Once you're done admiring Ellen's selfie skills, snapped at this year's Oscars ceremony, read on for our list of 2014's best and worst pop culture moments.
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2014's best and worst in pop culture
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2014's best and worst in pop culture
2014's best and worst in pop culture
2014's best and worst in pop culture
2014's best and worst in pop culture
2014's best and worst in pop culture
2014's best and worst in pop culture
2014's best and worst in pop culture
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2014's best and worst in pop culture
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2014's best and worst in pop culture
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Craig Ferguson's final "Late Late Show" is Friday
  • Ferguson has been unusual host, letting his show wander
  • He's also been forthright and honest in his monologues

(CNN) -- Perhaps there are still some people asking, "Craig Ferguson who?"

Too bad. They've been missing something special.

The "Late Late Show" host shuffles off the stage Friday having hosted an eccentric decade of shows, a program that was often under the radar but always quietly, distinctively ... Craig Ferguson.

Put aside the deliberately absurd characters like Secretariat and Geoff the Robot, or the award of a Golden Mouth Organ to guests who knew how to play the harmonica, or the silly theme song. Every talk show has its shtick.

What made Ferguson's talk show so different from the others was his determination to go off-script. Not since the heyday of Dick Cavett, or maybe even Jack Paar, had a network host so willingly put himself on the high wire.

Ferguson's chops were most obvious right at the beginning of the show, when he did his loose, unstructured monologue. Sometimes he fell flat. Other times he was positively riveting, as when he eulogized his father and mother or gleefully announced his newly gained American citizenship.

Or, particularly, the 2007 night he spent more than 12 minutes discussing his alcoholism.

Ferguson had no truck with the "late-night wars" -- he was friendly with Jimmy Fallon and Conan O'Brien, and Jay Leno will be on his final show -- and he was willing to follow his guests wherever they took him. He started interviews by ripping up the blue cards other hosts depend on, and if his guests wanted to talk about religion and existence -- like Stephen Fry, who was the only guest one night in 2013 -- or nothing in particular -- like frequent visitor Kristen Bell -- he just went along with it.

He even credited a guest, Desmond Tutu, with leading him to leave the show, in the best possible way.

"Desmond Tutu saying 'Be as authentically crazy as you are.' It was kind of like God saying 'Just be as crazy as you like.' I felt weirdly released by that," he told an audience Monday at Los Angeles' Paley Center. "Then, ultimately, that leads to me not doing the show."

It's a typically unpredictable finish for an unpredictable performer. But then, Ferguson has often surprised.

Little was expected of a guy formerly known as Mr. Wick on "The Drew Carey Show," but Ferguson cut his teeth in Edinburgh's fringe scene, notably as a character named "Bing Hitler." He had range and smarts.

(Fergusonian tangent: Ferguson was also a punk rock drummer, and the singer in his band was Peter Capaldi. Capaldi is now known as Doctor Who but -- for discerning fans -- is the scathingly profane Malcolm Tucker of "The Thick of It." Ferguson, of course, did a whole show pegged to "Doctor Who" just because he wanted to.)

David Letterman, the "Late Late Show's" producer and the man Ferguson called "boss," knew he had something special.

"His show was unlike any other late night show, and I'm telling you, to be unique in the world of television -- virtually impossible," Letterman said when Ferguson made his announcement.

British actor James Corden will take over in March. At the Paley event, Ferguson told him not to worry.

"I've set the bar very low," he said.

Not true. It's more like he set the bar on the other side of the room and then limboed under it, did pull-ups with it and threw it like a javelin, letting it land where it may.

Ferguson has been quiet about his future. He's been hosting "Celebrity Name Game," a syndicated game show, but it seems like there's room for something a little crazier, a little more unusual. Who knows what tomorrow may bring?

After all, tomorrow's just a future yesterday.

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