Craig Ferguson doesn’t have Conan O’ Brien’s doctorial understanding of humor theory, Jimmy Fallon’s “let’s put on a show” giddiness or David Letterman’s world-weary, “everyone’s disappointed dad” cragginess. But he’s a better monologist than all three of them. He has a knack for slowly building a story and connecting disparate ideas into a greater whole without the audience even realizing what he’s doing, all while maintaining a low-key charm.
Which is a fancy way of saying that he’s really good at just talking about stuff, and that he never comes off like he’s trying too hard to string a bunch of jokes together into something with thematic momentum. He’s the only current late-night host who had any sort of real acting career before getting behind the desk (sorry, Taxi fans), and he’s usually able to redeem even the slightest of material with his performance chops. While Fallon and O’ Brien only seem to have introductory monologue because that’s what talk shows require and they’re not allowed to just get right into the silly bits that they love, Ferguson would probably be delighted if The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson was retooled to be just an hour of him looking into the camera and talking about whatever. (That said, dude needs to cut it the fuck out with the whole “leaning directly into the camera as it zooms in” shtick.)
To Ferguson’s credit, he’s well aware of his strengths and weaknesses. Early in the DVD of concert show Does This Need To Be Said? he promises “I’m about to tell a joke,” before imagining his audience’s response: “Leave that to the professional joke writers and tellers and give us more stories about hanging out with Shrek in the swamps of Scotland.” As such, Said is just an hour of Ferguson talking about whatever, always using the promise to get back to that initial joke as a connective thread tying together his thoughts on fatherhood, the ins and outs of being a TV host and other…topics.
Addressed on Said?, a live performance filmed and released in 2011: Charlie Sheen, Tiger Woods, Fabio and the Dirty Sanchez. In case the Shrek thing didn’t make it clear enough, Ferguson the writer often betrays Ferguson the raconteur with the sort of dated, hackneyed material that many comedians would be ashamed to let leave their lips. (One senses that Ferguson was probably making Clinton Blowjob jokes well into the Bush Administration.) Though to be fair, his Woods joke, on the ridiculousness of reporters watching his golf game for insight into his sex scandals because “What’s he going to do? Say ‘Fuck it!’ and start humping the hole?” is a fair sight better than many of the eight trillion jokes written on this tired subject.
Though he’s never going to be considered a trailblazer, Said makes clear that there are times when his approach is “Screw it, I’ll talk about Charlie Sheen for a minute,” and there are times when he tries harder. Sex education is a rather stock subject, but Ferguson recalling how his biology teacher only taught about sex in terms of frogs procreating, thus for years his only, strangely effective, flirting technique was to puff himself out like a bullfrog, is a winningly original take on a standard subject. And referring to a frog’s penis as “a shame brush” earns him back a lot of good will after making a rusty trombone joke. Similarly, the young-child-and-his-swear-jar thing is standard trope by now, but the “Here’s 20 dollars, I’m about to call your mother” punchline justifies the eye-rolling setup.
As always, Ferguson is at his best when he’s just being Ferguson. His has been an interesting life, and he offers both a fun riff on his early music career (“You know a metal band is going to suck when there’s a clarinet in it.”) and a peek into the position of working as a TV show host and dealing with people you make fun of. (I would gladly watch an hour special solely about him getting berated by Kevin Costner at a party.) And while he has a problem with picking well-worn topics, the tightrope of making fun of your boss after he’s been caught in a sex scandal is a truly singular subject that Ferguson pulls both laughs and genuine angst out of, though I wish I didn’t have to ever hear the term “David Letterman sex tape.”
Ferguson is a steady, assured presence. He never seems like he’s desperate for either a laugh or for the audience to think he’s cool, and he’s a game physical comedian when need be; his Dick Cheney impression is truly terrifying. As always, he approaches Said as a complete work, returning to connecting themes of accepting and rebelling against adult responsibility. The hackier material chafes not just because of its inherent hackiness but also because it doesn’t cohere with the greater whole, and in the end he does return to that joke he promised. He admits that he didn’t write it, but nails the material anyway.