If there’s anyone more deserving of the term “cheeky,” that person should promptly track down Craig Ferguson and strip the smiley-faced belt from his jolly Scottish midsection. Ever since Ferguson took over hosting duties for CBS’s The Late Late Show in 2005, he’s nightly brought viewers into his gently pompous world of crude animatronics and winking asides, broadening his American résumé beyond his bit role as the dick boss on The Drew Carey Show to include all manner of sparkly-eyed mugging.
I’m Here to Help is the antidote to that. Both richer and harsher than the cutesy Late Late Show monologues, which years ago began to stray into a sort of in-joke schtick, Help reinforces Ferguson’s true mastery of a crowd. Sure, his public image is reflected during the credits of Help, which present a black-and-white montage of Ferguson as jet-setting rock star, complete with an entourage and private jet. Recorded at Washington, D.C.’s Warner Theatre, Help also features pre-show audience testimonials of Ferguson’s mesmerizing effect on his fans.
We get it. He’s a big deal! Ferguson even walks on stage to laser-like blasts of light, mimicking the ingratiating body language of his Late Late Show entrances (the first track is also called “Great Day for America,” as in “It’s a…,” his opening line on every show). But seconds after he starts talking, Ferguson differentiates this special from his TV work by upping the energy, profanity and ideas-per-square-inch.
His practiced likability helps punch up potentially familiar observations on sex, fatherhood, drugs, the female body and, of course, Nazis. He’s as apt to drop a lisp-y accent or colorful line (as when he observes that living with a baby is like living with “a psycho German midget prostitute”) as he is to make most other standups sound quiet and stoned by comparison, given the intensity with which he delivers bits like “Rehab” and “2 Penises.” His Hollywood milieu pisses him off, even as he subsists on it (it’s probably legitimately risky for him to be making jabs at Scientologists), but the whole thing is shot through with a bawdy confidence that transcends the easy celebrity tongue-lashings.
In other words, don’t let the suit and tie fool you. Ferguson is a sharp writer and stand-up animal who’s only gotten more feral with the time he’s spent in his Late Late Show cage. His outrage-baiting approaches nuclear levels at times, as when he spits, “Angelina Jolie… the U.N. ambassador for children. What a fucking bitch!” on his way toward arguing how anyone who ignores her charity work for her “husband-stealing” is also likely to praise Hitler for being a vegetarian.
There’s craft to spare on Help, but the momentum and flow is more convincing than on his TV monologues. If you already find Ferguson’s TV persona overbearing, this probably won’t do much to change that. But if you want to see the rare late-night host who can hold his own (and then some) on a stand-up stage, Help is a tour de force that satisfyingly builds on past specials A Wee Bit o’ Revolution and Does This Need to Be Said by presenting a more blunt, genuine version of someone who spends most of his screen time being neither of those things.