WHAT IT'S ABOUT "The Late Late Show" host Craig Ferguson wraps his run Friday after 10 years and a month, with final guest Jay Leno. Ferguson will be replaced by Tony Award-winner James Corden (who also stars in "Into the Woods") on March 23. In the interim, CBS will use guest hosts.
MY SAY Late show hosts come and go ... no, strike that platitude. In fact, they don't come all that often, and when they do go, there's a perfectly understandable impulse to celebrate what they did so well over the long haul, usually followed by a question: Why go, anyway?
On the eve of Ferguson's exit, the first impulse is all too easy to indulge. He was, by a considerable margin, the best "Late Late Show" host in the franchise's 20-year history, and he was preceded by an almost entirely forgotten Craig Kilborn tenure, and, before that, Tom Snyder's four-year run. Snyder's was fine, but his best and most exciting work had come decades before. David Letterman -- whose production company, Worldwide Pants, was overseer of the hour -- almost seemed to have chosen him for old-time's sake, or as a token of appreciation for the great years when Snyder's "Tomorrow" followed Dave's "Late Night" at NBC.
But Ferguson was a horse of a different color all together, and, in fact, had a horse of a different color (cerise, I believe, or maybe fuchsia) as a sidekick. ("Secretariat" was actually two guys in costume.)
The real sidekick was Geoff Peterson, an animatronic skeleton with a metal mohawk and blazing blue eyes. Voiced by Josh Robert Thompson, Geoff was the compleat late-night host foil: Breezy, shallow, craven, unctuous and on some nights even funnier than the host. Ferguson appeared to love his metallic friend; unclear if Geoff ever felt anything.
As fans know, Ferguson dates his late-night conversion to a single guest -- Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was on the show in 2009 and told Ferguson offstage that the world needed "The Late Late Show" host's brand of "insanity." Ever since then, he opened it up: His show became dedicated to the proposition that the world was mad, and its host considerably madder. He gave the impression of someone who -- had a bus come crashing through the studio wall at any moment -- would have turned, scowled and muttered, "Late again."
He also movingly eulogized his deceased parents, and spoke -- in one of the most memorable cri de coeurs in late night history -- of his struggle with alcoholism and near-suicide.
Otherwise, nothing under the sun seemed to matter to Ferguson, including his own career. He even said as much in recent years, insisting as early as last winter that he had run his course on "The Late Late Show." He wanted to move on. Period. Or so he said.
But that doesn't make answering the "Why go?" any easier. About three years ago, maybe a bit longer, Letterman and Worldwide Pants cooled to him. Reasons? Unknown, although it's been a subject of speculation in late-night circles for years. Even Letterman, who initially was passionate about his "Late Late" host, had suddenly frozen him out.
There were theories why of course. Among them this: That Ferguson had sought some creative distance from Worldwide Pants, which rankled its president and longtime Letterman confidant, Rob Burnett. (In recent years, CBS has been a co-producer of the show.) Moreover, Ferguson's post-Tutu show -- for want of a better term -- may have been funnier than the pre-Tutu one, but it didn't exactly feel or look like a show preparing for the really big stage at 11:30.
After all,there was the matter of a red horse, and the sidekick who looked like he wandered off the set of "Mystery Science Theater 3000."
But then, of course, this was its whole appeal: Ferguson's "Late Late Show" was its own unique beast, its host his own man. This never felt like an audition reel, or certainly never a facsimile of anything else out there.
Nor did it feel remotely like a successor to a legendary show either.
Ferguson, by some accounts, was puzzled by the cold shoulder too. Would he have moved to "Late Show" had he been asked by Letterman? The question came up during a recent chat on Larry King's Web series: "I don't think I would have," he replied. He then paused, scrunched his face and said, "Maybe."
And that "maybe" is what we are left with. Stephen Colbert will take over from Letterman -- who ends 33 years in late night on May 20 -- sometime next year. He'll be a fine "Late Show" host.
Indeed, so would have Ferguson. But how fine? We'll never know.