We must not be treating our late-night talk show hosts very well. To lose both Stephen Colbert (or at least the "Stephen Colbert" he plays on "The Colbert Report") and "The Late Late Show"'s Craig Ferguson is a misfortune, but to lose them both within 24 hours smacks of negligence.
There's a lot of mourning, hand-wringing, rending of garments, and gnashing of teeth to be done, what with Colbert's departure on Thursday, December 18, and Ferguson's the next night. To add insult to injury, Friday the 19th also marks David Letterman's last Christmas show, highlighted by Darlene Love belting out "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," a tradition that dates back to 1986 on Dave's old NBC series.
It feels like the end of an era, and not just because these long-time hosts are all quitting their shows (though Letterman will still be on for another five months), but also for what these comic performers represent: the drive to expand the possibilities of their chosen format well beyond the chatting-with-celebrities-from-behind-a-desk basics.
I suppose we should be grateful that Ferguson and Colbert stuck around and tried new things for as long as they did -- 10 years in Ferguson's case and nine years for Colbert. Colbert's fake conservative-blowhard-pundit persona, in particular, seemed a high-wire act that shouldn't have been sustainable for more than a few episodes; that he's continued to keep it fresh since 2005 is a minor miracle.
As for Ferguson, he, like Colbert, appears intellectually restless. He spent five years trying to make his show smarter than everyone else's -- with his epic-length monologues, his refusal to poke fun at fellow recovering-addict celebrities like Britney Spears, his rejection of canned and prepared questions for his guests, and culminating in his hour-long conversation with Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu in 2009. (Outside of "Charlie Rose," TV doesn't get much more highbrow than that.) Curiously, he notes now, that milestone show freed him up to be silly, and he spent the next five years making the show as deliberately frivolous as possible, populating the show with puppets, including dancing horse Secretariat and robot skeleton sidekick Geoff Peterson. Whatever Ferguson did, you couldn't accuse him of lazily aping other talk shows.
The final bookings for both shows display a streak of the perverse. Colbert's last guest was his supposed college pal "Grimmy," a.k.a. the Grim Reaper. Ferguson's is Jay Leno, rival to Craig's boss, David Letterman (whose Worldwide Pants company produces "The Late Late Show") and the only living person in showbiz who can tell Ferguson what it's like to retire from a long-running late-night talk show. Of course, that twisted, nose-thumbing streak has animated both shows all along, so perhaps these final bookings shouldn't come as a surprise, except to those fans who expected traditional, cathartic, self-congratulatory gestures toward closure.
Indeed, the only host offering such a gesture, at least this week, is Letterman, once the most innovative, rule-breaking host of all time but now a comfortably cantankerous institution. True, a superficial description of Friday's "Late Show" might sound wacky to the uninitiated -- Dave and Jay Thomas will try to knock a meatball off a Christmas tree with a football, Thomas will recount his shaggy-dog story of his encounter with television "Lone Ranger" star Clayton Moore, and Love will sing her 1963 holiday hit before the grandest brass section that Paul Shaffer can muster -- but these events are all traditions; Thomas has repeated this routine on "Late Show" every year since 1998, while Love will make her 29th Christmas appearance alongside Paul and the band. Expect this episode to be extra emotional, however. After all, the football toss will never happen again, and Love has said that, out of loyalty to Dave and Paul, she will never perform the classic R&B carol (her signature tune for more than half a century) on television again.
In a way, all three hosts' choices after leaving their current posts seem like a creative step down or backward. Letterman, probably, will remain more or less retired, as his idol Johnny Carson did after ending his own three-decade tenure on late night (though Johnny did continue to feed Dave jokes on the sly). Ferguson already has a new day job, hosting the anodyne syndicated game show "Celebrity Name Game," whose only apparent advantage over his current job is that he's allowed to host it without wearing a necktie (a garment he bristled at throughout most of his tenure at "The Late Late Show"). He's also prepping another talk show for next fall, a syndicated half hour that will include Geoff Peterson, but he won't really be playing in the same arena as the big boys he used to rub shoulders with during the wee hours on CBS.
As for Colbert, of course, he's taking over Dave's job, which is surely a boost in salary and notoriety, but it also means retiring forever the "Stephen Colbert" character. I have faith in the multi-talented performer's ability to find something fresh and new to do as a late-night host, but whatever it is, it almost surely won't be as pointed and political as his "Colbert Report." After all, he has to appeal to Middle America, not just the like-minded souls who watched him on basic cable. Whatever he does, he can't top Letterman, who, for all the coasting he's done in recent years, will leave behind a legacy of creative anarchy that's unsurpassable. Plus, the new guy won't be on until the fall, meaning we have to go through Colbert withdrawal for eight months.
Who knows, Colbert could be brilliant on a mainstream network, and so could James Corden (the British comic who will replace Ferguson in three months). And I have high hopes for longtime TV writer and "Daily Show" regular Larry Wilmore, who'll take over Colbert's slot next month with his new "Nightly Show." As an African-American writer who has managed to get sharp and funny commentary about race onto mainstream TV (he was behind Eddie Murphy's surprisingly subversive animated series "The PJs" a few years back), Wilmore will bring a much-needed new perspective to the otherwise awfully pale realm of late-night, at a time when it's increasingly clear that electing Barack Obama president did not magically end racism in America.
Yet even Wilmore has already softened his show a bit, even before its debut, changing its name from 'The Minority Report." This concession may help him reach a broader audience, and it's not necessarily sign that he'll have to water down the actual content of his show. It is a sign, however, that it's hard to be an edgy innovator in late-night. (You can be an edge-free innovator, like Jimmy Fallon or Conan O'Brien, but it's not clear that that approach will yield any work that will be remembered beyond this week's viral-video cycle.) Ferguson, Colbert, and Letterman may be the last breed of late-night innovators who demanded and received the full freedom to be weird and alienating, paradoxically earning themselves legions of fans in the process. Whatever Ferguson and Colbert do next, we shall not see the like of "The Late Late Show" Ferguson, the "Stephen Colbert" of "The Colbert Report," or the David Letterman of "Late Night" and "Late Show" ever again,.