Last night, Craig Ferguson announced that he's leaving CBS's "The Late Late Show" when his contract expires at the end of 2014. According to press reports, he contacted CBS management earlier in the day to alert them that he intended to announce his departure, and the network sent out a press release a few hours before the show aired on the East Coast. Ferguson will have completed ten years of hosting the show when he leaves in December.
From the beginning, Ferguson was one of the most unique hosts in U.S. late night television. His monologues are what got early notice--the common style was (and still is) to make a series of jokes about the events of the day, while Ferguson frankly discussed his battles with alcoholism and drug addiction and other personal topics. He makes a show of tearing up the "blue cards" that his producers prepare with information about his guests. The show isn't rehearsed, which sometimes leads to problems but far more often gives Ferguson's show a spontaneity missing from the rest of late night.
Ferguson is also unique for not only how he interviews, but who he interviews. He won a Peabody Award for his interview of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2009. He devoted an entire episode of the show to an hour-long one-on-one interview with Stephen Fry without a studio audience in 2010. He also interviewed philosophy professor Jonathan Dancy, and admitted later to Dancy's son (Hugh Dancy, star of NBC's "Hannibal") how intimidated he felt during the interview. Ferguson has interviewed a "Who's Who" of British, Scottish and Irish actors, many of whom are his long-time friends. These interviews are never as rehearsed or forced as the interviews these actors have on other late night shows; instead, they're conversations between two friends catching up with each other.
Ferguson, who's a published novelist ("Between the Bridge and the River") and autobiographer ("American On Purpose"), has interviewed a wide range of authors, including (in 2013 alone) Lawrence Block, Jackie Collins, Michael Connelly, Helen Fielding, Doris Kerns Goodwin, John Green, Philip Kerr, Dennis Lehane, Ben Mezrich, Jo Nesbo, Anna Quindlen, Anne Rice and Jon Ronson. You'd be hard-pressed to find any authors of note on any of the other broadcast networks' late night talk shows.
In his cold open Monday night, Ferguson said that the decision to leave "The Late Late Show" was his, and he had actually planned to leave in 2012 but was persuaded to stay for two more years by CBS's commitment to give him a new, larger studio. Despite the stories that began to swirl around after David Letterman announced his retirement, I take Ferguson at his word. If CBS had discussions with other potential hosts, it was (at least initially) to provide a backup in the event that Ferguson decided not to renew his contract at the end of this year.
I've always compared Craig Ferguson to one of the greatest late night show hosts, Jack Paar. I was very young when Paar hosted "The Tonight Show" (from 1957 to 1962), but what I remember from that time and gained a better appreciation for when I was older was that Paar was both intelligent and risky. You never knew for sure what would happen on Paar's show: In 1960, he left the show for three weeks to protest NBC's censoring of a joke, and he left the show for good two years later. Paar wanted guests with whom he could have interesting conversations, not just guests who had something to plug.
Like Paar, I've expected Ferguson to at some point thank his audience, turn on his heels and walk out of the studio, never to return. As of Monday night, we now know that time will come before the end of the year. When Ferguson leaves, it'll be the end of an era. I'm going to enjoy the remaining eight months with Craig Ferguson, because it's very unlikely that the host who replaces him will be as interesting.