When production on CBS’s “The Late Late Show” goes dark during the coming holiday weeks, the producers will spend much of their time making quick changes to signal the arrival of the show’s third host, Craig Ferguson.
The first changes will include a new theme song, desk chairs and graphics and the retirement of the parody of a news segment, though not the political comedy and torturing of sacred cows that are staples of late-night shows.
“The first concern for us is to get him in and get him used to doing a daily show,” executive producer Todd Allan Yasui said. “Once we get him into some kind of rhythm and we are satisfied with the comedy, then I think you’ll see bigger changes, like a new set.”
This week and next “Late Late” will feature guest hosts who are, said Mr. Yasui, “doing it purely for fun.” Among the fill-ins: actress Susan Sarandon (with Gore Vidal as a guest), “Less Than Perfect” star Sara Rue, Fox sportscaster Joe Buck, “Ocean’s 12” star Don Cheadle and “King of Queens” star Leah Remini.
Mr. Yasui said that “Late Late,” produced by David Letterman’s Worldwide Pants, is not trying to reinvent the late-night wheel, just planning to custom-fit the show to Mr. Ferguson, a boyish 42-year-old with a Scottish accent that lets him get away with a lot.
“I’ve noticed that with American women. I can say very rude things to them as long as I’ve got an accent. They think it’s kind of cute, which is nice,” Mr. Ferguson said.
CBS announced last week that Mr. Ferguson got the job.
When he got the call from future bosses Peter LaSalle and Rob Burnett that he was to be the new host, effective Monday, Jan. 3, 2005, Mr. Ferguson said, “I fell to my knees and said, `Thank you, God,’ I really did. Anyone who knows me well will say, `You did whaaaat?”‘
Twenty-four hours later, he was driving from Vancouver, British Columbia, where he’d shot a guest appearance as Kelly Osbourne’s long-lost father on ABC’s “life as we know it,” doing interviews via cellphone and “trying to ignore people in other cars. When people look over, I kind of look away in a sort of superior way,” Mr. Ferguson said. “That woman thinks I’ve lost my mind.”
He was joking.
The Scottish-born actor/comedian/writer/producer/director also said he is deliriously happy to have won a job he’d never considered before last October, when he first sat in the chair. Mr. Kilborn left in August. “Thirty seconds after going on the first time, I thought: `This is what I want to do with my life.’ It was like show business crack to me. I just took one hit and I was totally hooked.”
Tom Snyder was the founding host of “Late Late” in 1993, and Mr. Kilborn spent five years at the desk.
Mr. Ferguson has studied the men he calls “the giants” of talk-comedy-Johnny Carson, Mr. Letterman and Regis Philbin-and believes the key is that “they all are very definitely themselves. They are not play-acting. They are not pretending to be something they are not. They have a good time but they are themselves. That’s what I want to do. I want to make it my show. I want to do it my way. I don’t know what that means yet, but I’ll know it when I see it.”
He joins the late-night scene at a time when the momentum is shifting.
NBC’s “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” won the Nov. 4-Dec. 1 sweeps competition. However, data from Nielsen Media Research shows that it was “Tonight’s” least-watched November (an average 5.86 million viewers) in 11 years, while Mr. Letterman’s “Late Show” had its biggest November audience (5.08 million) in nine years. The year-to-year comparisons show “Leno” down 6 percent, while “Letterman” is up 10 percent.
Like “Tonight,” Mr. O’Brien’s top-ranked show has lost viewers (the November average was 2.5 million). “Late Late” was even versus November 2003 at 1.9 million viewers. ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” averaged 1.8 million viewers.
A look at the season to date, the time period that covers the months in which a long list of people tested the “Late Late” waters, reveals another interesting trend: “Late Late” was up 4 percent in viewers compared with the eight-plus months hosted by Mr. Kilborn this year and the demographics remained even.
Mr. Ferguson, in his week-long callback stint in October, was up 3 percent in total viewers and 17 percent in the 18 to 34 demo.
In a season-to-date comparison, ABC’s “Kimmel” is up 4 percent year to year in both total viewers and 18 to 34 season to date. “Conan O’Brien” is down 7 percent in viewers and down 6 percent in 18 to 34.