Stephen Fry And Craig Ferguson Proved Late Night Could Use A Little More Conversation

Uproxx‘s Late Night Week continues its look at late-night past, present, and future with a look at a memorable installment of a show others would do well to imitate.

Somewhere along the way, shoutfests and frothy celebrity interviews became the norm. This de-evolution of televised discourse — as witnessed on cable news and talk shows — springs from the notion that substance is a relic from another era. However, the broad and sustained praise heaped upon the lengthy and weighty debate between Daily Show host Trevor Noah and conservative pundit Tomi Lahren last week demonstrates that things aren’t that clear-cut. There is, it seems, an occasional appetite for more than just noise.

As we pointed out recently, podcasts like WTF with Marc Maron and Kevin Pollack’s Chat Show have taken up the mantle when it comes to substantive longform interviews but television has mostly moved on. Sure, Charlie Rose persists, but Larry King long ago took his act to the internet and Tom Snyder was the last regular practitioner of the form on late night with his version of The Late Late Show on CBS before it gave way to Craig Kilborn’s iteration in 1999.

Though hosts like Noah, Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brien, and Seth Meyers occasionally demonstrate a flare for the kind of interview that feels indebted to the Snyder style — a simple back and forth conversation given the space to exist and the option to focus on heavier things — neither has fully embraced that long ago staple of late night. In 2010, however, Craig Ferguson (who replaced Kilborn in 2005 as host of The Late Late Show) brought back the feel of Snyder’s version of the show for one episode where he would interview British-born comedian and author Stephen Fry in tribute to Snyder (who died in 2007) and in response to the then-brewing late night war between Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, and the powers that be over at NBC.

At the time, the episode was celebrated by critics, but it wasn’t unprecedented considering Ferguson’s previous success as a longform interviewer, winning a Peabody Award for a 2009 episode that featured a lengthy one-on-one with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. This time, Ferguson went a step further, opting to record a show without his customary live audience and his desk.

As host of The Late Late Show, Ferguson always offered true variety. There were occasional trips to foreign lands, a liberal smattering of puppets, and guests that sometimes occupied the space outside the norm and other times seemed relieved at the prospect of straying from the typical press tour blather. At times, Ferguson was a smart-ass with his feet up on the desk and his “give-a-f*ck” out the window, but he was also often driven by curiosity and keenly able to convey vulnerability, like when he talked about loss and his experiences with substance abuse.

As Ferguson’s guest, Fry matched him in curiosity and a willingness to open himself up and also speak about his past history with substance abuse. The two also explored mental health issues and Fry’s experiences with being bipolar before jumping into a conversation about sexual hangups, censorship, and America’s confusing double standard when it comes to the way we use the terminology describing sex and violence. They also spoke about American optimism.

The 2010 “experiment,” as Ferguson called it on the air, stands out as his and Fry’s finest collaboration, elevating an hour of introspective conversation to something of a minor sensation (among late night comedy nerds and the media), but there are also two charming appearances from 2006 and 2009 for you to truffle hunt for on YouTube and another special episode that followed in 2013.

Serving as something of a sequel (though with a live audience and a desk this time), Ferguson and Fry filled the majority of the hour by talking about atheism, the insidious spread of Nazi propaganda in Germany during the run-up to the Holocaust, and Fry’s efforts to square his love for Richard Wagner with the 19th century composer’s anti-Semitism and the embrace of his music by the Third Reich. Weighty stuff, expertly handled, and an example, perhaps, of why this kind of television is best left to certain shows as a special treat.

Ferguson and Fry are two agile wits with the confidence and skill to carry a multi-faceted conversation and an audience’s attention for an hour, but not everyone can do what they did.

Longform doesn’t always mean good. Every episode of Tom Snyder’s Late Late Show isn’t revered as a classic (quite the contrary). There were, of course, shining moments (more so from Snyder’s run in the ’70s and ’80s as the host of The Tomorrow Show) but those were often made possible by intriguing guests and topics.

Today’s more standard late night interview comes with a lower degree of difficulty. Its simple formula — a couple of quick, vetted stories and a clip — is its comfort for networks, hosts, and producers that are looking for a block to nestle in between produced bits. The shows, themselves, seem more complicated and tightly scripted. The result is an unmistakable polish and the continued relevance that comes from the viral success of comedy that is made to be aesthetically engaging, easily shared, and also funny. But that relevance oughta be used as capital and cashed in from time to time to push the bounds of late night so as to not allow the formula and the quest for popularity to devour it and eventually make it weightless and truly irrelevant.

It’s clear that there are shows that wouldn’t benefit from episodes featuring deeper conversation, a wider set of topics, and a more diverse guest list, but for those that would, there is an imperative to embrace Ferguson’s experimental spirit. When the situation warrants it, these shows need to seek out the most interesting guests, focus on the most important topics, slow down, speak up, and put a little faith in the idea that audiences sometimes crave more than a distraction.

Jason Tabrys is the features editor for Uproxx. You can engage with him directly on Twitter.