TV

The Funniest ‘Break’ In Late-Night History Involved Craig Ferguson And A Talking Robot Skeleton

Everyone should have a video, preferably one that’s on YouTube or the unexplored wilderness that is DailyMotion, that cheers them up when they’re feeling down. This is especially important this week, as “social distancing” has become the new “conscious uncoupling” and we’re all stuck at home with nothing to do but finally finish The Witcher. (Note to self: finish The Witcher.) Remember the good old days of sharing a bowl of overpriced movie theater popcorn? I do. For me, that happy video is “Geoff Peterson makes Craig Ferguson CRY!” Uploaded on May 20, 2011, the five-minute clip has over 3.3 million views, one million of which are mine. The crying in the title isn’t from sadness, as you might assume — it’s from joy, the same joy you’ll feel after clicking play.

“This is a 100% unplanned & unscripted moment between Craig Ferguson and his robot sidekick, Geoff Peterson,” the video begins, reminding me that I should probably give some context. Before “Carpool Karaoke” was exposed as a lie, The Late Late Show was hosted from 2005-2014 by Scottish-American comedian Craig Ferguson, and instead of a flesh-and-blood host/sidekick dynamic, like Conan O’Brien/Andy Richter, Johnny Carson/Ed McMahon, and Larry Sanders/Hank Kingsley, Ferguson employed Geoff Peterson, an openly gay robot skeleton voiced and operated by Josh Robert Thompson.

Geoff had glowing blue eyes, a mohawk, a Price is Right-looking name tag, and originally only said “up to seven phrases,” according to his creator, MythBusters star Grant Imahara. That was part of Ferguson’s concept to represent “some kind of deconstructionist contempt for the late-night genre and the idea of a sidekick,” but, as the host told the Arizona Republic, “[Josh Robert Thompson] became so good at it, he just became a sidekick. That always makes me laugh.” Thanks to Robert Thompson’s mastery of the robot (he controlled the “mouth, arm, and head movements at all times. Every time I talk, for each single word I press a button in time to my talking, making Geoff’s mouth move”) Geoff became an essential element of The Late Late Show; he went from firing off ironic one-liners like “balls” to, well, still saying “balls,” but also having a whole backstory about owning a “pad” down on the Bayou. Which brings us back to:

“This is a 100% unplanned & unscripted moment between Craig Ferguson and his robot sidekick, Geoff Peterson.” The bit begins with some back-and-forth about the aforementioned “pad” and throwing Mardi Gras beads at people and Ferguson reading a (hopefully fake?) letter from a viewer, asking how he should respond to his wife asking him to speak like Geoff while they’re making love. Remarkably, this, a demand for a spouse to sound like a robot skeleton while they’re having sex, is an afterthought in the clip. After Geoff gives his suggestion (“Oh yeah, that’s it, more, don’t stop”), Ferguson continues to the next letter, which he asks Geoff if he wants to read himself. “How dare you,” Geoff responds, causing Ferguson to crack up. The seed has been planted.

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The third letter, addressed from Edinburgh, Scotland, is the one that sets Ferguson off. You can watch the clip above for the full context, but basically, the letter writer wants to know if “the Craig I remember” is the one she had a “great night” with. “You ever been to Edinburgh?” Ferguson asks his sidekick, who responds, “Oh hell yeah, I got a place there,” in the same inflection that he used to respond to the New Orleans question earlier. Ferguson, struggling to keep it together, asks Geoff what he does in his place. Geoff tries to respond, but he, too, is losing it. “You throw beads, you go shopping,” he says before trailing off from laughter. I could recap the rest, but I suggest just watching it.

A harmonica is inexplicably involved.

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Even after a million and one views, it’s still good. But why is this my happy video when watching certain other late-night hosts giggling fills me with rage? For one thing, the weird joke and subsequent callback is solid. But mainly, it’s because the clip is genuinely silly, a spontaneous connection between two comedians amusing not only the audience, but also themselves. I love it for the same reason I love when Ben Schwartz and Adam Pally took over The Late Late Show (fittingly after Ferguson left), which is something I can’t believe actually happened. I called it the funniest break in “late-night history” in the headline, excluding programming like Whose Line Is It Anyway? (although shout out to Colin Mochrie’s “arctic tern”) and SNL, but if I extended the criteria, the closest comparison to Craig asking Geoff about his place in Edinburgh is John Mulaney actively trying (and usually succeeding) to make Bill Hader break as Stefon — come to think of it, a gay, talking robot skeleton would be right at home in one of Stefon’s clubs.

I hope you have a video that makes you happy as this one does for me.

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