Craig Ferguson (brand exemplar?)

Craig_ferguson Are TV talk shows a laboratory for branding?  Do we have something to learn from Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and Craig Ferguson?

Well, surely, we don’t want our brands to look like Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show, that exercise in the painfully agreeable.  Jay Leno used to be a comedian:

"President Bush is recovering after an illness in Japan.  His medical advisers were very clear.  They said to the President, "Get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids.""

"Plenty of rest, lots of fluids?  I thought that was Congress’s job."

Now, Jay uses EZ humor.  Retirement happened a while ago.  We’re just waiting for him to leave. 

Jay’s story is the story of a several brands.  They begin with edge and intelligence and then trade this away for growth.  They grow large without even as they wither within.  EZ branding, it’s everywhere.  Big simple branding propositions.  Repeated endlessly. Argh.  Retirement can’t come soon enough.

Jimmy Kimmel is another story.  I liked the fact that he promised his talk show was going to be a "funny version of the Tonight Show."  And I like the fact that he manages to express two very different parts of contemporary culture: wicked clever and Man Show stupidity.  The person who can pull this off is a genius or the head writer at a Frat house.  The brand that can pull this off, well, name one.  ESPN, maybe.  Apparently, Kimmel is up 17 % among adults 18 to 49, so a lot of brands ought to be taking notice.

But there is trouble in this little paradise.  Kimmel is making a host of compromises.  He now wears a tie.  The show is no longer live.  He dutifully stands up for his monologue.  Yes, the numbers are growing, but it is not clear that the potency of the proposition can sustain itself. 

This is an old story, the trading away of credibility to get to success.  It looks as if Entertainment Weekly may be engaged in something like this.  (The current cover showing Matthew McConaughey under the desperate title "Sexiest Man Alive or Serious Actor?" is but one indication.)  It’s always the same.  The compromises begin to accumulate, the numbers spike nicely, and within a year or two the thing has jumped the shark. 

The lesson from Jimmy Kimmel and his handlers may be this: take grow only if you can have it without compromise.  If you need bigger numbers, start another brand.

This week I’ve been watching Craig Ferguson on The Late, Late Show, and I wonder if he is a new model of the talk show host…and perhaps the brand.

First, Ferguson reverses the trend.  We are now accustomed to actors who started as comedians (Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Ray Romano, Martin Lawrence, Will Ferrell, the list is long). Ferguson is a comedian who started as an actor.   

Second, Ferguson is the picture of animation.  If he were any more animated, he’d be a cartoon character.  I counted 15 vivid, distinct, arch expressions and then gave up.  This guy just loves to mug for the camera and he manages to get from "fiendish glee" to "mock horror" in the blink of an eye.  This may be his acting training.  In any case, there is no such thing as dead air in this show.  Even when the guest is shambling along, Ferguson is furiously digging around them for comic material with the joy and accuracy of a truffle pig. 

Third, Ferguson builds an interesting relationship with the audience.  He actually opens the second segment by saying, "Welcome back, my cheeky little monkeys!"  I tried and tried but I just could not image David Letterman ever saying anything like this to his audience.  (No mugging for Dave.  His is a kind of Protestant, Midwestern, Carsonian theater of the small gesture and restrained reaction.) 

Somehow, Ferguson has got around the "tell a joke" model and creates the impression that everyone in the studio is already party to a joke in progress. In the process he creates an irresistible bonhomie.  No need to get the party started.  It is already well under way the moment Ferguson starts talking.  He insinuates a co-conspiracy and we the audience, go, "well, ok, fine, you’re on."  The on-air relationship is, in the words of our favorite linguist, Michael Silverstein, maximally presupposing.  It assumes what other comedians must labor to create.

Fourth, Ferguson is actually a pretty good interviewer…this separates him from most of the competition and especially David Letterman who is certifiably hopeless.  And being an interviews lets him open up the guest list to include guests as diverse as Edward Norton, Ming Tsai, Xzibit and Paula Poundstone.  Norton showed distressing signs of taking himself seriously as the auteur and grand actor, but dear old Ferguson just kept beaming good humor at him till he loosened up.  He got Xzibit to make fun of himself and talked Ms. Poundstone down off the ledge of career insecurity.  Ferguson proves to be as engaging with guests as he is with the audience. 

It’s all very Scottish, this humor is.  I have seen something like it before in a little pub several miles outside St. Andrews (aka the middle of nowhere) where people would entertain one another with playfulness, wit and dexterity that left yours-truly silent with awe.  There are elements of the music hall at work, with people vamping and camping their way through cheeky, off color jokes and stories.  And it is completely inexhaustible in what we might otherwise think is the Fergusonian style.   

So it’s not as if young Ferguson has made all this up on his own.  But, to be sure, he has, by this time, made it his own, and his opening few minutes of stand up are an exercise in effortlessness and sheer comic facility.  He’s very good at this.  It’s as if the American comedians have made a fine art of taking things out, baring things down, searching for the mot juste and then timing delivery to within a millisecond of perfection.  Ferguson appears to subscribe to the Grand Central Station idea of train travel. Missed a joke?  Never mind, there’ll be another one along in a moment.

What does this have to tell us about branding?  I think the Fergusonian brand is one that brims with lots of things, and shows itself more interested in vividness than consistency, majesty, or even clarity.   A Fergusonian brand is playful, a little surreal at times, vivid, changeable, unpredictable, insinuating, co-conspiratorial, and a little hyperactive.  A Fergusonian brand breaks out of the "keep it simple, stupid" rule book that governs many marketers.  Most of all, the Fergusonian brand works from an abundance model.  It’s not about crafting a couple of words and delivering them with surgical perfection.  It’s about more, and then more, and then more of that more.  Marketing by profusion.  Not everything will work.  And that’s ok.  Now we know.  It’s kind of the way Hollywood used to make movies, and the way Jerry Lewis used to make jokes.   

If there is a brand in the world that captures the Fergusonian approach, it is, I think,  There seem to be lots of Geico ads running at the moment: the gecko, stone age man, the workout parodies, the tiny house bit, the geico squirrels, the interpretive spots starring Mini-me, Little Richard, Peter Graves, Charo, and the guy who does the voice over for action-adventure ads.  It’s hard to believe all this stuff comes from a single agency.  (As far as I know, it does, from the Martin Agency in Richmond, Virginia.)

I mean, surely, there will come a time when the brand will want to gaze out on its customers, and salute them with a fond "hello, my cheeky, little monkeys."


I couldn’t actually find anything on YouTube that was guite as good as the Ferguson I got to see this week, but here are a couple of examples

Craig Ferguson Vampire Bats Locusts here

Late, Late Show – November 3, 2006 here.

Late, Late Show – November 14, 2006 here.


Hibberd, James.  2006.  Kimmel’s Old School shift Wins Following.  Televisionweek.  December 18, 2006. 

81 thoughts on “Craig Ferguson (brand exemplar?)

  1. JJ

    I am yet another die-hard fan of Craig Ferguson, and I agree whole-heartedly he is absolutely the top of the heap regarding late-night talk show hosts.

    I suppose what I appreciate the most is his completely natural sense of mischief. I also crack up at his politically incorrect rants in which his indignation at the hypocritical foibles of politicians, religious leaders and stars who are too full of themselves tumbles out in fast and furious, yet completely understandable, honesty and truth. His “hands off Britney” was touching, and his tribute to his dad made me just plain proud of him.

    Watching him take the citizenship oath also made ME proud to be an American. For him, that day was NOT something to be made light of. I could see in his demeanor how very important it was for him to become a citizen of this somewhat bent, but also great, country.

    I so look forward to LLS every night, but on the off chance I slip off to dreamland before it comes on at 12:30 am, the show is ALWAYS taped so I don’t miss anything. Craig Ferguson is simply a kick.

    Also read his book and bought “Saving Grace.” Loved them both. He was also my FAVORITE character on the Drew Carey show. Sorry, Drew.

    Oh, if only our politicians could look at themselves through Craig’s eyes.

    My sympathies to Scotland for losing him as a citizen. Hooray for OUR gain! Go Craig!!!! God Bless You and Milo.

  2. endurablegoods

    Wow. I am simply astounded that people believe CF is funny. Has the American viewing audience become so deadened to intelligent, thinking comedy? Funny faces and a faux devil-may-care attitude, frenetic Scottish blathering and stone-simple jokes and observations. And his ‘live’ audience must be a sham.

    Cheeky, little monkeys? Seriously?

  3. Jessie

    The show is on at 12:30 a.m. I don’t need nor want anything heavy at that time of day. I just want to laugh at some joy.
    He can be deadly serious on certain issues such as the 9/11 monologue, or the day he talked about killing himself, or the day he talked after his dad’s passing.

    He’s been to hell and back thru his blackout days of drinking and 2 divorces and somehow found joy. Joy enough to share it with us at half past midnight.

    Talented, funny man. Seriously.

  4. Nancy

    From the first time I saw Craig’s show, I fell in love with him! He is clever, oh-so charming, very sexy…..but he doesn’t know it. I love how he shares intimate details of his life, past and present… can’t help but love him. I saw him live and boy whatta hot show that was. He really lets loose the barriers of TV and says all the hilarious, foul and sexual things I LOVE to hear. So wonder all the women LOVE him!!!! He’s amazingly talented. I’m only now watching the Drew Carey re-runs just to see Craig!! Craig Ferguson forever!!!!

  5. Pejay

    I used to watch re-runs of Friends, or Frasier before I retired, because the late nite shows just bored me to death, but by chance I came across Craig Ferguson last month and since then I have watched him every nite. He is one of the funniest, cleverest entertainers I have seen in a long time. Just this past weekend I purchased tickets to see him live in June doing his stand-up act. I wish him great success with his show and hope he can get Leno’s spot in 2009. Conan has never appealed to me, he just loves to insult people and act like a fool. Craig is so much more entertaining and so easy on the eyes!!!!!

  6. Pejay

    I used to watch re-runs of Friends, or Frasier before I retired, because the late nite shows just bored me to death, but by chance I came across Craig Ferguson last month and since then I have watched him every nite. He is one of the funniest, cleverest entertainers I have seen in a long time. Just this past weekend I purchased tickets to see him live in June doing his stand-up act. I wish him great success with his show and hope he can get Leno’s spot in 2009. Conan has never appealed to me, he just loves to insult people and act like a fool. Craig is so much more entertaining and so easy on the eyes!!!!!

  7. Janet Burke

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Ferguson is cutting edge in a casual, self-deprecating way that is cool without trying to be cool. He’s very funny and he’s sincere in a genuine, not put on way. He’s is very sexy and likable too.

    Leno has become so lame and middle of the road it’s hard to even watch him without feeling like an old lady. The way he repeatedly “explains” his jokes shows he has no connection with his audience. His political fence riding is insulting and makes him seem like a used car salesman.

    Letterman has become a nicer person and I love the way he has un-appologetically gone after the Bush administration and the war. But he seems tired these days and who can blame him? He has matured and really can’t keep up the sarcastic “anti-host” persona he began with.

    Conan is simply annoying. Making a strange face and walking into the camera is not a monologue. I cannot imagine him taking over the Tonight Show except that Jay Leno has become so bland and milk-toasty that it may make the bar so low that Conan will seem innovative.

    I have no opinion on Kimmel because I’ve never watched him. But I have to say, after Ferguson, who is extremely sexy, Kimmel isn’t bad in that regard. Sort of like the cuddly, ever so slightly chubby, funny friend that you suddenly find yourself having a crush on.

  8. Patriczia

    Craig Ferguson is appearing live in Portland, Oregon tonight. In answer to a question he posed on a recent show about this visit, there are many of us in the city of roses who appreciate the very talented Mr. Ferguson and love his humor and intelligence. So, welcome and bravo.
    Patriczia Petrus, author

  9. Nancy Hakes

    Dear Craig,
    I think you are wonderful. Your show helps me so much to cope with the death of my husband, In stead of crying my self to sleep, I laugh my self to sleep.
    I went to see you do standup in Sparta NJ. just loved the show. You are so talented and good looking. I enjoy the stories, about when you lived in Scotland so much.
    Keep up the good work.
    One of your BIGEST FANS, Nancy

  10. Paul S.

    Saw a group last week I REALLY liked. I think
    the name was Heidi Lowe. I can’t find any
    info on them anywhere. If anyone knows anything about them, please let me know.

  11. Jean

    I sure do miss you “live” this week, understand you have other places you have to go, the public calls. You certainly are missing a lot of subjects for your monolog. I’m from NY so you must know what is on the top of our news!!! Look forward to seeing you when you return, hopefully next week, I’ll be watching!!! Jean

  12. 12 dogs and a blog


    It’s what Mr. Ferguson is really good at doing. It’s his thing actually. Wheither he’s a drummer in a punk band, an angry Bing Hitler(aka ArchieBunker does standup), an actor, writer, a director, a stand up comedian, or now a late night talkshow host, his real talent is reinventing himself. He is constantly adapting to the environment he is in. An improv comedian/actor with a “golden retriever” mind that gets bored easily. Put him in the confines of a late night show and it’s “Lighting Bugs in a Bottle”. Magic. I think that “reinvention” is Mr. Ferguson’s “brand”. It will also be his saving grace in the coming reinvention of communications. Already he has taken JayLeno’s “everyman”/Jimmy Kimmel’s JL “everyman” version 2.0 and given this “everyman” a world view. Next, he took the best of David Letterman’s “fratboy”/Conan O’Brian’s “fratboy” v 2.o skits and hijinks, then mixed it with an older but wiser viewpoint to give us “Prince Charles Reality Show”. His interviews of “unknown to the masses” guests with a “novel” more writerly approach to the interviews, ala Dick Cavett, pushes past the “Home Shopping Network” interviews that we see not just in late night but also on the morning news. If you mix in what I hope will be a more indie feel to the music guests and Carson Daily’s full out embrace of the Internet, you get the beginnings of the reninvention of late night with Mr. Ferguson cast in the lead. Always evolving as the media and the world does. The closest thing to this on the cusp of media evolution would be the StewartTwins, Stewart and Colbert, who change in response to the political climate and culture of the day.

    Yeppers, reinvention is Mr. Ferguson’s thing.

    Mr O’Brian might want to pay attention.

    12 dogs and a blog

  13. schwackers

    Absolutely love him. I can’t wait until he catches up in ratings and totally books it past Conan and Leno and Letterman. Ugh. He was CRAZY last night! I LOVE IT! A flea market and Jack and the Beanstalk’s beans?!!!! Whaaaaa? Or when he throws his legs up on the desk at the end of the night, looks into the camera and says “well, one of us has to go to bed, and it’s not going to be me!”

    *Sighs* I’m in love with an older man.

  14. kathy

    I just think that Craig is the funniest thing going. He really makes me laugh because I am as crazy as he is. The only people who don’t like him are middle aged men who are just jealous. My sister says that Craig and Tony Stewart have the same sized hands. You know what that means………fast and furious.

  15. Diane C. Leduc

    I feel head over heels the first 60 seconds I happended to come accross his show 3 years ago and I have been watching him every since. I talk about him at work everyday and call him my hubby (I waited for the best) yummy. I watch you everynite Craig, Friday nite is date nite (he-he). Everytime I think I know why I love you so much I find more reasons. I was very excited to see you in person at one of your gigs in Florida. I was so excited I kept spraying my favorite sexy perfume (??) I think I caused they guy next to me to stop breathing, He didn’t (or couldn’t) laugh once, oh well. I’m so proud of everything you’ve done, keep up the good work. Ever need some TLC and a place to veg, call me. Love and Respectfully Yours Di xxxooo

  16. Jeri

    Have bought all his films and his book.The creative genius of his man is absolutely astounding!His ability to pull from the classics, history and current events, punch a belly laugh out of me at 1:45 in the morning, is the biggest problem and delight of my life.

  17. Theresa Tanner

    Dear Craig;Iam your biggest fan.I think you are the best thing to happen to late night television since re-runs of Hee-Haw. I love your show every night no matter how tired I may be. I love you and I love your show. Congratulations on your citizenship. Respectfully and sincerely, Theresa Tanner, Homburg Illinois

  18. Anonymous

    Im from N. Ireland. I had never heard about Craig Ferguson until I stumbled across him on Youtube. Hes unheard of in the UK.
    But he is sooooo hilarious. I totally love his show.

  19. Anonymous

    Im from N. Ireland. I had never heard about Craig Ferguson until I stumbled across him on Youtube. Hes unheard of in the UK.
    But he is sooooo hilarious. I totally love his show.

  20. Anonymous

    Im from N. Ireland. I had never heard about Craig Ferguson until I stumbled across him on Youtube. Hes unheard of in the UK.
    But he is sooooo hilarious. I totally love his show.

  21. Jamie

    I love and appreciate all of CFs acting/comedic genius including his gorgeous face – but this is really bothering me. I could swear that they’re using a laugh track. I started really listening to the audience reactions and there’s a sameness to the tones – and other times the laughs are totally out of place.

    Another suspicion is that there are *never* audience shots.

    Craig, I won’t love you any less, but please tell me the truth, is there a live audience?

  22. blc

    Is the idea of adopting this brand no simpler than being entertained by an outside perspective?

  23. Steve

    Craig Ferguson does not belong on television. He reminds me of a funny uncle at a family gathering. He throws out joke after joke after joke and, sure, some hit the mark, but many are obvious and only “smile-worthy”. This is not what smart comedy is supposed to be. Letterman is by far the best showman on late night. Kimmel is the most clever. Conan is probably the naturally funniest in real life. I can’t believe what I have read here. I am watching Ferguson right now. It’s not good…not good.

  24. Yvonne

    LOVE HIM!!!!!!! I am convinced that it must be in his contract to have no media advertising for the show. I look for it and I never see any. The start of the weekend they show advertising for all the night shows from Leno to Kimmel. Kimmel for heavens sake! But none for Craig. Jimmy Kimmel I think will surpass Conan in the ratings soon because ABC is determined to do that and have him all over the place currently to showcase him. But how much help does he need to accomplish that? He has how many side kicks, a band, has been on the air for 5 years now I think, comes on a half hour before Craig, and has yet to do that. I watch it from time to time but nothing I really look forward to. Conan cured my insomnia. Leno and Letterman are ok, I don’t record their shows like I do Craig’s, but I wouldn’t change the channel if I happen to have one of them on. All of this of course my personal opinion.

  25. kenneth aldhizer

    wednesday night show.

    Although John McCain served in Viet Nam and he was a Hero I guess. but the blogs about his prisoner of war regard being tortued, arms broken etc. is deceiptful. there is documentation that he was treat royaly, just punch in John McCain prisoner of war. Infact, his statement that he would not leave before his fellow prisoners could leave is somewhat doubtful. by that statement alone about leaving should tell you that he must have been offered the chance to leave. blogs say he was treat very well. Like everything else, I believe it is just anyth hulla balu to the thugs who want to keep working people down. keep working people as food in the troff for the pigs.
    LOOK IT UP!!!

  26. Dave

    Why does Craig now wear a tie? I remember him in the first season where he said he wouldn’t whear a tie. Now, it’s on. What’s up?

    Jay Leno….yuk…his “jokes” are always at the expense of other people. He seems to be a mean-spirited man who needs to find something else to do. He should leave the talk shows behind and just write his little pages for Popular Mechanics where I read him for only 10 minutes a month.

    Dave Letterman…I liked him better before they started letting Paul talk. Paul just needs to be quiet, he doesn’t have anything worthwhile to add. And, what’s up with the announcer? Is he being Dave’s crude alter-ego? His “contribution” to the show is just crass, off-color crap.

    Conan…i can take about 5 minutes of him per week.

  27. Dabra1

    His writing is so poor that it’s an absolute shame that someone of his lacking skills performs a monologue. High school kids write better comedy. Not kidding. His interviewing is fine but the tearing up the cards is so gimmicky as is the c’mon on in thing he does at the beginning of the monologue.

    It’s a shame that writing is thrown out the window in place of mugging. I keep asking, “What is everyone laughing at? He hasn’t said anything funny. He’s just saying things AS IF they were funny.”

    No offense but if you think he’s funny, you must be very easily entertained.

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