Craig Ferguson may have first come to the attention of U.S. audiences as Drew Carey's wacky boss on The Drew Carey Show, but he sure has come a long way since then. After taking over The Late Late Show from Craig Kilborn in 2005, he has been slyly building up his brand of off-kilter comedy under the guise of a truly mainstream tradition: the late night talk show. You may think the format has been done to death but Ferguson has been slowly rejuvenating the medium in his own special way. His monologues are less about quick hits and more about building an atmosphere of rambling (and hilarious) absurdity. When he speaks with guests, you can tell he is actually engaged in the conversation and not racing to get to the next talking point. He has managed to develop a loyal fan-base by doing the impossible: being funny and charming without looking like he's trying too hard.
Ferguson brings the same charm and spikes it with a whole lot of filthy in this hour-long stand-up special recorded before an adoring crowd in Nashville, TN. Let me just repeat that for folks who are used to watching Ferguson while he's acting under the watchful eye of Network TV censors. There is no filter here and the man definitely enjoys a ribald turn of phrase. He makes this perfectly clear by announcing his intention to curse like there's no tomorrow and then proceeds to do exactly that. While this early bit sees Craig trading in some of his cleverness for coarseness, it allows him to rebel against all the restrictions that are placed on him on a nightly basis. With some of the obvious vulgarity out of his system, he goes back to being oddly funny and thoroughly Scottish.
Ferguson has never shied away from tackling personal material in his act with old specials including frank discussion of his past addictions. While he doesn't go quite as dark here, he does mine his childhood for stories about being in a heavy metal band with a red-headed badger for a mascot. He also goes into great detail about his sexual education (or lack thereof) as a youngster. His story about watching a toad rubbing its 'shame branch' against another's 'magic baby door' is perfectly paced and an accurate representation of the dichotomy at work in his comedy. On numerous occasions, I found shades of Chris Rock in his delivery and Eddie Izzard in his choice of material. He shares Rocky's edgy bluntness and isn't shy about taking off on Izzardian flights of fancy (refer back to Mr. Toad's 'shame branch').
Freed from the confines of the set of his talk show, Ferguson also shows off his physicality. He uses the entire stage to walk off his nervous energy and to demonstrate the Scottish 'come hither' move (unmistakable once you've seen it). He even graces us with synchronized dance moves (with a little help from a few pals) during a climactic performance of 'Oops I did it again'. The little song and dance number is completely goofy and just a bit moronic. Unfortunately, not all of Craig's act is fun and games. There are times when he falls back on old standards without putting much of a unique spin on them. I believe that Charlie Sheen and Tiger Woods gags have run their course but Craig continues to dig for hidden gems and fails to uncover any. Even his Dick Cheney bit is saved only by the memorable comparison to a Bond villain.
When it comes to mocking celebrities, Ferguson fares a lot better with those he has personally offended. His tale about trying to interview Kate Winslet ("she is not a fat sociopath") is just a bit rude and extremely funny. He even uses celebs to prove that God exists (the unlikeliness of Siegfried and Roy finding each other) and that he has a sense of humor (Fabio getting goosed on a roller-coaster). This section of the show closes strongly as Craig turns the spotlight back onto himself. His pained expression at being accused of stealing the 'Scottish thing' from Mike Myers (who is Canadian) and mimicking the style of Ellen DeGeneres (who is not a man) is an excellent reminder that sometimes it's okay to rejoice in another person's anguish.
If you need any further evidence that watching Craig Ferguson exercise his craft is more about the setup and less about the punchline, then look no further than the show's wraparound conceit. Early on, Ferguson claims that he's only there to tell a single dirty joke. He then unravels the entirety of his act as an extended tangent. By the time he tells the promised dirty joke, it barely qualifies as a throwaway (did you expect any better?). The destination may be predictably underwhelming but that's forgivable when the journey includes discussion of such riveting topics as the many hats in the Pope's wardrobe and the difficulties of being a prick in medieval times. While Ferguson didn't need to say any of this, I'm sure glad he did.