I was in LA a few weeks ago and since I’m a huge Craig Ferguson fan, I decided to attend a taping of his show (which is technically called The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson although I always refer to it as “The Craig Ferguson Show”). I ended up getting tickets for the show on Valentine’s Day, which was probably the best Valentine’s gift I could have asked for. I’ve always been curious what it’s like to attend a TV taping and since this was my first time, I thought I’d share a little bit about my experience.
Although the show airs late at night, tapings take place during the afternoon and my friend Erin and I arrived at CBS studios around 2pm. The Late Late Show coordinators had us line up along the gate outside CBS for about half an hour. We were then ushered through security and got to wait around again (sitting this time) on an outdoor patio area (complete with giftshop!) We weren’t allowed to bring cameras or phones into the studio, and while it was devastating not to be able to capture the afternoon with my camera, it was nice to chat with fellow audience members rather than just play Fruit Ninja as we waited.
A (super handsome) representative from the show talked us through the rules of being a studio audience. He framed our role as being “show enhancers,” not audience members. The audience is made up of the millions of people watching at home, we were active participants in the creation of the show itself. Ultimately that was a fancy way of saying we should laugh at everything, whether or not we found it funny. As I mentioned, I’m a huge fan of Craig Ferguson and I didn’t think I’d have any problem actually laughing (I certainly don’t when I’m watching from home), but it occurred to me that a large portion of the audience could be tourists unfamiliar with the show who were just looking to attend any taping they could get tickets to.
We were led upstairs to the studio and took our seats. Unlike the TARDIS proudly displayed on his desk, Craig’s studio is actually smaller on the inside. Apparently the audience is made up of only 140 people, which is quite tiny. I was lucky enough to get a seat in the front row, towards the left side of the stage. I sat directly behind the show’s producer Michael Naidus, who stands at a podium near the audience during the tapings. (He’s sometimes featured on the show as Craig’s foil.) I couldn’t have asked for a better seat because I got to see the producer’s showbook and watch the teleprompter mounted on his station.
Before the taping started, a warm-up comedian got us ready to laugh. This was undoubtedly my least favorite part of the day. I found the comedian trite, unfunny, and slightly desperate. I don’t know much about warm-up comedy and I imagine it’s a tough job to do well. Certainly you wouldn’t want a warm-up comedian to be funnier than the program itself. Most of his shtick consisted of crude jokes and I was forced to be an unwilling participant in a bit about him wanting to date me. Which was made even creepier by the fact that the comic was in his 50s and I’m 23. Regardless, a mediocre comic was worth suffering through to see Craig Ferguson live and in person.
The Ferguson show is tightly run and it felt like watching a well-rehearsed play. The day I attended two shows were being filmed. One would air that evening (Valentine’s Day) and the other would air the following day. (You can check out the full episodes here and here). I’m glad I got to see a double taping because the first one went by so quickly I barely had time to take it in.
One of the crew members (possibly a director or stage manager?) counted down to the opening of the show and Craig ran onstage to a burst of applause and did his monologue for us. In the break following the monologue, things got a little more relaxed and Craig said hello to the audience. He then pulled an audience member onstage to film the show’s cold opening (the first portion of the episode that actually airs before the monologue). In the first episode he choose a gentlemen who looked a lot like Santa Claus. In the second episode he selected a gay couple wearing matching bright pink t-shirts.
I’m a fan of Craig Ferguson because it’s obvious that he is incredibly intelligent. (He once quoted Wordsworth in an interview with Stephen Fry. Imagine Leno doing that). During the cold open with “Santa,” Craig asked the guest to state his name and occupation. The man, perhaps a little sick of consistently being referred to as Santa, responded, “My name is Herman Melville and I write books about whale.” As the audience laughter died down, Craig replied “Well call my Ishmael.” An off-the-cuff joke about a 19th century author that managed to be both funny and topical? I was in heaven.
It’s incredible to me how little of each episode is scripted. I tried to follow along with the teleprompter on Naidus’ podium as much as I could. As far as I could tell, Craig only used it during the monologue and even then it was more of a series of talking points than a script. Craig would read a line or two, inject some of his own off-handed responses, and then wander back to the next point. The central joke in his first monologue ended up being about the man who looked like Santa Claus, a bit that couldn’t have been prewritten because the audience only arrived a little bit before the start of the taping.
I was surprised by how much Craig kept checking in with Naidus. Craig would glance at him after a lot of the jokes, trying to gauge how well things were going. During most of the opening commercial breaks, he’d wander over to the podium for a quick chat. It was too loud to hear their interactions, but the show really felt like a team effort between the two men.
The taping moved quickly, unfolding in real time like it does on TV. I suppose this makes sense, as the format is mirroring a live taping. I was hoping for a few more behind-the-scenes mishaps, but things clipped along quite smoothly. The commercial breaks were short, probably less than a minute. (Something I have always wondered about, by the way). The studio pumped in some upbeat music and encouraged the audience to clap along before breaking into loud applause as the show returned from commercial.
There were two minor mishaps during the show. Craig got a runny noise and tried to turn it into a bit before asking for a tissue and admitting they’d probably need to edit that segment out. The audience was also asked to stay after the show to rerecord one of Geoff’s bits leading into the Tweets/Emails segment. He had originally used the term “she-male” which didn’t fly with the censors.
The guests for the first program were George Lopez and Sutton Foster. The second show featured Jane Lynch and Mario Lopez. Craig has an easy sort of chemistry with all of his guests and I enjoyed all four of the interviews, even the ones with celebrities I don’t have a particular interest in. Craig also had a few *wink wink* references to the fact that he was filming two episodes in one day. During the second taping he told Geoff we were a much better audience than last night’s. And when discussing fashion with Jane Lynch he admitted to wearing the same suit he had worn the night before. The audience ate up the references and I imagine jokes like that are solid comedy fodder on days with two tapings.
The tapings went by quickly, each one probably lasting about 45 minutes. There was little fanfare at the end of the day. We were briefly introduced to the actors inside Secretariat and the voice behind Geoff. It was interesting that we didn’t see the actors getting into Secretariat’s costume before the show or get to watch Geoff’s voice actor, Josh R. Thompson, during the taping. Like a play, the illusion was maintained until the final curtain call. Craig said a quick thank you and exited almost immediately after the final show wrapped.
Attending a taping felt like a weird mix of seeing a play, being at a theme park, and watching a behind the scenes segment. There’s something artificial about the whole thing, but Craig’s low-key energy kept things from feeling too polished and practiced. What was apparent, even from the one day of taping I saw, is that Craig and his crew truly love what they’re doing. The whole taping had a lighthearted, fun atmosphere that’s remarkable for a show that has been running for seven years.
If you’re not yet a Craig Ferguson fan (why are you still reading this?) then here are a few of my favorite segments the show has produced over the years:
- Craig’s 2007 sobriety monologue
- Craig with favorite guest Kristen Bell (who has been on the show 24 times)
- Craig can’t stop laughing
- Craig with fellow Scot Ewan McGregor (they start the segment by chasing each other around the studio)
- The show’s amazing Doctor Who themed opening dancing number
- That time Craig dedicated his whole show to an interview with South African social activist Desmond Tutu