Craig Ferguson’s nine-year tenure as the host of The Late Late Show was largely defined by his commitment to rejecting the “did you hear about this?” rhythms of late night talk shows. His monologues and interviews contained so much authentic improvisation that in a crowded market of shows painstakingly designed to convince you they’re just celebrities hanging out, The Late Late Show was doing it effortlessly.
That’s the general vibe Ferguson brings to Tickle Fight, a new Netflix special with a first third that is unfortunately its weakest. I’m going to start sounding like a broken record on this given my feelings on Brian Regan’s recent special, but in the year since Trump was elected, he’s begun cropping up in comedy specials in a way that makes it feel more like an obligation than a decisive choice on the part of the comedian. The fact that these specials are recorded months in advance and can’t possibly keep up with the pace of the news cycle doesn’t help. This is to say: how a comedian chooses to approach Trump has a big effect on the feeling of the entire special, and Ferguson’s “like him or hate him, here are some funny things” approach feels weirdly out of step with his attitude about everything else. “The only thing that unites all humans is their hatred of change,” Ferguson says, as if Trump’s election is just a regrettable part of the natural course of life. We already know Ferguson doesn’t like the guy, given that this same specials coins Trump’s name as a euphemism for taking a shit, so the material meant to address Trump without scaring anybody off feels like a holdover from the CBS days and disappointingly old-fashioned, as does his regret over leaving late night before Trump announced his candidacy—a “gift” to comedians.
It’s a shame that the special puts this foot forward first, along with a reliance on its gay panic-y title and lukewarm jokes about how a “whizzbang is when you have sex with someone from a Harry Potter film.” Ferguson possesses the same affable stage presence he had as a host. The second he stops trying to shoe leather his own Trump take together and slides into long-form stories with the ease and charm of a beloved, professional dinner guest, Tickle Fight gets ten times more comfortable, befitting of his partially ironed shirt, Converse shoes and the smattering of arm tattoos that scream genial aging punk.
He’s at his best when playing the raconteur, spinning yarns about the bizarre Broadway Danny Rose origin of his show’s traditional magician week and his trip to Japan with his son, using a toilet with a dryer that felt like “monks chanting directly into your anus.” Ferguson clearly relishes getting the opportunity to literally finger his own face the way he probably couldn’t on TV, and whenever he leans in to that Scottish verbal specificity or tells the vegans applauding his own veganism to save their energy, he’s still that genial uncle who lets you in on a dirty joke, and there’s still a thrill in his cheeky act.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.