Dallas — You could almost hear the conductor say, “Step right up, the Craig Ferguson ride is about to begin. Fasten your seatbelts.”
And insert your earplugs.
Raucous rock music blared through the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House at AT&T Performing Arts Center. Made the Moody Chandelier swing, I kid you not. People scrunched low in their seats as if they could escape it. Security people scanning for weapons and checking purses upon entering the facility should have been a tip-off.
But then Ferguson has never cared much for decorum.
Ferguson, as Kevin Fallon, senior entertainment reporter at The Daily Beast, so succinctly wrote, has “made a career out of unexpected candor, authenticity, and a punk rock mandate to do the kind of comedy that he wants to do, traditions and decorum be damned.” On Thursday night the comedian obliged with a 90-minute set containing 60 minutes of material that satisfied fans and left newbies puzzled. Yet through the sheer projection of personality he carried everyone along.
At times, Ferguson was screamingly funny, eliciting gaping mouths and loud guffaws, usually some unscripted smart-ass remark. He’s a very silly Scotsman, and that alone goes a long way. He prances and plays fey, feigns exaggerated dismay and shock, stretches his mouth and eyes in a myriad of ways, and otherwise comes across as the funny guy at the party, hopped up on Red Bull and loosened by booze, who provides an engaging impromptu floor show. You just have to accept that much of what he says makes no sense at all, while occasionally he stumbles into moments of brilliance.
A few printable bon mots:
“You never have good ideas on tequila.”
“You can’t trust a hamster with your weed.”
“Around parts of Glasgow, ‘trump’ means ‘shit.’ I’ll just leave that one there.”
But if you wanted a craft-comedy set where longer routines are linked by jokes and bits, and references to prior materials are called back and woven in, this was not it. The show assembled a handful of routines—his mother’s bad sense of design, why he hosted magicians on his show annually, a trip to Japan and a kimono striptease, why the ‘70s should be erased from history, a stay in a haunted Arizona hotel—but many of those never reached their pay-off punchlines. Instead, Ferguson was off chasing tangents that themselves had enough chuckles. If you tried to make sense of it, it was like comedy billiards in your brain. If you relented and just went along for the ride, it was like the funniest Uber trip ever.
Because that’s why fans pony up the big bucks, and the Winspear was full to the fourth tier: To watch the mind of Craig Ferguson in action. To know that there was no filter, no writers at work, no market testing. He could return every year with a similar show, no problem. Fans love and miss him; even the slightest reference to The Late Late Show garnered with applause. But his last television hosting gig—Celebrity Name Game—bit the dust and additional episodes of Join or Die were said to be ordered, but that was a year ago and no word yet. So what you gonna do, Craig? You’re more creative than this live show implies.
Well-constructed craft comedy was precisely what opening act Paul Varghese provided. He opened with deportation jokes, noting his dark Indian skin and the inability of many Americans to tell brown people apart. A turn into domestic bliss has opened up a new field of bits on girlfriends and dogs, but riffs on his immigrant parents’ malapropisms continue to be good for laughs. He’s retained that great ability to open sheltered eyes to issues—making a dig at sanctimonious dog owners by calling adoptees “rescue people,” noting that if the U.S. did a disease exchange with Ebola, all we could give back were gluten intolerance and restless-leg syndrome. Varghese is deepening, pushing jokes past their first and second punchline to an uncomfortable final level that provoke the best laughs of all: a recognition of truth.