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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Oct. 31, 2014

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Ferguson's comedy is better on TV

While he may have been performing in a primetime spot, the host of "The Late Late Show" Craig Ferguson was certainly not any cleaner at his Friday night performance at the Pabst Theater.

Unconfined from the pesky censors at the FCC, Ferguson performed a set where the f-word was casually included in every three or four sentences. As an aside, Ferguson made sure to acknowledge this by
stating: "It’s different from the TV, isn’t it?" Ferguson began the evening exclaiming his displeasure with Wisconsin weather and said that it made Scotland look like Hawaii.

The actual material covered a wide range of topics, including parenthood, drug use, Hitler, celebrities and shark diving. At the beginning of his set, Ferguson said he was going to share a joke that Drew Carey had told him, back when Carey was "fat and funny." After comparing the modern slimmer Carey’s appearance to Orville Redenbacher , Ferguson became sidetracked when examining the corollary between someone’s weight and how funny they are. Carey’s joke wasn’t told until the very end of set when Ferguson pretended as if he’d forgotten to tell it and then proceeded to use this as his closing bit.

The conclusion to Ferguson’s show highlighted one of his greatest strengths, which is to make his set seem as if it is mostly stream-of-consciousness and that he is just drifting from topic to topic by happenstance. Ferguson delivered a well-rehearsed set where he knew all the beats of his material and frequently referenced previous jokes from earlier in the evening. Some of these callbacks were effective, but Ferguson went to this well a few too many times. Ferguson did shine when he employed some physical humor, especially after making a crack about Dr. Phil and then darting back and forth on the stage because "Oprah’s people have scopes."

One of the most impressive aspects of Ferguson’s set was his ability to shut down uncalled-for contributions from the audience. Early in the set, Ferguson reacted quickly towards the first random yelling from an audience member with quips like "Quiet, daddy’s working" and "It’s not a TV, I can f*****g hear you!" Later, after another random outburst, Ferguson responded with "Tweet me and I’ll ignore it later."

While Ferguson delivered several big laughs, his performance on Friday night wasn’t as good as the typical episode of "The Late Late Show." He contradicted himself by taking shots at a few celebrities and then bemoaning about the tabloids and offering a strong defense of Angelina Jolie. The performance’s swearing was so casual that it lost any effectiveness it might have had as punctuation for his material. At the same time, this casual approach is something Ferguson is clearly aiming for to make it seem like he’s essentially shooting the breeze.

The opening act for the evening was Josh Robert Thompson, the man behind the popular character Geoff Peterson on "The Late Late Show." Thompson was a very talented impressionist, with his best one being Morgan Freeman. His strongest Freeman-related material was using the actor as the voice of a GPS system that is too preoccupied with lengthy narratives about local landmarks that it doesn’t give the driver a heads up about the turn they needed to make. Thompson also earned big laughs when he read "Fifty Shades of Grey" in the voice of Regis Philbin. While Thompson showed incredible talent with his ability to mimic celebrity voices, too often his actual material for those voices felt lacking and pedestrian. However, Thompson’s most surprising impression was his closing bit when he contorted his face to look like Robert De Niro celebrating his 70th birthday.

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