Beginning February 18th, the History channel will air its new series titled, Join or Die, with host Craig Ferguson. The debate/talk show, is kinda-sorta like Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO, with today’s top celebrities and experts discussing history’s interesting topics. It also airs late in the evening and shows no regard for its use of foul language. The similarities end there and the show becomes more of a sad moment, in the career of Craig Ferguson.
Each episode begins with the Scottish-born host presenting a funny and very animated opening monologue about the night’s topic. The part of the show where he shines, Craig is well rehearsed in this aspect of his new venture, having hosted The Late Late Show on CBS for ten years. That said, viewers may be surprised when they see this for the first time. Besides feeling out of place when you’ve set the channel to History, you wonder if he’s doing this to prove something to CBS (although he claims it wasn’t a contentious parting), the tricks in his bag are limited, or the show was designed in a hastily manner.
To give the host credit, he is the reason Join or Die works at all. Discussing and debating topics from history like, “history’s most influential drug, the most doomed presidential campaign, history’s biggest douche-bag, the most influential band and history’s biggest frenemies” Craig’s wit and quick timing fills the void, when his guests fall flat.
The discussions are more like something happening in your living room, and the debate is really nonexistent. No one is going to get upset here, so don’t expect the kind of passion you might see on Real Time. Even with the uncensored language and topics about things like drugs (and Ferguson talking openly about his own drug use), it all comes up feeling very neutered. More like The Daily Show or Colbert, the laughs seem to be the goal here and not the actual subject matter. Which again, may not sit well with fans of this particular cable channel.
Starting with a list of the top six, the panel reduces the list by two prior to each break, resulting at the end of the show with what they’ve determined to be the “biggest” (i.e. drug, douchebag, etc.).
On each of the series 22 episodes, there is one guest who appears to be the “expert” on the night’s talking point. But no subject is completely nailed down and questions still remain, even after the “expert” chimes in; so don’t expect to walk away having added much to your knowledge bank. It could be that Craig saw potential material from those late night interviews with celebrities on CBS; which works when you’re surprised to see a star go off on a rant about politics or vices, but not so much when it’s formatted.
It’s not that this couldn’t work. There is enough celebrity power and experience in television present, that it should. The line between wanting it to be genuine (History touted, “passion for history and spirited debate will be infused in every episode”) and just another variety show, is blurred. Although the network picked up the series from Craig’s own Green Mountain West Production company and Comedy Dynamics, he doesn’t seem at rest in his new role. That could pan out after the normal tweaking that takes place following a series first season, but the risk that viewers won’t give it a second chance, is real.
There is one exchange between the host and celebrity guest Jimmy Kimmel during introductions, that could be the resounding sentiment of viewers. While pointing out the pairs similarities, Ferguson states, “…you’re still on late night and I’m on cable”; to which Kimmel replies, “yeah. well, by choice. A very stupid choice”.
Wanting to qualify our initial statement that this is a “sad moment” in Ferguson’s career, that isn’t a dig at his abilities in any way. For viewers that have never seen the Scott before, Join or Die may be received as decent (possible sub par) television. For fans of Craig, the seemingly present sense that he’s both working hard to make it work and hasn’t quite thought it out entirely, is overwhelming.
As always, we encourage you to give it a try for yourself. We’ll be tuning in to see if things change during the season one run, which won’t be hard to do. There are definite moments to laugh, and as we said Ferguson keeps it afloat with both his monologue and wit.
The award winning host, writer, comedian and producer has the goods, there’s no doubt. But when it comes to Join or Die, we were expecting more.
The expression, “Join or Die” is not only Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 rallying cry to the divided colonists; it is also the tattoo Craig received on his forearm after becoming an American citizen.
“Join or Die with Craig Ferguson” is produced for HISTORY by Comedy Dynamics and Green Mountain West, in association with Lionsgate TV. Craig Ferguson, Phil Cottone, Brian Volk-Weiss and Jim Biederman serve as executive producers. Tim Healy, Matt Ginsburg and Paul Cabana are executive producers for HISTORY.
Join or Die Premiers Thursday, February 18 at 11PM ET/PT on History.
Photo: Top – Join or Die with Craig Ferguson Photo by Adam Taylor Copyright 2016