It’s always nice to see when a network gets back to its original mission — and its name — and History has been doing a fine job of that of late. For history buffs, miniseries like Texas Rising have helped complement other series like Pawn Stars, and the new series Join or Die With Craig Ferguson should also be a welcome addition for those who like to discuss, and debate, history. The series is the brainchild of former late-night host Craig Ferguson, and will feature a roundtable of people talking about six historical events or figures, whittling them down to “the best one” (in a fun, unscientific manner).
Ferguson described the show as “smart, funny people talking in a smart, funny conversation on television. It’ll never work, but we’ll give it a try.”
That last joke reminds us of how smart and funny Ferguson himself is (in case his nearly 10 years hosting The Late Late Show or any of his standup acts or his books didn’t get that point across). His passion for this new show, which had, at the time of our chat, filmed 22 episodes (“We’re going to make more,” Ferguson promised), was very evident in our conversation.
“It takes the parts of late night that I was enjoying when I was doing it, and throws them into a different show,” Ferguson explained. “It is formed by the shows I grew up watching on the BBC in Britain, these panel shows where people would talk. … What will happen is at the start of the show I’ll introduce a topic and talk a little bit about it, like a monologue-y type thing. Then we introduce the guests. Then, we take six things. Before the first commercial break we’ll eliminate two. Then between that break and the next break we eliminate another two, which leaves us with two left. We debate a little bit and then we throw it to the audience and they can vote. After that, we choose it.
“It’s about as serious a format as the point system in Whose Line Is It Anyway?,” Ferguson continued, talking about the idea of trying to rank wide-ranging, and often lighthearted, topics. “It’s very inaccurate; you can’t use a scientific measure to say who was the greatest douchebag in history or anything like that. What [the show] hangs on is the conversation between the people. Obviously, there are some subjects that I’m informed in and some that I’m less knowledgeable about. We always make sure there’s at least one person on every show who is an expert in the field. That way, we don’t go wildly off-track in flights of fancy.”
As for the title of the show, it stems from Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 political cartoon famously depicting the fractured American Colonies as a segmented snake and entreating the disparate groups to come together for independence. It’s a motto and image that has particular relevance for the Scottish-born Ferguson, who had Franklin’s cartoon tattooed on his forearm after becoming a U.S. citizen in 2008.
“I got [the tattoo] done as a brand of honor, really, when I became a citizen. It was less to do with historical context of the image itself, the first image of the United Colonies. It was very poignant and seemed the right thing to have on me when I said the oath of allegiance.”
Ferguson had more to say about Join or Die:
What celebrity guests do you have joining you on Join or Die?
Craig Ferguson: Although there are celebrities, they [are on the show because they] happen to be celebrities rather than it being because they are celebrities. That’s a strong change from the other shows that I’ve been doing because I’m not going to put people on that can’t participate. … I’ve had a couple of my old late-night buddies [on the show]; [Jimmy] Kimmel and [Jay] Leno have both been on. Courteney Cox has been on. Jack Black has been on.
Is the show focused mainly on the past, or do you touch on current topics as well?
It brings [current] stuff in. If you’re looking at something that’s political, then obviously in an election year, discussion will veer into the political. Any discussion that is free-range like that will always have contemporary elements because you compare it against what you know. It looks at the past, but it can’t help but have current affairs in it. If you’re talking about “Best Inventions,” then did it happen in the past five years? If you’re talking about “Worst Election Campaign in History,” is it happening now?
How spirited have the “spirited debates” on the show gotten?
It gets very intense at times, as you can imagine. People have different views. One of the most heated arguments that I saw in the entire first 22 was “Most Influential Band in History.” Everybody knows who that’s going to be, but the other five bands, [arguing] why they were there, there was an enormous, almost like a fight broke out. Also the audience was getting very animated about that, too. That tends to happen as well.
Will the topics stay lighthearted, or do you talk about serious historical subjects, too?
There are some very contentious issues that come up. … Always the most heated one is the problem of slavery and the birth of America. … [Conversation] gets heated and it gets passionate, and it should. Debate should be heated and passionate. It shouldn’t be all, “Oh, is this going to upset my Twitter followers?” It’s about having a genuine debate. So much so that you will find yourself — I find myself more than once in the show postulating a position that I’m not sure I agree with, or in fact absolutely don’t agree with, but I want to hear it in the conversation. And that‘s what a real conversation is — it’s unhinged, and dangerous, and rollicking.
Unhinged, dangerous, rollicking conversation — sounds like the Founding Fathers who talked of big ideas and revolution would be as proud of their new nation’s adopted son as he is of them.
Join or Die With Craig Ferguson airs Thursdays at 11pm ET/PT on History beginning Feb. 18.
Craig Ferguson Join or Die photos: © 2016 History. Credit: Adam Taylor