'Join or Die With Craig Ferguson': TV Review

Join or Die with Craig Ferguson Still - H 2016
Courtesy of History

Join or Die with Craig Ferguson Still - H 2016

Ferguson's passion doesn't yield funny.

The former 'Late Late Show' host's History panel comedy hasn't been fully thought out.

Anticipating queries or criticism, Craig Ferguson begins his new series Join or Die With Craig Ferguson by pondering, "Why is History doing this show?"

Unfortunately, it's a question that goes unanswered by the three episodes sent to critics. After nearly a decade of raising the bar on intellect, interest and inspiration on The Late Late Show, Ferguson's new History panel comedy comes across as frustratingly unambitious and underdeveloped.

The premise is simple to the point of premiseless. A nebulous topic is introduced along with six plausible answers. The first episode, for example, is "Biggest Political Blunders" and the six contenders are Rod Blagojevich, Herman Cain, Eliot Spitzer, Larry Craig, Christine O'Donnell and Dick Cheney. After a brief monologue on the subject, Ferguson brings out three panelists, generally a pseudo-expert and two comedians (Howard Bragman, Jen D'Angelo and Jimmy Kimmel for the premiere). Based on no criteria at all, the four people debate and eliminate two candidates, then two more and then the audience votes and decides a winner for some reason.

Based on the specs for the first episode, you can already probably anticipate part of the problem with Join or Die. Those six listed candidates don't encompass the biggest political blunderers in history or even the past century or even past decade. They're just six people late-night hosts made fun of for a while. There's also no sense of what constituted a "blunder." O'Donnell, who you've probably already forgotten and who has given no reason to be rediscovered, blundered by having been a witch at some point. Oh. And Cheney's gaffe was shooting a hunting partner, a blunder that didn't hurt his career in the slightest, rather than leading the country into a costly war based on falsified intelligence, a blunder that also didn't hurt his career. Because Bragman is a PR expert and not a historian, there's nobody available to protest at how arbitrary the entire discussion is, so it becomes a showcase for Ferguson and Kimmel to rehash jokes they previously made about these all-too-easy targets back when they were relevant, as D'Angelo sits in silence or amusement. The results are every bit as edifying as you'd expect from a palaver about Cain. The winner is ... irrelevant.

The first episode is ahistorical, but then the next episode is "History's Worst Medical Advice," which runs into the predictable pitfall that only expert Bob "Science Bob" Pflugfelder knows anything about the subject, leaving fellow panelists Jordan Carlos and Chris Hardwick to crack sarcastic occasionally. There's no way to have a debate, because three of the people involved only know the subject as far as they could Google in the green room. That several of the contenders, including tooth removal and lobotomies, were baffled attempts to cure mental health could have led to intriguing conversation, but it does not.

The third episode is "Drugs That Changed the World," and if you're looking at that subject and thinking it's a good opportunity to talk about penicillin or the polio vaccine or opium, drugs that saved countless lives or started genuine wars, the six actual choices are Alcohol, Cocaine, LSD, PEDs, Marijuana and Caffeine, leaving the panelists wholly stymied on what "drugs" and "changed the world" mean and how they're supposed to be evaluating the question and what would constitute a winner. In this episode, Ferguson and guest Maria Bello have good confessional moments about their own drug experiences, but it sheds little light on which drug deserves to "win."

Note that I'm not quibbling about small things here. I'm quibbling about what the objective of the show is and what the objective of individual episodes is. And I'm not demanding that because this is on History it have rigorous chops and do episodes like "Which of the Original Colonies Had the Most to Gain From Independence" or "Formative Debates in U.S. History" or "Worst Presidential Assassins." Just if your subject is "Biggest Political Blunder," I need to know why William Henry Harrison Standing Out in the Rain or A Land War in Asia are less relevant than some woman who lost a Senate seat in Delaware six years ago.

Nobody even tried to crack a structure or style either. Join or Die has a stage with a segmented snake logo, four chairs and two TV monitors that are barely used. Ferguson is almost apologetic about the "We have to eliminate two of these choices" mandate at the first break, and the voting process with the audience is anti-climactic and unseen. Each episode ends with Ferguson asking the panelists if there was something big they forgot to include, and when a better answer is tossed out there's almost a defeated shrug in admitting, "Yeah, we probably should have gone that way." And due to the History imprimatur, it would have behooved the show to feature some sort of humorous fact-checker, like Stat Boy on Pardon the Interruption, either to correct or clarify the various urban legends spewed by the panel or so that when D'Angelo calls Spitzer's escort-of-choice Alexandra Dupre and Kimmel corrects her that it was Ashley, somebody should have been available to say, "Actually, her full name was Ashley Alexandra Dupre."

While there are occasional laughs, not one of the three episodes feels like the template for a consistently enriching and funny show, and none match with Ferguson's lofty goal that "It is your birthright as an American to be part of the discussion." You need look no further than the conversation around Ferguson's American citizenship to know that he is a man of wide-reaching interests and that he can be hilarious discussing them, but Join or Die is launching as a shapeless void. Ferguson aimed high on The Late Late Show and Join or Die still has that potential, but if the category were "Excellent Topical Comedy Shows," it currently wouldn't make the top six.

Premiere date: Thursday, Feb. 18, 11 p.m. ET/PT (History).