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Night Shift returns with a twist of reality
By Gloria Diaz
Fort Wayne Reader
If comedy is a science, then Kevin Ferguson and his crew have it down.
Things get screwed up from time to time, as evidenced by watching a taping of Night Shift With Kevin Ferguson at Snickerz Comedy Bar on a recent Thursday night. The guest announcer disappears after she opens the show. A producer forgets a cue card and literally runs to get it. And a guest about to go on is only “three-quarters miked.” How someone can be 75% miked is beyond me, but I got to watch it all.
However, the current incarnation of Night Shift is not quite like the one you grew up with. Ferguson hosted that show for 13 years, then retired for four. Less than a year ago, he was approached by WPTA to do a new spin on the show. Tossing reality in the mix, the show behind the show has its own internal drama and surprises.
Ferguson was prepared when I arrived for our interview, but he didn’t warn me about the possibility of me showing up on camera. As soon as I walked into his office, I had a video camera, one of two “reality cams” used on the show, stuck in my face. I was quickly given a release form to sign in return for possibly showing up on air doing an off-stage interview with the boss.
So why hasn’t Fort Wayne heard more about Night Shift, the city’s version of the talk shows of the major metropolises (or would that be metropoli)? Well, Ferguson wants it that way. He was low-key when he left Night Shift the first time, and was quiet about it when the show came back last August. Despite not doing a big media blitz, the ratings for the show, which airs Sundays at midnight, are great. The Thursday I met with him, the big wigs at WPTA had taken Ferguson to lunch (he had a salmon caesar salad) and was informed that King World was interested in the show. That’s a big deal, because Ferguson claims it’s very difficult to send tapes to King World in the hopes that they’ll be seen. This is one of those rare circumstances where “don’t call us, we’ll call you” actually means something.
On the differences between the old Night Shift and the current show, Ferguson says, “I put a lot more effort into the old show. However, the reality angle is a draw. There’s a lot more people watching it.”
The show isn’t live, which means comics that go too far can be edited, and an errant cuss word can be bleeped out. The evening I was there, Ferguson’s main concern was the use of profanity, particularly the f-word. In his office, before a few staff members, he reiterates this.
“We’ve got to be careful that nobody says the f-word,” he says. “It’s a $27,000 fine.” With six hours of behind the scenes reality footage to edit, it’s easy to see how someone off-camera talking to someone else might cuss away without a second thought of it possibly ending up on tape.
I asked Ferguson if Janet Jackson’s boob job and Howard Stern causing an uproar on the airwaves had any effect on his show.
“Because we are in Fort Wayne, we’ve always been careful,” says Ferguson. “We know what’s good taste and not good taste.”
Physical comedy of course, is always funny.
Ferguson recalls local drag queen Tula being a guest on the show and walking off stage and falling flat on his face. The show kept replaying the pratfall from all different angles. Was Tula offended? Hardly. “(He has) the best sense of humor of anyone you’ll ever meet,” says Ferguson.
The behind the scenes footage is about as funny as the onstage comics. Jo Beth Harris, one of the show’s producers, gamely accepted a seat on the lap of Ferguson as he was preparing for the show in his office. As she got up, Harris says, “I hope that was your pager.”
“Did it vibrate?” cracks Ferguson.
Minutes before the pre-show staff meeting, Ferguson does some cue card lettering and fine-tunes some last minute jokes. One of tonight’s segments includes rejected show titles for UPN’s Amish reality show. John Dirnberger, a writer and production assistant, will dress up as Amish “industry insider” Caleb Schwartz and read off show titles that didn’t make it. The number one rejected title, “Temptation Sheep Farm,” topped other gems such as “Everybody Loves Ezekiel,” and “Live With Regis and Hester Lee.”
As taping continues, a camera man comments on something that didn’t quite go as planned. “That’s not the way it was supposed to work.”
“No s--t,” replies Ferguson.
“Every good career move has started in a bar,” says Ferguson, of his show biz stint. He worked for Bruce Wisman, of Wisman Appliances, in sort of a marketing/advertising gig. A representative for Comcast Cable asked Wisman what it would take in order to get him to advertise on television. Wisman responded, “give Ferguson his own talk show, he’s the funniest man I know.”
Another true story is how he ended up with his own club. Ferguson had a friend come to Fort Wayne for a visit, and he and his buddy went to a Mexican restaurant. He recalls he and his buddy sitting there eating, and having the owner come over and say, “it’s on me tonight, because I’m closing my doors and can’t afford to pay for the advertising.” Undaunted, Ferguson “bought the restaurant on a napkin.” Oh, and the name of his buddy who came to Fort Wayne to eat free Mexican and stay at Ferguson’s place? Tim Allen.
Tonight, it’s a packed house. Scott Dunn, producer and writer, arrives onstage to lead the audience in a variety of responses. The crowd is coached in the art of the hearty laugh, big laugh and the shocked reaction. Musical maestro Paul Stewart warms up the crowd with a Jimmy Buffet song, the show starts and Ferguson gives a brief monologue. Local guests tonight include K105 staffers Dan Austin, B.J. Stone and Dude Walker. Comedians tonight include Pete LaFaucia, David Beck, and Auggie Smith. All three receive a warm welcome and plenty of laughs.
And I’m amazed that a show that started at 7:30 p.m. and ended a little over two hours later could go so quickly. I didn’t exactly know what to expect, but I really didn’t expect it to be so much fun. I’m not alone. An after-show chat with Ferguson reveals that the show is very popular with women. Thankfully, despite this statistic, there are no feminine hygiene commercials to be seen when I tuned in Sunday at midnight. I know, don’t give WPTA any ideas. They felt they had a good one when they decided to bring Ferguson back. In a recent e-mail exchange with Chris Fidele, president and general manager of WPTA, he felt that more local programming needs to be on the air.
“He (Ferguson) has a true passion for comedy and for Fort Wayne,” says Fidele. “Night Shift producer, Ty Black, also works at WPTA. Ty is extremely talented. So, I had complete confidence in the production quality of the show. The ratings have been about what we had expected, a 1 household rating (8 share) in February 2004. That actually beats our Jimmy Kimmel numbers and is comparable to Conan O'Brien and the Kilborn show that air Monday though Friday.”
But Chris, just why, oh why do women like it so much?
“I honestly have no idea,” says Fidele. “The show is targeted to males 21-34.”
I don’t have any theories myself. Maybe it goes back to Ferguson and Company’s knowledge of what’s good taste and what’s not. Maybe it’s the reality angle. Or maybe it’s the fact that the humor on the show was genuinely funny, insightful and didn’t put either gender in a bad light. Whatever it is, Fort Wayne has a late night talk show that is worth watching. And not many cities can say that.