Stay Tuned
Reviews, previews and much more on "The Real Housewives," "How I Met Your Mother," "NCIS" and many more of your favorite shows. This is the place to talk about all of the things that make us "Stay Tuned"…

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Behind the Skull of Geoff Peterson, the Wackiest Sidekick in Late Night

Due to a change in my employment status, I have been able to stay up late. I shouldn’t but I do…

And the number one reason why is my addiction to “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.”

If you’ve never watched, do yourself a favor and tape it sometime. The show is fresher than anything else in late night—and funnier too.

Helping to create that fresh vibe is Ferguson’s sidekick, the robot skeleton known as Geoff Peterson. Geoff has a voice and his name is Josh Robert Thompson. I had the privilege of talking to him recently and what Thompson told me pretty much blew my mind. Why? Because most of what you see on “Late” is unscripted. And when you realize that, you view the show in a whole new way…

Read on to discover the evolution of Geoff, what Thompson does during the show and where else you can hear Thompson…

How did you get involved with “The Late Late Show” and how was Geoff Peterson born?

Good question. Most people don’t realize this but I’ve been on “The Late Late Show” for about five years now. I started out doing impressions on the show. I started out doing Arnold Schwarzenegger, well, then Governor Schwarzenegger, Robert DeNiro and other incidental characters as they needed them. This was all on camera. So the Arnold Schwarzenegger they’d put on this makeup or DeNiro, I’d put on the mole and I can make the face.

I’m an impressionist. I’m a voice actor and an impressionist. So you know we had fun for several years and it was a lot of fun. And then, you know the writers were always trying to find something else for me to do on the show because I was always coming up with these ideas. You know, let’s do this sketch and let’s try this and let’s do this. I just didn’t have the relationship with Craig that I do now so it was hard to kind of get the ball rolling on that stuff. And at the time Craig was not really interested in doing sketches much. I mean the guy can do the show himself. He’s amazing. He’s an incredible comedian and improv performer and host. He’s great at it. It’s a one man show. He came up with this idea of having a robot as a co-host, the idea being that the show is so cheap, which is a joke Craig makes often...We do our show out of his basement…It is a small studio…But the idea was that the show couldn’t even have a real co-host so he decided that he wanted this robot skeleton co-host. And Craig had talked for a while in his monologue about a robot skeleton army that was something that was very funny to him and I think at one point he had a skull with a flame behind it that he would hold up now and again and say something about the robot skeleton army. Anyway, basically what happened was that Grant Imahara from the show “Mythbusters” built the robot for Craig and Craig named it Geoff Peterson. And I have no idea where that name comes from but I think it’s a very funny name for a robot.

But Craig did name Geoff Peterson and the truth is that Craig did the voice of Geoff Peterson for the very first week that Geoff was on the show. And I don’t know if a lot of people know that. But Craig did this very robotic, very British voice for the character and by the end of the week it looked like the robot wasn’t going to make it much further on the show because the voice was so annoying and so grating—even to Craig—that he was already growing tired of it. Well, Craig was nice enough to think of me. It was very generous of Craig to say hey, do you want to try to do this voice? Would you like to try this voice for the robot and I said I would love to. And so, at the time there was a writer on the show named Tom Straw who was writing all the material for the robot. He was writing all these one-liners for the robot. So I got together with Tom and Tom liked the idea of doing sort of a George Takei, like a Mr. Sulu kind of voice. So in the beginning it was very [in George Takei voice] hi, how are you? Oh…It was very George Takei. In fact, it was so George Takei that everybody thought it was George Takei that was doing the voice of the robot. I spent many months trying to convince people, it’s me. Nobody believed me. Now that’s either a testament to my ability as a voice actor or you know people are just confused. I don’t know.

After Tom left, a talented writer named Bob Oschack took over Geoff writing duties and would press buttons that activated the Geoff phrases. And even now Bob does, from time to time, slip me a few one-liners that I use on the show.

So inevitably the way it would work is that I would go into the studio every couple of weeks and record a new batch of one-liners for Geoff the robot. So I was never in the studio puppeteering or operating Geoff. My work was done once I left the recording booth. And then the editors would just take five or six phrases and change them out every night and the idea being Craig would never know each night what phrase Geoff was going to say. Well of course the phrases that stuck were the ones everybody knows now and that I still continue to use like you know, “balls” and “in your pants.” This is the kind of audience that we’re appealing to. People who enjoy the balls. But, you know, it was fine for a while. Then it was the year anniversary of Geoff Peterson and we went to Vegas with the show to shoot a big sketch with Craig and Geoff Peterson and their adventures in Las Vegas. It was the first time that I was actually able to puppeteer Geoff and voice him live right there in every single scene. In other words, Geoff was no longer prerecorded. This was all happening in real time and Craig now had something that he could respond to and throw jokes at and then I could sort of come back with something. I have an improv background as well so it was really fun to play with Craig in that sense. And because of that weekend in Vegas when we shot the sketch, I said to Craig, hey man, we should try this sometime in the studio. You’ve got to understand. I’d been trying to make this happen for about six months. I’d been talking to writers. “Let’s just try it one time just to fool Craig, just to freak him out. I’ll stand there and I’ll do”…“I don’t think he’s going to go for it,” “Okay.” You know. And then I’d try again. So I just told the man himself and he said that’s a great idea. Let’s try it out. So, that’s how I came to do the character live in studio every single night. And that was a huge turning point for the character of Geoff Peterson and the show because it’s really changed the format of the show.

Ironically the robot was put there to make a statement about the show not being able to afford a real co-host. Of course now the show has a real co-host. I mean, it’s a robot, but it’s really me and every single thing that we do. Every single line of dialogue, other than the commercial break stuff that I write myself every day before I go in, all of that is improvised. It’s all made up. There’s no net, there’s no script, there’s no preparation. Craig and I talk a little bit before the show, but we don’t plan anything at all. And that’s the magic I think of what we’re doing with this character. It’s likeable television. It’s kind of like, I don’t want to make the comparison because no one could ever replace these people, but we’re getting comparisons to Harvey Korman and Tim Conway from “The Carol Burnett Show.” Or Dean Martin or Jerry Lewis or even—and to me this is the greatest—Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson. People are making these comments, people who love TV, people that are tired of how horrible television is or for whatever reason have become disillusioned by late night television. They’re really responding to this interaction between Craig and Geoff. So that’s kind of the scope of how all of this came to be.

So you don’t know anything about the tweets or the emails, that’s all on the fly?

Yeah. The only thing that I write, when we’re about to go to commercial…You know, I realize that Geoff is a robot and when you have something that’s a robot, for a voice actor, you have endless possibilities in terms of vocalization. So I always thought instead of having Geoff talk with one voice, he certainly probably has a voice database of thousands of other voices. So I started to work in my other impressions. In this case when we go to commercials I do like a 1950s, 1940s radio announcer. And I think one time I had Geoff say something like, “Don’t forget to get out your decoder rings kids for a secret message from Uncle Geoff after the break.” And Craig has no idea I’m going to say any of these things. And of course as soon as I say something like that, Craig says, “No no no you’re not giving any message to the kids” and that becomes another two or three minutes of comedy that no one could have anticipated or would expect. So in terms of writing, that’s the only thing that I write are a few lines. I’ll have my computer with me, my laptop, and during the show as Craig is giving his monologue or talking to guests I will literally be making notes preparing some ideas. I may not use everything but I’m preparing things just so I’ll have it. And of course I have a little table with all my musical instruments. I added my harmonica. I’ve got like a horn, I’ve got like a kazoo. I’m trying to build all the sounds and voices that Geoff can do and say to add to the improvisation. But yes, nothing is prepared. When we do the tweet mail segment, I have no idea what Craig is going to read or what he’s going to say. Craig has no idea what he’s going to say or read and neither do I. And I think that makes it even more special. To get people to understand that, once they fully understand that, it’s like wow. It makes it even more exciting when people are watching television like that.

So are you having as much fun as it looks like you are?

Yes. I’m laughing all the time and one of the goals on the show, much like Tim Conway and Harvey Korman. You know, Tim Conway’s [goal] on every episode of “Carol Burnett and Friends” was to make Harvey Korman break and lose it in the middle of a sketch. And he pretty much did that to Harvey every single time. And audiences love that and I think what audiences love about when an actor breaks character is that they really get the feeling that those people really are having fun. They’re really enjoying what they’re doing. “Saturday Night Live” is a good example. “Saturday Night Live,” you know in recent years, Lorne Michaels has been very serious about you shouldn’t laugh during a sketch, and I think that detracts from the fun. There are certain late night talk show hosts—I’m not going to name any names—but there are certain people that are not very good interviewers. You can tell they’re not having fun. And when they do sketches, it’s kind of like by the numbers and let’s kind of get through it so we can move on to the next thing. But with Geoff and Craig we’re always having a good time and I’m always doing my best not to laugh. And I’m certainly often making Craig laugh which I think he enjoys quite a bit.

I have to tell you this, one of the first times that I did Geoff Peterson, we did a bit where Craig would ask Geoff if he was from a certain city. So he would say we have an email here from somebody in New Orleans and he would say to Geoff, Geoff you ever been to New Orleans and for whatever reason I decided to have Geoff say, “Oh h--l yeah. I got a place there.” And Craig thought that this was the funniest thing and he decided to go with it. He said, “Really you’ve got a place there? What do you like to do there?” “You know, I like to throw beads and go swimming.” He says, “Really?” “Yeah, you should come by sometime.” And for whatever reason, this struck Craig as really funny and he could not contain himself. He actually laughed so hard, I think he laughed for about two or three minutes. And it became a huge hit on the Internet.

I was watching that night. It was hilarious.

Yeah. And that’s what I mean. The realness of that moment, the idea that two people are having real genuine fun on television. That’s fun for the audience. That bit has become classic. That bit we do all the time now, but we’ve added to it. We’ll speed it up because everyone knows what we’re going to do. So we’ll speed it up. We’ll start yelling at each other. We have no idea where it’s going to go. But anyway, it’s the idea of the unplanned moment. I mean, nobody could have ever planned that or known that was going to happen. But when it did it really resonated with everyone. And I was going to tell you that the crew and the producers of the show told me multiple times that in all the six years that Craig has hosted the show they had never seen him laugh that hard ever. And so that meant a lot to me as a comedian and as a performer. And it meant a lot to Craig too. I think it’s one of the reasons that solidified Geoff on that show. And shortly after that I became a permanent fixture on the program.

So tell me about the experience that was Paris. Because it looked really awesome.

Paris was really awesome. Having never been there before it was a helluva way to see it for the first time because in a very short amount of time we basically saw the entire city because we had to set up in front of a different landmark five times a day. It’s pretty nice. It was very cool to be doing a television show in front of the Eiffel Tower and suddenly be at a palace somewhere, you know, Versailles, or the Louvre or wherever it was. Every few hours I was suddenly somewhere else. One of my favorite moments was being on the bus with Craig. We had these segments called “On the Bus.” And Craig told me that it was actually one of his favorite things out of all the stuff we did in Paris because it was just a chance for Geoff and Craig to just sit on this bus, be driven around this beautiful city and improvise. Whatever we saw, whatever we looked at or observed, we would just talk about it and make something funny. One of the most beautiful moments for me was when Craig and I jammed together. I had my harmonica, Craig had his harmonica and we were in front of this café. And I think it ended one of the Paris shows. We had our band, a guy on piano, a guy on bass, and we just jammed. And Craig started playing this little riff on his harmonica and I followed along and it was actually very melodic and very catchy and once the credits are over and the show ended, the truth is we jammed for about five or 10 minutes because it was the last shot of the entire week. It was the very last thing we did. We’ve got Secretariat the horse running around, we’ve got people clapping. And those moments you live for as a performer because that’s real magic. And we had a lot of those moments in Paris.

So tell me the truth. When you were set up outside that book store or wherever people were gathering, were there people that were wondering, what in the world is going on there? What is that skeleton thing?

Oh yeah. We had a lot of people that you know…I can be far away from Geoff because when I operate Geoff I have a remote control device that I use. So I can be pretty far away from Geoff. And so before the camera crew got there, poor Geoff is just standing there all by himself in front of this bookstore in the middle of Paris and I decided to turn him on. Not like that, I decided to literally turn him on. Although Geoff would enjoy that for sure. I just mess with people. People got their pictures taken with Geoff. Kids wanted to talk to Geoff, which was a little disturbing. Geoff would shake peoples’ hands. I think people really enjoyed it. I think the woman who ran the bookstore was a little creeped out by Geoff, but by and large people thought it was pretty cool. It was something new and interesting happening there. It wasn’t like the usual tourist business. It was an event. And it was strange. You have this guy sitting at a foldout table with a harmonica and a horse running around and a gay robot insulting people. I mean, it’s a good time. Yeah.

What’s the inspiration for the voice of Geoff?

Well like I said, in the beginning it was George Takei, which was largely not my choice. But as Geoff has emerged into a character in his own right, now that we’re doing the show in the studio and it’s not just pre-recorded phrases, Geoff’s voice has changed. I always say that Geoff was a combination of…there’s a little bit of Snagglepuss in there, there’s a little bit of Snagglepuss in there and Floyd the barber from the old Andy Griffith show. Yeah. You know, Floyd was like, [in Floyd voice] Hey Andy…And some of the kids say that Geoff sounds like Duke Nukem, who’s a character in a popular video game series. I disagree, although Duke Nukem, one of his catchphrases is balls of steel. So I guess he says balls as well. It’s all very organic and [laughs] it depends on my voice that day. If Geoff ever sounds husky on the show that’s because I have an inability to clear my throat during the show because my microphone is live—in other words on—the entire time. I don’t have a button yet. I think I’m getting one. But I don’t have a cough button so I’ve got all this phlegm in my throat and I literally want to pay attention to Craig all of the time because if I miss any detail it might not be as funny or I might miss a golden opportunity to tell a joke. So when I do open my mouth there have been a few times when it will come out [makes phlegm sound] and Craig will be like, “What was that Geoff?” And it becomes funny. But that’s why Geoff’s voice sounds different from time to time. It’s not a technique, it’s that I have phlegm in my throat.

I have to admit the first time Geoff opened his mouth and started talking like Morgan Freeman, I thought it was Morgan Freeman and I mean that as a compliment. And I was like how did they get Morgan Freeman? And then I realized it was you. Are there any other voices you’ve got spinning around in your head that we might hear come out of Geoff’s mouth?

Yeah. First of all, I appreciate that compliment. And it’s very common. Many people have emailed me and said hey man, what’s going on with Geoff’s voice? So how does it work? Do you do Geoff’s voice and then another guy steps in as Morgan Freeman? Is it Morgan Freeman that did Morgan Freeman? And I have to explain to them no, I do the voice of Geoff. I do all of the impressions. I do the 1950s announcer guy. Any sound effect, impression, voice, phlegmy sound. Whatever comes out of Geoff Peterson’s mouth is coming out of mine. And the voices that I do—I mean, I do Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve done that one for years. I did Arnold Schwarzenegger on the Howard Stern show for almost 10 years and that sort of became the launching pad to get on the “Late Late Show” and do Schwarzenegger there. Morgan Freeman, Matthew McConaughey is one that I’ve been desperately trying to work in. I will find a way to work that in somehow. Kevin Spacey, Sylvester Stallone. I can do pretty much anyone’s voice, because what I also do for a living is called voice matching for films. If an actor is not available either for the movie itself or for the movie trailer or for the censored version of a movie for television when they have to replace all the swear words, if the actors aren’t available, they call someone like me to match their voice. So I’ve done it for Morgan Freeman, I’ve done it for Mickey Rourke. I’ve done it for a movie called “Tropic Thunder,” where I matched all five of the principal’s voices. Tom Cruise, Nick Nolte, [in Nick Nolte voice] yeah I was talking like I was Nick Nolte…If I listen long enough I can pick up the person’s voice and I can replicate it pretty confidently. So that’s what I do. That’s another thing that I do for a living. I do it on “Family Guy” quite a bit. All of the Seth MacFarlane shows, “Family Guy,” “The Cleveland Show” and “American Dad.” I’ve done a number of celebrity impressions whenever they need them. So that is definitely something that I’m capable of doing and have for quite some time.

So I can’t let you go before you tell me about your album that you’re working on.

I have two things that I’m working on. The first album is kind of a Martin and Lewis piece with a really good friend of mine, John Mariano. He’s a guy who grew up in Queens. He’s in Los Angeles now. He’s an extremely gifted comedian and voice actor. But John and I really bonded over old television shows, vaudeville, variety programs. So I always call him my vaudeville brother from another mother. But John and I got together and started to write this album which is a throwback to the old vaudeville shows of the 50s, or the old radio shows of the 50s, really of the 40s I should say. And there haven’t really been a lot of albums like that in a while. A really good sketch album, not stand-up, but actual sketches like Cheech and Chong or Bob and Doug McKenzie. Something in that vein. We’re working on that right now and the other thing I’m working on is a solo album of my own original characters. I have a number of original characters, not impressions, that I do that are very popular and I’m going to do an entire album of that as well. And that will be part of doing a stand-up tour or show and all of those things are kind of in the works right now.

“The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson” airs weeknights at 12:35 a.m. on CBS…

Photo Credit: Frederic Raglain/CBS

Follow me on Twitter @angelahbentley or on Facebook at