As was the case following the 1999 Columbine tragedy, late-night hosts faced a difficult task in dealing with early Friday's shootings at the Century 16 in Aurora. How to treat this horrific incident respectfully and then attempt to make the nation laugh?
On Friday, David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel were in repeat mode, and Jimmy Fallon didn't address the shooting. In contrast, Leno, the grand old man of late night, prefaced his monologue (shot, as usual, before a live audience) by acknowledging the Colorado attack in perfunctory fashion before noting that his job was to amuse folks with silly stuff -- at which point he pivoted into a story about the owner of a Georgia farm who reported the escape of 1,600 turtles.
Ferguson chose a very different and far more admirable tack. He opened in a pre-recorded segment to point out that the show viewers were about to see (featuring actor Jason Biggs, actress Jordana Brewster and comedian Brian Scolaro) had actually been cut the night before -- and his original monologue had riffed on Batman. That makes sense, of course: On Friday, The Dark Knight Rises, one of the summer's biggest event movies, was scheduled to premiere. But Ferguson said he didn't feel the material was appropriate considering what had taken place at an Aurora midnight screening, so he scrapped it in favor of simply speaking to viewers at home, with no whooping crowd to witness his words.
Not that Ferguson relished the opportunity to weigh in. "I didn't really want to add my rage and despair to everybody else's," he said -- and even though he'd chosen to speak about the subject, "I'm not going to try to make sense of it, I'm not going to try to blame anyone for what happened there. How do you make sense of anything like that?
"I try for the most part to ignore stories that are grisly, because it's not really my job," he went on. "It's being covered everywhere else." Still, "I can't ignore this one -- but neither can I talk about it in front of an audience with the skeleton robot. That doesn't make sense, either."
He then shared a direct message to those watching in Aurora and the Denver metro area: "I'm sorry.... It's just awful, and my thoughts and my sympathies to the families, to the people that were there. We are all diminished by this."
The results were awkward, halting, totally sincere and entirely appropriate -- the opposite of Leno's tack. Compare their approaches below.