Craig Ferguson is unlike any other late night comedian on American television, which is one reason his fans adore him. They were out in force last Thursday evening at The Paley Center for Media, rolling with laughter during a startlingly frank interview with New York Times cultural reporter, David Itzkoff.
Itzkoff looked blissfully happy to be on the same stage as Ferguson, who he clearly reveres, while Ferguson – when not clowning – looked both serious and sly as he responded thoughtfully, and self-deprecatingly, to Itzkoff’s probing questions. “You are young and relevant,” Ferguson quipped at the start of the interview, “while I’m in a museum.”
Well, not really. Arguably more attractive at 50 than he was as a fleshier young man, the Scottish born Ferguson (who became an American citizen in 2008), is a person of many talents: musician, singer, author (two published books, many screenplays), producer, actor, airplane pilot, stand-up comedian and host of the The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson on CBS. It has been nominated for an Emmy, won a Peabody Award and gained such a rabid following that many consider Ferguson the odds-on favorite to succeed Letterman.
It’s clear within minutes that this high-school dropout is not only exceedingly smart, quick, and witty but incredibly well read. “Wasn’t it James Joyce who said, sentimentality is unearned emotion?” he casually observed, while making the point – one he made over and over again — that he tries to be as honest as possible, with himself, to his fans, and in his work. Ferguson may have detested the Scottish school system but, like many autodidacts, he loves learning. A deeply serious man lurks beneath the comic persona.
Ferguson moved from drummer, singer and punk rocker into an acclaimed stand-up comic in the U.K., with his “Bing Hitler” character, which became a huge hit at the 1986 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “Stand-up is the instrument I learned to play. I work on my own and survive by my wit(s), that’s what I do,” says Ferguson. “Everything else is the gravy.”
He quickly moved up the ladder to television roles, musical comedy, a series of sketch comedy shows and U.K. stardom – but all the while he was drinking heavily and contemplating suicide. When asked by Itzkoff what “turned the switch” from obscurity to fame, he said, bluntly, “I got sober.” Ferguson stopped drinking in February 1992 and moved to Los Angeles in 1994. “I always wanted to go to Hollywood and thought, if not now, when?” He had to reestablish his comedy credentials, and it wasn’t easy. “No one in the casting community knew the difference between a Scottish and English accent,” Ferguson joked, and for a while, there were more auditions than roles. But, eventually, he moved from small bit parts to sitcoms until he became Nigel Wick, the evil but lovable boss in The Drew Carey Show.
In 2005, he became host of The Late, Late Show. Convinced she show would last three weeks, he wanted to have fun. So he did, his way. No tie, no jokes, no scripted monologue, no scripted interview questions of guests. He famously turns to his robot skeleton as a sidekick, has no idea how his bullet-pointed opening section is going to turn out and loves to create “characters,” never watches his own shows, and calls himself an “amateur, ” adding, “If something gets a laugh, I leave it in. I’m not cool like Carson or Letterman. I want to do things with joy!”
As a short clip showed, Ferguson is a deliciously accurate mimic (Bill Clinton, Michael Cain, Prince Charles, Sean Connery) who loves to inhabit different his varied “characters.”
Ferguson can also be a very serious interviewer, as his show with Desmond Tutu demonstrated. As to future aspirations, they range from writing his second novel, and more movie scripts to continuing with stand-up tours. “I’m great at being me,” he joked and, as far as his fans are concerned, they can’t get enough of who he is.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
For more information, go to the website for The Paley Center for Media