“It’s a great day in America,” bellows Craig Ferguson every weeknight five minutes after David Letterman’s show fades out.
Ferguson — talk-show host, hyper-Scotsman, stand-up comedian and naturalized American citizen — has been credited by many media commentators as being more innovative and substantial than his late-night counterparts, and the ratings have been catching up. Ferguson agrees, to a point.
“I do what I do, and I think the media likes to define it more than the work itself," he says. “I like to mess with the conventions and expectations of late-night TV. I don’t have a band or a sidekick, and I don't do a lot of rat-a-tat gags. We do songs and puppets, and I do a lot of riffing. It's more candid and free-flowing, like that time we got rid of the audience,” a reference to a recent show not taped live in front of a studio audience.
The 47-year-old Ferguson has been in show business for 25 years. He started with doing stand-up in his native Scotland, which eventually led to short-lived TV gigs in the UK, which included everything from sitcoms to comic monologues to hosting documentaries on Scottish archaeology.
Eventually, he moved to Los Angeles because, “I'm a lumberjack and this is where the fuckin' trees are.”
“L.A. is showbiz, but I have a lot of family in New York, so I flipped a coin,” Ferguson elaborates. “I came out here basically with a suitcase and did it the old-fashioned way. I pounded the pavement, did auditions, got someone to represent me. He made phone calls, I made phone calls and I lied and bullshitted through a lot of meetings. It's not too much different from what I'm doing now, actually.”
For 10 years, Ferguson was best-known as Drew Carey's termination-happy TV boss Nigel Wick. That show was canceled in 2004, and he landed the late-late night gig the following year, where he commenced intuitively adapting the traditional late-night format to his particular comic style.
Among other things, this has led the terminally self-aware, self-deprecating Ferguson to regularly make jokes at his own expense (i.e. his comparatively low salary and a studio audience that showed up only to receive free fried chicken). Not that Ferguson is truly up in arms.
“I'd be a fool to complain about having a good job in the middle of a recession,” he says. “Compared to other shows, we don't have any money or resources, but I've had jobs that are like that but are also really fuckin' hard. This is just talking.”
Ferguson's unique, personable brand of talk has earned him slowly increasing acclaim. For instance, a 2007 monologue began with his reluctance to make fun of the Britney Spears meltdown and then turned into a lengthy discussion of his own alcoholism, a period in his life that climaxed on Christmas Day in 1991 when Ferguson came within an inch of taking his own life. The natural, incidental humor that accompanied the brutal personal details only reinforced its feeling of authenticity.
Then last year Ferguson had Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the legendary South African human-rights activist who preaches love and forgiveness for everyone (which naturally has earned him equal-opportunity death threats), on his show. The interview earned Ferguson a Peabody Award last month.
In both cases, Ferguson is slow to take credit.
“Just having someone like Desmond Tutu on makes your show better,” he said. “When people like my stuff, I'm happy, but you can't really dwell on it because you have a show to do the next day. The only reactions that get my attention are when I get in trouble. Thankfully, there are a lot of people in the public eye that are a lot worse than me.”
In other words, Ferguson is perfect for his niche. He wouldn't thrive so well in Letterman's slot, which he vehemently denies coveting, and yet he's not so far off the deep end as to completely alienate mainstream viewers. One way he accomplishes this is to avoid delving too deeply into controversial political issues.
(I tried to get the comedian to draw parallels between certain Fox News commentators and Bing Hitler, an old Ferguson character from the 1980s based on super-patriotic Folk singers who were ranting all through Scotland at the time. Or, as Ferguson calls it, “A character I did from back when I was drunk, which caused enough shock value to get what I needed at the time.” Tellingly, he didn’t take the bait.)
“I look at it as that when I'm on TV I'm in your house and I try to be polite,” he explains. “During stand-up, then you're in my house and the rules are a little bit different. It's pretty much what you see on TV, just not censored. It's very intimate, and there's a lot of improvisation. I'm not even completely sure what I'm going to talk about.”
And if his former self who nearly took a fatal walk to Tower Bridge one Christmas could see how things worked out for him today?
“He probably wouldn't believe it,” Ferguson says. “Yet, at the same time, I'm still the same guy. It was a long way from there to here, and I was there for most of it. Of course, this is Hollywood, which means you can always still unmake yourself. There's no tenure.”
CRAIG FERGUSON performs stand-up April 27 at the Taft Theatre downtown. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.