Your mother wouldn’t know Craig Ferguson live

[7 January 2008]

By Aaron Barnhart

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

The folks who come to tapings of the “Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson” at CBS Television City in Los Angeles are nice people.

From my observations over the years, they look like they enjoy clean living. They’re always eager to please the warm-up guy. It’s hard to imagine them in the after-midnight crowd. Some bring their mothers, who clearly enjoy the up-close view of the handsome host with the charming brogue. (According to Nielsen, the native Scotsman has won over quite a few of the female 25-to-54 demographic.)

I don’t want to discourage anyone from taking their mothers to see Ferguson perform stand-up comedy. Not at all. I just think it’s fair to point out that you ain’t heard late-night comedy until you’ve heard the host of the “Late Late Show” without the CBS standards-and-practices person standing over his shoulder.

Ferguson’s stage show can be, shall we say - in a Scottish accent - a little uncouth.

“It’s rawer, more freewheeling,” he said in a recent interview. “The change is probably philosophical in that, when I’m on television, I’m a guest in your home. When I’m in the theater, the dynamic is more you’re a guest in my home. I can say more of what I want. I can put my feet up on the furniture. I can cuss if I like. I can ramble on about stuff that would give the sponsors and the FCC nightmares.”

When the 45-year-old native of Glasgow called me up in mid-December, it was the first time he had spoken to a reporter since the Writers Guild of America went on strike and took his, and all the other late-night comedy shows, off the air. While we spoke, negotiations were taking place - but not between the striking writers and the conglomerates who control Hollywood. No, those had broken off Dec. 7.

Instead, Ferguson’s employer, Worldwide Pants, was holding talks with the guild in the hopes that it could return to making new shows and be allowed to use union writers. Worldwide Pants, which is owned by David Letterman, is that rare entity that produces a network TV show without being owned by a huge corporation. Letterman’s people have argued that as a card-carrying guild member for 30 years and an independent producer, Dave had earned the right to return to work with his full complement of writers.

The union agreed, and in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Ferguson went back on the air, with writers. But at the time of our interview, Ferguson professed not to have an interest in the outcome.

“I’m just a vulgar lounge entertainer; that’s all I am,” he said. “I can’t be too involved. I mean, I’m a WGA member, but I host the show. I have my opinions, but (bollocks) if I’m going to tell you about them.

“You know, there’s so much rancor on both sides and bitterness, but it’s not a fight I want to be a main player in - which is weird for a Scotch person!” he said, his voice rising with a gee-whiz lilt that he frequently uses for comic effect. “I mean, if a Scotch person sees a fight goin’ on and doesn’t get involved, there’s progress.

“California must be getting to me,” he said (Ferguson moved there in 1995). “All those years of therapy, I’m beginning to listen.”

If you go to his live show, part of what you will hear is the remarkable story of how he got from Glasgow to L.A. You may hear about his two failed marriages and his drinking. He has been sober almost 16 years, and the monologue he delivered last February about getting to sobriety - and why he refuses to tell jokes about Britney Spears or anyone else he thinks is abusing drugs or alcohol - has gotten tons of play on YouTube.

Will there be music? Ferguson often brings up the fact that as a teenager, he played in a Scottish punk band called the Bastards From Hell.

“I like music, but there won’t be any,” he said. “I may talk about it, but I don’t inflict my ability, or lack of it, on people who haven’t done anything to me.”

Though Ferguson trails NBC’s Conan O’Brien in the late-night ratings by some half a million viewers a night and is bumped to a later hour in many markets, he’s in no danger of losing his job. He has improved “Late Late Show’s” ratings and demographics since signing on exactly three years ago tonight and is signed through 2010.

Ferguson has demonstrated more than any late-night host besides Letterman that he was made for nightly television. He got a one-night tryout for the job, after the previous occupant, Craig Kilborn, left the “Late Late Show” for a producing career. Thanks to years of performing on stage and in the United Kingdom before coming to the U.S., Ferguson took instantly to the live-to-tape format of the show.

Peter Lassally, the show’s executive producer, noticed. A veteran of late-night TV, Lassally had worked for 20 years with Johnny Carson and moved to Worldwide Pants after Carson’s retirement, overseeing “Late Late Show” as it chewed up its first two hosts (the late Tom Snyder had been the first one).

Lassally knew a rare talent when he saw it and became Ferguson’s champion, advocating (over the objections of others) for him to take over as permanent host. At the time, most people knew him as Nigel Wick, the famously impetuous and self-centered boss on ABC’s long-running sitcom “The Drew Carey Show.” (Carey now works down the hall from Ferguson at CBS, hosting “The Price Is Right.”)

A few months after Ferguson took over “Late Late Show,” he and Lassally had an idea: Stop doing everybody else’s monologue and do your own.

Ferguson began talking with the camera. His deceptively unkempt 10-minute routines started to sound like they were coming off the top of his head.

He calls his approach “retro-intimacy” and, indeed, I can think of only two people who have spoken to an American TV audience the way Ferguson does. One was the late Jack Paar, who hosted the “Tonight” show from 1957 to 1962, and the other was Regis Philbin, who was once a contemporary of Paar’s way back when.

Actually, Ferguson’s opening is worked out carefully between him and his writers.

“If it’s something that I’m extremely opinionated on, then basically I put it together and the writers punch it up. If I’ve got nothing to say we sit in the room and spitball something and they put it together,” Ferguson said.

And then, it’s all on him. More than any other late-night talk show, one senses that the monologue of the “Late Late Show” is funny because the host is funny.

After two years of doing live-to-tape television, Ferguson insists that it has become “the most relaxing and enjoyable hour of the day, a lot of days.”

“Once the music starts and I hear the audience, I think to myself, `Now, finally I can get someone to pay attention to me for a (bleepin’) hour!’ It becomes a very safe place. I love it. I can’t look at it objectively from a viewer’s point of view, but from where I’m standing it’s a great place to be.”

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