(This show is not in HD yet, but it will be later in the year.)
Late Night Raises The Burr
CBS's Craig Ferguson Brings Brit Wit -- and a Spot of Tea -- to the Table
By Hank Stuever Washington Post Staff Writer Monday, March 14, 2005; Page C01
LOS ANGELES--Craig Ferguson is sitting in his tidy office at CBS's Television City several hours before the taping of his nightly show (or "the shoo," as he calls it), talking about growing up in the small town of Cumbernald, just outside Glasgow, Scotland. His father knew someone over at the shipyard who'd picked up some carpet remnants from a luxury liner being assembled, and thus, Ferguson swears, his family was the first in the neighborhood to get wall-to-wall carpet.
Since he took over nine weeks ago as host on "The Late, Late Show," a post-Letterman, seldom-seen, insomniac's delight, this has been part of his shtick: He loves to go on about the exaggerated bleakness of his Scottish youth, so bad there wasn't even carpet. "I remember people came around, from the whole block, you know, just to have a look at our new carpet."
"No, not right now, I've got to do the shoo," Ferguson says. "But maybe later on."
(Wait a beat. He lets out a deep laugh, then mock-addresses a nonexistent camera: "We'll be right back after these messages, everybody.")
To read this story properly, you might want to use your fake Scottish accent (and you know you've got one) for the quotes where Ferguson talks. Just do it in your worst burr; think Groundskeeper Willie on "The Simpsons," James "Scotty" Doohan from "Star Trek" or Mike Myers as Fat Bastard. Such is the American pop gamut of Scots, until now.
People apparently love to listen to Craig Ferguson talk. His predecessor, Craig Kilborn, hosted for five seasons, and it was fine as far as it went, except for Kilborn's slight, bratty chilliness -- it was too frat-boy, Kilborn's detractors said. Too snide, oddly clinical.
Ferguson's show already gives off light beams of jolliness, even as you get the feeling that it's possibly a happy train wreck. In an age of snark, it's almost too retro: A good-looking man walks out, has an accent, tells some jokes, makes chitchat, introduces a band, and nobody gets hurt.
Desperate actresses especially adore him. Witness the parade of fabulously coiffed and giddy B-minusers who've done "The Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson" since its debut Jan. 3 -- Jennifer Beals, Mimi Rogers, Jennifer Love Hewitt.
And on this particular night's show, ladies and gentleman, Faye Dunaway, as if she has been transported to us accidentally by time machine!
Dunaway is on to promote "Starlet," the new reality show she's appearing on, but also she is here, she will later reveal, because she's been staying up late, too, with the rest of a certain demographic: People who, perhaps through a fog of Tylenol PM, have developed a teensy, weird crush on Ferguson.
The show has become very Los Angeles in a local sense, in both vibe and casual conversation -- as if West Hollywood had gained a cable-access channel. Ferguson talks about his ex-wife (they are friendly; she runs a Pilates center and lives two doors from his house, and went with him to Clive Davis's Grammy party) and his 4-year-old son, Milo (he shares custody). Watching the shoo feels like you've bumped into him at the Farmers' Market Starbucks off Fairfax Avenue.
"I don't try to put a positive spin on things when I talk to guests, or the audience," he says. "I think that's the reason I talk about my ex-wife on the show, or being a dad, or alcoholism, to say, yes of course I'm a member of the human race and yes of course I have interactions which succeed and fail, and other than that I'm okay and I'm doing all right and this show, you know, we're not here to talk about our feelings and help you out with your [expletive], because I don't even know ya. It's TV."
Mostly it's kitten time. "You're so charrrrmmming," Hewitt blurts out the minute she sits down on a recent show. She looks like she wants to eat Ferguson with a spoon. He appears to be looking for a fork. So yes, somehow he's charming: handsome in a shopworn and pocky way, at 42; blue-eyed, dark hair askew, deeply dimpled; slouching happily onto the set in a 6-foot-2-inch frame, that, if, say, a skit calls for him to perform a "Flashdance" routine in a ripped sweat shirt, leotard and leg warmers, reveals itself to be a bit thick.
Rogers comes on to talk about a TV movie she's done with Tom Selleck and frankly you could care less, until Ferguson learns that she dated Selleck back in his "Magnum, P.I." days.
"You had him at the top of his game," he says. "He's a pretty hairy man, isn't he?"
"The right amount," Rogers says, and wonders if Ferguson will open his shirt a button or two for a comparison.
"Oh, no, I'm like a dolphin," he says. "I've got nothin' -- I've got the landing strip, and that's it."
He addresses viewers at home as "my lovelies" or, better, calls them "cheeky wee monkeys" and does a regular bit where he pours himself a cup of tea from a proper silver tea set, inviting the audience to ask questions. The show leaps at you -- at 12:35 a.m., an ungodly hour for anyone past their Jesus year, age 33 -- with a jaunty, Electric Light Orchestra-ish theme song ("Mr. Blue Sky" maybe?):
But hang on leave the TV on
And let's do it anyway (hey, hey)
You can always sleep through work tomorrow,
Tomorrow's just your future yesterday.
Ferguson's ratings are up just slightly from Kilborn's a year ago, to about 1.9 million viewers, and still somewhat below "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" on NBC, which draws 2.5 million. There are odd little pops in Ferguson's first demographic returns -- men over 54, for example, are watching in greater numbers, and so are women that age. (With other spikes in younger female cheeky monkey departments.) Yes, this is just another man in a tailored suit and expensive necktie sitting at a desk with a fake window view of twinkling lights behind him, in a post-post-post-post-Carson era. But it's also some elusive other thing, a lark: "This is a show that's being born on the air," Ferguson says. "There were no trial shows -- this is it, so the comedy is honest-to-goodness birth pains."
CBS really just threw this man on the air, with only two auditions and a few weeks' notice -- a man viewers knew only from his role as Nigel Wick, the unctuous boss on "The Drew Carey Show"; a man some viewers might not literally understand.
To really work, late-late talk shows (12:30 is so very different from 11:30) must feel somehow illicit, but not nasty; smart, but not cerebral or vital; they have to feel like secret entree into the world of adults but also remain childish. They need guests who are either coming or going from fame. They are successful only when they make you feel like a child getting away with impermissible viewing.
The show's comedy bits, TV critics have written since Ferguson took over, leave a lot to be desired. And he mostly agrees: "Did you see last night?" he asks, making a sour face. "Some nights I'll be doin' a bit, and I just really wish we could show the last night's show, but that's the whole [bleepin'] point of it. You have to make something every day.
"I had one guest," he says, declining to name her, "and I thought, 'God, even you are bored by what you're sayin'. You're bored, I'm bored.' She was so media-trained that it was like, 'Christ almighty, can't you forget this [expletive] for a minute?' "
Ferguson was born in 1962 and came of age during the Protestant-Catholic tensions that raged in Ireland and set the tone in his Scottish neighborhood, too. The Fergusons were Protestant; his father worked for the postal service and his mother taught school; Craig is third of four children. He was a fat kid with too much energy. When he was 13, his father took him to Long Island to see an uncle; they got one of those budget fares on Sir Freddy Laker's airline. Ferguson was smitten with America.
He dropped out of high school at 15. "I was a bright kid, but I was kind of crazy. I used to win the school prize for literature. I would write these great big stories. But I never finished school and I kind of regret it now. I'll be reading something, Descartes or Thomas Aquinas" -- and he insists he really reads these things and was recently taken with Jostein Gaarder's "Sophie's World," a novel that attempts to encompass the whole history of Western philosophy -- "I'll be reading and come into something that's a huge [bleepin'] gap where I don't really know what's going on, and I'll have to go back and look up a reference from a thousand years earlier. On a good day I'm an autodidact and on a bad day I'm a dilettante." (He recently finished writing a novel about "the birth of a church in America," he says, but he hasn't shopped it around to publishers yet.) Eager "to just get started with life," Ferguson worked in a factory and as a bartender, and then joined a series of punk-rock bands in the late '70s and early '80s, "with such dooomb names," he notes: The Bastards From Hell, then the Green Boys. Then the Recognitions. Then the Lone Wolves. "The Lone Wolves? That's the dumbest name there," he says. "How can you be lone if you're a pack of wolves?"
In 1983, he and his first wife moved to New York, and Ferguson worked in construction and acted in some obscure plays. He returned to Scotland and to bartending, "I'm a big drinker. I'm an alcoholic, so I was good at bartending." He did profane stand-up comedy as a recurring character named Bing Hitler, which he now says he was too drunk to remember. He went into rehab in 1993 after appearing as Brad in a revival of "The Rocky Horror Show" and has been sober ever since.
That decision, he says, persuaded him to move to Los Angeles and try to break into TV (he joined Carey's sitcom in 1995) and movies. His last role, in "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," wound up mostly on the cutting-room floor; it was becoming apparent to him that the work was drying up, and Ferguson says he's given up acting.
He has frequently talked about his alcoholism since taking over "The Late, Late Show." When Steve Jones, the former Sex Pistol turned L.A. radio deejay, came on the show, he and Ferguson commiserated like a couple of veterans of the punk-rock pint wars.
'Can He Do It?'
Johnny Carson died when Ferguson had been on the job only two weeks. He felt extremely awkward about weaving Carson's death into his own mess of a show. He worried that nothing he could say seemed appropriate, or even earned.
But without rehearsal or a script, Ferguson opened his show with some gentlemanly words. "I think if I had done some big phony thing about Johnny, I would have been found out. I said, we're going to talk about it once, because he created what we do for a living, and then we're going to leave it."
He quoted James Joyce and told about moving to New York at 22, and feeling naive and far from home. He said that he felt "a little bit more American" each night when he watched "The Tonight Show."
Now that Ferguson has buzz -- and his publicists are running a charm offensive that has him hosting awards shows and doing more interviews -- the feeling around CBS is that they picked a nice guy.
But as it happens, Ferguson needs to be a tyrant right this very minute. After a blackened chicken wrap and a meeting with his writers, he has to go to the set and play the part of North Korea's Kim Jong Il in a prerecorded skit for the night's show where Fearless Leader makes a nuclear bid for the 2012 Olympics.
The sketch feels doomed from the start -- when Ferguson walks out in a Kim Jong Il hairdo, someone on the crew says he looks "like Ira from 'Mad About You' " -- but Ferguson is happily game, ready to bomb.
"I think I was anxious at first about failing, but not now. It's still too early to tell," he says. His contract with CBS is for six years, but that could mean nothing. "I think anyone who reviewed the show in the first three weeks, and a lot of people did, is kind of an idiot. None of us know what it is, and I think maybe that's why people are watching. They're sort of fascinated, I think. 'Can he do it'?
"The final answer," he says, "is I will be here for a while, and I will get it right."