Craig Ferguson’s background, which includes stints as a punk-rock musician, stand-up comedian, sitcom actor, and screenwriter, may explain why his freewheeling efforts as the host of CBS’ The Late Late Show consistently stand out in the crowded late-night television landscape. With the success of last year’s Paris-filmed installments tucked in his back pocket, Ferguson took The Late Late Show to his native Scotland for a week’s worth of episodes, the first of which airs tonight. Ferguson spoke with The A.V. Club about the process of preparing for such an expedition, as well as his past TV and film work, the possibility of another book, and his thoughts on leaving late night.
The A.V. Club: First you took The Late Late Show to Paris, now you’ve gone to Scotland. Did you want to work out the kinks in the process somewhere other than your native land?
Craig Ferguson: Well, that’s right. Listen, if I know anything Scotland, it’s you don’t want to go in there without some preparation and a bit of training. Especially the neighborhoods that I was going back to. So yeah, the reason I went to Paris first was that we figured if we get it wrong, at least the background is Paris, and it’ll look pretty. And then when we went to Scotland, we realized it was actually prettier than Paris and we should’ve gone there first.
AVC: How do you feel the Paris episodes went? Was there anything that went poorly in Paris that you were therefore able to avoid in Scotland?
CF: Yeah, we did a couple of things wrong that we didn’t do in Scotland. What we did was, we tried to do it too quickly. I think we shot over three days in Paris. And we tried to do it in a country where English is not the first language. And, of course, there was some of the crew that argued that English is not the first language in Scotland. [Laughs.] But I speak it pretty good! And we were kind of a little more fish-out-of-water there. I obviously felt much more at home in Scotland. And we had a fantastic crew from Scotland, really good people. It was just a much more fun experience all around. Also, I knew where I was going. I mean, I have some history in Paris, but I’ve got a lot of fucking history in Scotland, so there were plenty of places to go. During one of the initial scouts, I was walking around going, “Got my ass kicked there. Got my ass kicked there. Got my ass kicked there.” We finally said, “Look, we’ve got to just pick one. We can’t just have a tour of places where you got your ass kicked.”
AVC: How did you go about selecting locations for filming? As you say, you could’ve strictly gone to your old haunts, but based on the preview, it seems you also made a point of trying to meet expectations of viewers with only a casual knowledge of the country.
CF: Well, what we wanted to do was do a little bit of both. You want to get some personal stuff, because there’s some funny and interesting stories and some wild stories from back in the day. So we went to my old high school and did a couple of things there, and we went to a bar where I got my ass kicked and recreated that bar fight using child actors, so it wasn’t as threatening. We just put 11-year-old kids in moustaches. And then we went to places like a park where I had a bad acid trip, where I thought the ducks were attacking me. We also went to Edinburgh Castle and to the art gallery in Glasgow, and we went to the Tron Theater in Glasgow and the ancient capital of Scotland. So we went around some big touristy places, too, to try and get a mix of both things.
AVC: Did your early stand-up alter ego Bing Hitler come up at all during the trip?
CF: Not much. It’s funny, that Bing Hitler thing is so bizarre, because in Scotland they still remember that really well. I only actually did it for about 18 months. But it’s kind of a vivid name, I guess. [Laughs.] Once you hear it, you’re kind of like, “Oh yeah, I remember that…”
AVC: What’s your level of fame over there? Does The Late Late Show have a cult there like, say, Graham Norton’s show has here?
CF: That’s about exactly right, actually. That’s about exactly the pitch. In fact, we were filming in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh, which is where Voldemort fights Harry Potter, and while we were there, I was standing under this umbrella—it was raining, and we were waiting for it to clear—and heard some Scottish people walking by. And they didn’t know I was there, so they were talking about the film unit being in the graveyard, and I heard one of them say, “Who is it? What’s going on here?” Someone said, “It’s Craig Ferguson.” The first one said, “Is he famous?” And the other one said, “Yes, but only in America.” [Laughs.] So sort of a compliment and an insult at exactly the same time.
AVC: What kind of reaction did you get from bystanders when you took characters like Geoff Peterson and Secretariat overseas? Not that there aren’t plenty of Americans who stare blankly at them, but…
CF: [Laughs.] Well, you’ve answered your own question. People are like, “Ah, there’s a gay robot skeleton over there and a dancin’ horse…” The thing about it, particularly the dancing horse, is that people laugh when they see it. I remember even in Paris, when we let the horse run around the Palace Of Versailles, people were just laughing at it, because it’s a stupid-looking horse. A big, stupid-looking horse running around is fun! We actually created a scene where Secretariat gets to rejoin his herd, and we had a bunch of pantomime horses with people in them all over the moors of Scotland. [Laughs.] It was really fun.
AVC: When picking guests for these on-location events, do you fly people in, or do you try to get a feel for who happens to be over there at the time you’re filming?
CF: No, no, we fly ’em in. But what we do—well, it’s really my call—is say, “Look, let’s take people who are fun, who’ve done other things on the show, who’ve done a little bit more than be a guest here.” Like, Michael Clarke Duncan’s been here a ton of times and done a ton of stuff, and Mila [Kunis] has done sketches here, and so has Rashida [Jones]. Ariel Tweto’s, like, our bestie friend from Alaska, and David Sedaris is such a fantastic, odd fella. He joins in, but only in a David Sedaris way, which is really fucking—I love that. He can have absolutely zero enthusiasm about joining it, or it looks like he hasn’t, but he actually is joining in. He’s a fantastically funny man. So it was bringing people who I liked and who I got along with personally, because you’re on the road with them, you know? So it has to be that.
AVC: Speaking of guests in general, based on his appearance on your show, Wilford Brimley seems to be one of the greatest talk-show guests in the history of the medium as well as one of the worst.
CF: I think that’s a fair assessment of the situation. I mean, the “get” of Brimley is really the big win. But then there’s the “sit” of Brimley, which almost negates the “get” of Brimley. [Laughs.]
AVC: You seem to go out of your way to book guests who have a deep history in television and film, whether or not their current profile is all that high.
CF: I don’t give a shit about that. It’s funny, you know, people with high profiles…I don’t know. Like, the guillotine drew a crowd. That doesn’t mean shit to me. I think that what I’m interested in is what I’m interested in, and that’s what I want to book. And I think people that like this show either like the same things as I do or they don’t like this show. Which is fine. That’s cool.
AVC: You also don’t tend to turn your show into a recurring series of plugs. It’s actual conversation, sometimes so unabashedly frank that it’s got to freak the network out on occasion.
CF: Yeah, I mean, a little bit. But they know what they’ve got. We’re cool. [Laughs.] I think what really saves our show is the history that I have with [CBS President] Les Moonves that goes back forever. Les and I actually know each other. Both he and David Letterman and Nina Tassler, who runs the network as well, I’m kind of friendly with these people. They’re my bosses for sure, but… [Pauses.] Well, less so with Dave. I’m not that friendly with Dave, just because Dave’s a cranky loner and everybody knows that. But I’m friendly enough when I see him. But with Nina and Les, it’s a very easy relationship. I don’t get emails from my corporate overlords. [Laughs.] Not yet, anyway. Or maybe they just don’t watch the show. Maybe that’s it.
AVC: Are we ever likely to see another episode like the one with Stephen Fry, where it’s just you and a guest, without a studio audience, talking for the full hour?
CF: Yeah, for sure. I just don’t know who it’s gonna be yet. These things kind of tend to happen very fast. You know, somebody’ll be in town, and I’ll say, “Well, fuck it, let’s just do that now!” And that’s kind of how the Stephen thing happened. It was like, “Stephen’s in town, but we don’t have a spot.” And I said, “Well, Stephen’s very interesting. Let’s do a whole fucking show on Stephen.” [Laughs.] And that’s what we did. And it worked out. So we’ll see what happens again. I try not to plan too much advance for the show. I mean, obviously, when you go to Scotland or someplace like that, that goes out the window, but most of the time I try to keep it very loose.
AVC: You’ve kind of phased out having musical performers on a regular basis, but in the early days, you were rather alone in the wilderness with some of the people you were booking—for instance, you brought on The Damned—and with the diversity: one day Megadeth, a few days later The Blue Nile.
CF: Right, yeah, I had The Blue Nile on, The Damned, The Buzzcocks. I’ve had the [Sex] Pistols on, a whole lot of country acts on. And I will again. It’s really hard to put a musical act on in the studio that we’ve been using—I mean, it really is a monstrous pain in the ass—but we’re moving to a new studio in August, and it’s much bigger, and it’ll be much easier to have musical acts on. Which I for one am deeply relieved about, because it’s hard to keep that end of the bargain up when—we really do make this show in a fucking shoebox. It’s tiny.
AVC: Are you concerned about losing any of the intimacy you’ve got now?
CF: Nah. The camera’ll be the same distance away, and it’ll still be me, and it’ll still be the same cameraman. I mean, people will get mad, because people get mad, anyway. ’Cause change is frightening. But it’s got to come. You’ve got to keep changing it, or else I’ll get bored. And if I get bored, I’m gonna quit. So it has to keep moving. It’s just the nature of things. Some people will like the change, some people will hate it. And I’ll probably be in both camps. [Laughs.]
AVC: When you spoke during the Television Critics Association press tour a few years ago, someone mentioned how much people loved the puppets, and you said, “Well, I’ll probably stop doing them soon, then.”
CF: Yeah, well, I’ve dropped all but one of the puppets right now. But it’s not a manifesto. I mean, what time is it right now? Three o’clock? By the show tonight, it may be an all-puppet show. [Laughs.] I don’t want to commit.
AVC: Most Americans first became aware of you via The Drew Carey Show, but what do you recall about the episode of Red Dwarf that you appeared in, “Confidence And Paranoia”?
CF: Uh, very little. [Laughs.] That was way back. That was one of the first jobs I had. I do remember we rehearsed it in London and we shot it in Manchester, and there was a hotel in Manchester called The Britannia that we stayed at, which was absolutely notorious. I mean, it was crazy. And Craig Charles and I were both big drinkers at the time, so it was a bit nutty. I think Craig is off the sauce now as well, but at the time… yeah, it was a bit nutty.
AVC: You also turned up in the UK documentary series Heroes Of Comedy to praise the work of Frankie Howerd.
CF: That’s… possible. [Laughs.] I loved Frank, and I knew him and I worked with him, and he was an interesting old fella, but… maybe this is age, but I’ve no recollection of actually doing that documentary. [Laughs.] But I did work with Frank before he died. Because my mentor in comedy was Peter Cook. He was kind of like my svengali, the guy who could really help me get away from Bing Hitler and actually do some other stuff. And I did a special for Channel Four round about the time I did that Red Dwarf thing. It was a stand-up special, but there were interstitials that were, like, flashbacks to my family life. And it was a fictional family life, so Peter Cook played my dad and June Whitfield, a great British actress, played my mother, and Frankie Howerd played Francis, the god of comedy, who appeared to me in a nightmare. So I did a bunch of filming with all those guys. Well, Cooky and I were friends, anyway. Or became friends. I was kind of like a fan or a stalker with him. But he was just so kind and so nice, and the best comedic mind I’ve ever encountered in my life. And I include Robin [Williams] or Billy [Connolly] or even the Pythons. I think Cooky was the best I’ve ever seen. He was just awesome. Peter had the Establishment Club in London in the ’60s, and he put Frankie on in the same bill as Lenny Bruce. [Laughs.] Which I thought was fucking genius. I wish I’d been there that night.
AVC: Yet Americans really only know him from having played mean Mr. Mustard in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
CF: Well, that’s about all that Americans saw of him. But he had a bunch of other stuff going on. He was a mad old bat.
AVC: The Late Late Show has obviously kept you busy for the past several years, but have you considered a return to film work if time should allow?
CF: The only film work I can do, really, is animated stuff right now, because it’s possible to do that and do this job. There’s no way I can actually go onto location and spend any real time on a film right now, just because of the nature of this show. I think I’d like to go back to it. I think I would. But I think going back to film would be a bit like going back to Scotland: I’d probably be very wary about it and probably find that I enjoyed it much more than I thought I was going to. I’m much more open to these kind of things now. I think the longer this show is on the air, the more comfortable I get doing it, and I think the more likely these other things are possible, but with film, it’s just the time, you know?
AVC: How do you look back on the films that you had a hand in writing?
CF: I’m very proud of… some of them. [Laughs.] Saving Grace, I think, is a terrific movie. And I think The Big Tease is a really good movie as well. I’m proud of these movies. Some I’m less proud of, but that’s the nature of that shit, you know? You just kind of do your best, and there it is.
AVC: You’ve also written a novel, Between The Bridge And The River, and a memoir, American On Purpose. Are there more books in your future?
CF: Yeah. There are, but… God, it’s so fucking hard writing a book, you know? It’s really hard. I mean, I don’t know how all those Russians did it. It’s enormously difficult.
AVC: How long do you see yourself sticking with The Late Late Show? Or will it just be a snap decision, where one day you’ll suddenly say, “Well, I’m done”?
CF: I think it’s more likely the latter. Looking at my own history and the way I’ve behaved in the past, I think that’s probably the most likely event. That it’ll be short notice. That I’ll go, “Right, that’s it, I’m done.” You know, I think I’ll probably get through the show tonight. [Laughs.] And I’ve got a contract for another couple of years. And I feel comfortable and happy doing the show. These things to tie into your personal life, like anybody’s job. I’ve got young kids, so it suits me to do a job which keeps me in town right now. Whether or not I’ll feel like that in five years, we’ll see.