Craig Ferguson is the only late-night talk show host who’s interested in bringing his show into greater contact with the actual world, not just tinkering with the audience’s concept of comedy and creating ever more refined, self-referential little works of pop art that can be passed off as gags. Letterman and Leno and many of the other people who’ve helmed talk shows since Johny Carson retired are doing the job they’ve wanted their whole working lives. Ferguson, who just sort of fell into it sideways when he was in his mid-40s, can convincingly claim that his main priority is keeping himself interested, and for him, staying interested is a matter of constantly being surprised. When he does an entire episode talking to Stephen Fry without his usual audience, or traipses off to Paris with his robot skeleton announcer and his pantomime horse and Kristen Bell to do a week’s worth of mind-bogglingly casual shows, he doesn’t give you the feeling that he’s self-consciously trying to re-invent the talk show format. He just thought it would be fun to do something different, and it usually turns out that his instinct was right.
Ferguson’s week in Scotland has loosely resembled his week in Paris, but with some key differences. For one thing, the Scots speak English —though some thoughtful soul has included subtitles for sleepy American viewers when some of the thicker-accented locals chime in—so Ferguson has been able to do some actual talk show-hosting, as in interviewing celebrities in front of a live audience, a pleasure that was denied him when he was in France. The folks who came out to sit on hard chairs in Glasgow’s Tron Theatre got to see an actual movie star, Mila Kunis, who got a big round of applause for liking fish and chips, and Ariel Tweto, the charming and easily confused star of the Discovery Channel series Flying Wild Alaska. (When Ferguson points to an antique plane and tells her that it’s the kind he flew when he fought the Nazis, she says, “I didn’t know you were that old,” and you’d need to convene a tribunal of gods and psychics to come to a definitive conclusion as to whether or not she’s joking.) To end the interview with Tweto, Ferguson does his ritual “Big Cash Prize” number, in which a guest is awarded a bag of money if she can guess the answer to a question, which it’s already been preordained she’s going to get right. When the crowd doesn’t make a sound, Ferguson points out that this is difference between American and Scottish audiences: The Americans whoop it up as soon as he announces the bit, the Scots sit on their hands and mutter, “We’ll wait and see if you win first.”
Of course, the big difference is that the host is in his old stomping grounds, and memories, most of them weird and unhealthy in nature, keep bubbling up. When Ferguson goes on a walking tour of the areas where he grew up, he is accompanied by Michael Clarke Duncan, and as his anecdotes grow increasingly violent, it becomes clear why he might want Duncan at his side while strolling down Memory Lane. No historic spot in the country seems more important the Spur Hotel, where a fellow named Cal Calhoun treated young Craig to the ass-whupping of the millennium. After learning that Cal had just entered the bar and found his girlfriend sitting in Craig’s lap, Duncan decides to take Cal’s side. (“What were you doing with his girlfriend in your lap?” he asks. “Well,” says Ferguson, “there were hardly any seats.”)
My favorite episode of the week is probably the Wednesday night show, which included not only Craig’s reflections on the development of his sexual imagination (“The girls used to come here and turn cartweels when they were young, and their skirts would fall down, revealing their underpants. Sadly, this is a phase women grow out of.”) but a trip to the school he fled. Recalling the last moment of his educational career, he says, “It was a nice day outside. Children were playing soccer and drinking and gamboling around the field like young lambs, and I was in here, being bad at something I didn’t care about.”
Eager to keep the circle of life in play by interrupting the learning process for someone else, he saunters into a classroom with Clarke and camera in tow, and asks a lad named Connor, who looks like Kenneth Parcell’s evil Scottish twin, what the hell they’re studying. Modern studies, says Connor. Like what, asks Craig. Well, says Connor, like America. Like, what about America, asks Craig. Economic, sociologic, inequality, says Connor. “Are you one of the cool kids”, asks Craig. “Yeah,” says Connor, without hesitation, and the camera cuts to a bunch of cute girls giggling in admiration. Craig asks the cutest girl what Modern Studies is all about, and she’s all like, Dude, were you not listening to Connor just now? I don’t know what Connor’s life was like before Craig Ferguson came barging through the door, but the little son of a bitch is in clover now.
Over the course of the week, Ferguson also visits the beach with Rashida Jones (wearing a Michael Palin-esque hankie on his head and noting, “This is the look that frightened the Nazis off.”), invites David Sedaris to join him and the ladies for dinner, has a surprisingly engaging conversation about Scottish sovereignty with First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond, stages a psychedelic flashback recounting the time he felt menaced by ducks ("It really happened. It was nothing to do with the drugs!") and makes up songs about flamingo pee with his animatronic robot skeleton announcer, Geoff Peterson, voiced by Josh Robert Thompson, whose contribution to the show in general cannot be overstated; he is the straw that stirs the drink. (He also provides linking narration, in his Morgan Freeman voice.)
But he keeps coming back to his connection to the place, and his nostalgia is never boring or self-indulgent, because it’s tinged with his favorite quality, surprise: Even the school isn’t as horrible as he remembered, and he isn’t sure how much it’s improved and how much his memory is not to be trusted. Talking to the headmaster, he says, “The children seemed happy, there’s less of them, there’s no bleeding.” As for the one-eyed ogresses who he remembers having been in charge of the classrooms when he was a kid, he adds, “Some of the teachers are even attractive.” “I wouldn’t go that far!” says the headmaster, but his rudeness is understandable. He doesn’t have Mila Kunis, Rashida Jones, and Ariel Tweto waiting outside in the car.
- Alaska fun fact: Ariel Tweto says that if you're attacked by a bear, the thing to do is bite its testicles. Ferguson is not above asking the obvious question, what if the bear is female, but she dodges answering that.
- Instant late-night comedy motto, intoned by Thompson-as-Morgan-Freeman at the conclusion of the nightly "Michael Caine In Space In Scotland" routine: "You're welcome, stoners!"