Craig Ferguson on Stand-Up, Theme Shows and Sitting Out the Late-Night Wars
by Joel Keller, posted Feb 18th 2011 11:30AM
Craig Ferguson has said it before, and he's sticking with his story: He is definitely not interested in starting or participating in another Late Night War.
"In order for there to be a war there would have to be something here that I was desirous of capturing. And there isn't," he told me yesterday.
On 'The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson' every weeknight, he gets to dance to a modified 'Doctor Who' theme, banter with a robotic sidekick and pull out naughty puppets whenever he wants. And his improvisational monologue and casual, off-the-cuff interview style has drawn raves. Of all the late-night hosts, Ferguson seems to be the most comfortable in his own hosting skin.
Calling in to promote his new stand-up special, 'Craig Ferguson: Does This Need to Be Said?', which premieres on the EPIX network Saturday at 8PM ET, we talked about the way he writes stand-up, his love of dancing to Britney Spears, and how he really sees himself. But first, there was a need to congratulate him on a big event in his life.
Joel Keller: Congratulations on the birth of your son, Liam.
Craig Ferguson: Oh, thanks very much indeed. Yeah, he's almost 3 weeks old now, so I'll sleep soon. I keep telling myself that anyway. It's a big old sleep-deprivation fun ride.
What's the difference between this kind of sleep deprivation and some of your previous sleep deprivation in life?
Well, this one's not chemically enhanced in any way, for a start. And also, I gotta work when I wake up in the morning. I didn't have to work when it was back in the day.
How has this shaken up your daily routine?
Well, you know, like any newborn, you know it just shakes up your life. I mean, my wife's dealing with most of it. I'm, you know, delighted and grateful per se. So I kind of, I come at work and pretend I'm working, and nap in my office. But I was doing that before he was born, so I don't know if that's a huge difference. [Laughs]
What I noticed about the show was that it starts off by you telling the audience "Hey, I want to tell a joke," and then you just kind of layer and sidetrack and then peel back the onion. How tough is that to keep track of in your mind as you're going through it?
Well, actually it's some sort of a trick. Because what I did, as I was preparing the material, was I always knew that joke. So the joke that I tell at the end of the piece, I say, "I want to tell you a joke." Then if you don't tell that joke, and you hit a spot where you can't remember material, you can go back and either tell the joke and get off, or say you're going to tell the joke, which gives you enough time to rack your brain to move on to the next piece of material.
It also allows me to build the material in bite-size chunks. So if I could go to a comedy club and say hey, I want to tell you a joke, then do 10 minutes of new material, and then tell the joke... So it was more of a technique really. And then once you've performed the show over and over and over again, that's when it starts to develop and become as multi-layered as it does. You know, it's really, you're making a cabinet. You sand it, you varnish it, you sand it, you varnish it, you sand it, you varnish it, and it gives a deeper and deeper feel.
At the end of the special, you do a dance to 'Oops I Did It Again.' Did you tour with the two guys who dance with you?
We finish that act up every night. Every night that dance number. We did it every night.
Is Britney Spears an inspiration?
[Laughs] You know what, I just thought the song was nice, and it was a fun way to end the show. And everybody seemed to respond well to it. I mean, had it not been done so well, I'd have probably it out by the tenth show, but people loved it, so it stayed in.
Your style of interviewing people on 'Late Late' is very off the cuff and improvisational, like your monologue. How did that develop?
It's about degrees of comfort. The more constraints that were put on me at the beginning, as "This is the format, this is the way these shows are done," the more uncomfortable I felt. Because I didn't feel that I had a position in late night television. I wasn't fascinated by the form. I didn't grow up wanting to be Johnny Carson, as legendary and as good as he is and was, it wasn't something that I aspired to. So I didn't feel the call of the format the way that many of my contemporaries do. And the more that I deconstructed it, for myself, not because I felt any kind of animosity towards the way it was done, but just for myself, the more I did that, the more comfortable I became.
Peter Lassaly, who's a producer of the show, and who is my mentor in all of these things, and in fact, was the producer of 'The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson' for 30 years, was very keen to encourage me to find ways to be comfortable. Because comfort on screen is actually what these things were developed for in the first place. So if that doesn't work for you, then find what does. So the deconstruction of the format really came from just levels of comfort. You're absolutely right, that's what it was about.
One of the big interview clips that have been floating around lately is you and William Shatner complaining about lack of being promoted by CBS.
[Laughs] But you know what? You talk to people on TV shows all the time, right? Everybody complains about that. We were just saying what anyone on any television show will say at any point, given half the chance. And any television executive is familiar with that.
You've said in the past that you don't consider yourself a late-night talk show host. How do you see yourself?
I suppose if I was pushed to put it into one particular thing, then I suppose it would be writing, just because that's where it all comes from. It all is born from the actual perspiration of sitting down and spinning something on ... however random and however rough a format is, it has to be written down first, before I can begin with it. And should I lose my facility of speech, or just having a TV show, then I would return to writing the stuff down. So I think probably I'm a writer. I'm either a writer or a stand-up. And they're kind of the same thing, I think.
There was a rumor going around that Keith Olbermann did the voice of Geoff the robot sidekick on an episode. Is that true?
Absolutely not. No, no. It's all done by the same guy, Josh Thompson, who does the voice of Geoff every night. And he comes in most days and records new stuff, all the stuff. He's a terrifically talented voice artist. No, Keith didn't do it.
And they just push a button for whatever random thing Geoff is going to say?
Yeah, I don't push the button, and I don't know what the random phrases are. There's one of the writers that is off-stage with a control pad, he uses an iPad. And he controls the robot that way, and he fires it off whenever he feels like firing it off. And I don't know what the phrase is, or what's going to come next.
You should have Watson come on, and he and Geoff can do a little quiz round or something like that.
[Laughs] Yeah! I mean, it's interesting. I think that's a little ahead of Geoff.
With the 'Doctor Who' episode, what went on behind the scenes when you realized that the song couldn't be shown on the air at the very last minute?
Oh man, I was pissed! I mean, we had worked on that little dance routine probably longer than we worked on anything else in the show. We'd spent almost an hour getting that done. So I was really pissed when I found out. It wasn't a great day for the producers of the show. But, you know, it leaked out on the internet. And it actually wasn't me that did it, I'm delighted to say. It was somebody else that leaked it out. And then, of course, the clearance came through anyway, so we just showed it.
Do you want to do more episodes like that in the future? What other themes can you think of that you would like to explore?
Well, it tends to come up as it comes up. I mean, most of these thematic episodes tend to be actually a little more serious in their tone than the 'Doctor Who' thing. I mean, I guess, we did the 'MythBusters' one, which was fun.
Stephen Fry too, right?
Yeah. And the conversation with Stephen was a little more, just by the nature of what it was, it was a little more intense. Or when it was Bishop Desmond Tutu, or when we did the beginning of Black History Month with Cornell West ... these things tend to have a little more kind of gravitas to them. But you know, I don't really know what's coming up next, because that isn't what's going to be the bug in my ass tomorrow. And it's all kind of based around that.
Any chance you and your buddy Jimmy Fallon will be on each other's shows at any point?
I think we would both love to do that. And I think that that's no secret. I think that there are clearly concerns other than Jimmy and I involved here. But I like and respect Jimmy Fallon. And we have a very cordial and friendly relationship. So I'd love to see it happen. I don't see any need for it not to. But we'll see how it plays out. There are lawyers and executives in this world too.
So no chance of a Late Night War part three?
I don't know. In order for there to be a war there would have to be something here that I was desirous of capturing. And there isn't. You know, I do what I want to do here. A war, by its very nature, the oxygen of a war, for me to participate in a late night war, is that I would actually have to be trying to achieve or get some kind of plunder for myself, whether it's another time slot or another show. And I don't have that ambition. I don't care. You know, and that maybe, if nothing else makes me not a late night host, then maybe it's that. I genuinely, actually I'm not lying to you, I don't f*cking care. You know, I'm amazed I'm still on the air now.
You couldn't even do what you do now at 11:30 because it just wouldn't work there, I would imagine.
Well, you know, who's to say? I don't know. When I started at 12:30 it wasn't going to work either. Everybody said, "Oh the accent, oh it's the wrong guy." And Rick Ludwin at NBC said "He's too old to start a 12:30 show." I was the f*cking same age as Conan at the same time he was their guy. But it was kind of like people just f*cking tell you you can't do it. And you know, that's of no real interest. You know, could I do it at 11:30? I don't know. No one's asked me.
Well, you know, Letterman keeps saying he's going to retire, so you never know, right?
Well, we'll see. I mean, the thing is, I think Dave does a great job, and I swear, I think he should do it as long as he wants to do it.
'Craig Ferguson: Does This Need to Be Said?' premieres on EPIX Saturday, Feb. 19, at 8PM ET.
'The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson' airs weeknights at 12:35AM ET on CBS.
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