Craig Ferguson On Late Night, Stand-Up, Alcoholism and Freedom to Say 'F*ck'
It's fairly standard policy for a publicist to request that the questions stay on topic to whatever is being promoted. In this case, with Craig Ferguson -- best known, of course, as the host of the Late Late Show on CBS -- this pretty much opens up every aspect of his life since his new Epix stand-up special, Does This Need To Be Said?, addresses subjects as diverse as his battle with alcoholism to David Letterman's sex scandal. Indeed, Ferguson admits, casual viewers might be shocked what the "nice man on TV" has to say when he's unfiltered.
Movieline spoke to Ferguson ahead of DTNTBS?'s Saturday night's premiere, exploring the intricacies of performing a (at times) raunchy stage show while being a beloved star of late night television, when he became comfortable about incorporating his battle with alcoholism into his act, the fine line to walk when your boss is involved in a sex scandal and how he wound up in Bill Carter's The War For Late Night without even knowing it.
So, I watched the show. The three people left who still only know you as the nice man on The Drew Carey Show are going to be very shocked with some of the material.
[Laughs] Yeah, I guess yeah. You know, it is what it is. But I didn't write the Drew show, I was just an actor working on it. I think anyone who has seen the late night show has a pretty fair idea that I'm a reasonably cussy individual when left to my own device.
It was played for laughs how you did it, but, when you tell the audience that you're going to say "f*ck" a lot, was that a real warning?
Yeah, it definitely is both. I mean, it's both of that. I mean, if somebody wants to walk out of a show, I don't want to leave them with an ambiguous 25 minutes, wondering whether or not they should leave or not leave. So if say the word "f*ck" about 100 times in the first five minutes, it will give them a very clear picture. After that, it very rarely comes up. But it weeds out the prudes.
Do you get prudes at your shows?
Ah, not at all. And, actually, the think that I noticed, much to my surprise, people are fine with it. People who would be upset if I cussed on TV have no problem with doing it in a theater. I understand the reason behind that. You're not going to be flicking through the channel when you suddenly get me saying cuss words. I mean, that can happen if I'm on CBS. But you paid money to go to the theater, you've been warned, the ticket says "over 18" -- it's a different thing.
Does CBS or Worldwide Pants put any restrictions on what you can say during your live show?
Oh, this has nothing to do with those guys.
You did make a passing reference to your boss, David Letterman, and his scandal. Which surprised me.
Yeah, no, I don't know that I take a stab at Dave. I take a stab at the situation that I found myself in. Which was that Dave was in a sex scandal, and I had to talk about it without annoying Dave. Which is an extremely tricky predicament. But I wasn't having a go at him. In fact, I didn't pass comment on his sex scandal, I don't think. I was kind of careful not to.
What I've always admired about your talk show is that you don't adhere to the specific late night talk show format. Do you take the same approach when you do stand up? I wasn't expecting a dance number.
The way I feel about it is that I believe anything goes in a sense that "anything that I think is going to work" in the context of the show. I don't mind putting a dance number in. Why the f*ck not? It doesn't mean that every show has to have a dance number. Any stand-up will tell you that ending the show is the hardest damn part of it. So, ending it with a little song and dance is a very definite and precise way of ending the evening. And, also, I enjoy doing it. These guys that are in the dance, they're my buddies. We go on the road together.
How much time did you spend on the choreography?
I think we spent about 20 minutes doing that. Probably, it looks like we spent less. But I think we spent about 20 minutes. [Laughs]
What's a healthy ratio between doing your late night show and doing stand-up? Like with someone like Leno, if he has a free moment he's doing stand-up.
I probably did a little too much last year. What I try and keep it to is maybe one weekend run a month. You know, I have kids, I can't be leaving town all the time. At the same time, I have kids, so one weekend a month every month is not a bad idea. [Laughs] You gotta be careful with it. I very easily can slip into doing too much, so I'm going to try and hold it back a little bit this year.
You did have a very satisfied look on your face at the end of the show. Do you get more satisfaction from the applause of large crowd than you do being broadcast to millions in front a small studio audience?
You know, I think that, mostly, what you see on the face of me at the end of a stand-up show, if it's gone well, is relief. There's a certain kind of relief that it worked out the way you planned it. I don't want to piss people off. I don't want them to have a hard time. I'm not there to f*cking question the way they think about the universe. I'm there to do a job and entertain people. If it works, then great. I'm relieved that I did my job. I can leave happy.
For me, the part of your show that I could relate with the most is commenters on the Internet. Having your job judged daily by anonymous people. Trust me, I get that!
Oh, man. That must be tough. I do believe you, it must be tough. The truth of the matter is, what happens is, the Internet is a little bit, I think -- and this is why I avoid it, to be honest -- it's like doing a stand-up show with the lights on. In the sense that your audience is there but your eye is naturally going to be drawn to the person who is not like everyone else. So, if everyone else is laughing, and someone is having a miserable f*cking time, you're going to be drawn to the person that's having a miserable time -- which is disproportionate to the work that you're doing. It actually skews you in the wrong direction. So the Internet, as far as feedback for me, I kind of ignore it. Because it gives a disproportionately loud voice to a tiny, tiny minority. And if you're doing something that's pissing off people, you'll get fired. And then you'll know.
That's a good point. Very few people take the time to let you know when they are satisfied.
Yeah, it just makes sense. It's like, you know, most people who come to see me in a show, they see the show and then they leave. Then they get home to deal with the babysitter or go for dinner or do whatever the hell they're doing afterward. But they don't go home and blog about it. That's maybe five or 10 people who were at the show.
At one point in the show you're discussing Piers Morgan taking over for Larry King and that we didn't need any more "British f*cks on TV." Then you had to remind the audience that you're from Scotland. But, it's true, somewhere along the line you became "America's Craig Ferguson." How did that happen?
I've lived in America now for 15 years. So the majority of my adult life has been spent in the United States. And before I left Europe I was here often enough. I think of myself as being an American. And Americans have more than one particular type of accent. And I think the American audience -- or my audience, it's kind of the same thing -- is cognizant of that. Not all Americans sound the same. Not all Americans talk like Tom Brokaw. And when I'm talking about Piers Morgan... Is that right? Pierce Morgan?
Right, Piers Morgan. I wasn't really so much having a dig at him as much as I was making a gag and reminding them that I actually wasn't [from the U.S.]. Using exactly the premise that you said, they forget I'm from somewhere else. So I was just using it for comedic effect, you know; I don't mind Piers Morgan.
How long did it take you to feel comfortable joking about your alcoholism?
It takes awhile. I probably was more than 10 years sober before I was really kind of loosened up a little bit about it. I guess when it becomes, what do they say? A comedy is just tragedy plus time? When you get enough time in that equation, you reach the comedy situation. The life of a drinking alcoholic: not that funny. Not until you stop, really. Then it gets a little funnier.
To me, it came off as your most biting material. It seemed there was a different level of emotion during that segment of the show.
Right, I think that's possibly true. I've very connected to that kind of thing. I guess because I'm someone who had a lot of problems with alcohol and, to a certain extent, drugs, it's a subject which so much nonsense is talked about in the media by so many people who are not qualified to talk about it that it kind of irks me. But that's my little area of it. There are plenty of subjects that are overexposed in the media and talked about by people who have no business or qualifications to talk about it. I guess it's just the one I notice.
Is it a weird day when Bill Carter calls the office? Is it a feeling of, "Oh, now I'm getting dragged into this late night mess"?
Well, to answer your question, that interview with me in that late night book [The War for Late Night] that Bill did, I didn't give him an interview for that. I gave Bill an interview for a book that I had a year previously. And then he cribbed it for the book. I don't know if you've come across that journalism before [laughs], but I'm guessing he knew he had the book in mind at the time.
Would you have preferred that he asked before you were in his book?
Naaaah. I'm a realist about it. I mean, I gave him the interview. What he does with it is up to him. So, no, I'm not bearing a grudge about it, but I didn't specifically give him an interview about late night television. We talked about it during the course of an interview that I was giving him. Which is slightly different... It's a nitpicking way of looking at it, but what I'm saying is that he didn't call me at the office.
Follow Mike Ryan on Twitter
Follow Movieline on Twitter