Late nights with Craig Ferguson -- The former punk drunk turned talk show sensation reveals his unlikely role model and ruminates on showbiz stress

By Ken Tucker
Updated October 05, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

Late night is the province of the mono-name. Jay! Dave! Conan! Then there’s that Scottish guy, two-name ID required: Craig Ferguson. You know, the one who can’t quite be pinned down. After all, David Letterman doesn’t fondly refer to his audience as ”my naughty monkeys,” as The Late Late Show host Ferguson does in a furry Glasgow burr. And Conan O’Brien deploys his Irish descent for devilish wackiness, but he doesn’t break away from a scripted joke about Stephen King’s Children of the Corn, as Ferguson did recently, to muse spontaneously that a truer horror is ”creamed corn. It’s like hot vomit.” Ferguson then blithely asserted that Hot Vomit was ”the name of a punk band I was in in 1979.”

Sure, all the talk-show hosts are clever fellows, but none rival Ferguson’s waggish insolence. When O’Brien was still Harvard Lampooning, Ferguson really was in a punk band, but it was called the Bastards From Hell, and he performed in it, much of the time, dead drunk. Since taking over CBS’ Late Late Show from Craig Kilborn in 2005, the onetime costar of The Drew Carey Show (remember the fussy boss Mr. Wick?) has brought a fresh burst of energy to the format. He’s reinvented the opening monologue, doing away with most of the topical jokes and just ad-libbing about his life. He updates his audience and guests about his quest for U.S. citizenship (”presuming I know the capital of Nebraska, I should pass by Christmas”) and his preferences among James Bond actors: ”[Daniel Craig] isn’t hairy enough for me; I miss the hairiness of Connery.”

Along with fresh energy, he’s brought something else — ratings. Ferguson, 45, doesn’t get as much media attention as time-slot competitors Jimmy Kimmel or Conan, but with an audience of just under 2 million, he outperforms the former and has climbed within 500,000 viewers of the latter. Off camera, Ferguson swears like a Scottish sailor, and his TV role model might surprise you. When he was trying out for the job, he says, ”I researched the part like an actor. I watched hours of [Tonight Show hosts] Johnny Carson, Jack Paar, and Steve Allen. [But] it was actually Regis Philbin more than anyone else I lasered in on. You can watch him any day of the week, and he can talk for 10 minutes about fokkin’ nothing — nothing! — and [he’s] interesting about the smallest, most mundane things.” Ferguson’s voice rises. ”Regis is the Proust of television! That’s the flavor I’m trying for. Retro-intimacy, that’s how I think of it.”

It’s that approach — zany geniality, vehement foolishness with a core of decency — that’s made Ferguson’s Emmy-nominated show so distinct. His philosophy? ”Let’s not pretend that I’m not just a guy talking to you in your house via a camera. I know you’re not paying full attention at all times. I’ve watched TV before, I know the drill: You’re asleep, you’re not asleep.

”The truth is, anybody who [promotes] a movie, you’re doing Dave and Conan and Jay and Jon Stewart, so all the information is going to be out there. My idea is, I’m gonna try and engage the person in a way that’s more of a lark; [then] we can all wipe our makeup off and go home feeling a little better, and maybe the audience does too. Though without as much makeup.”

Ferguson had a few careers before settling in America, including stand-up comic and musician. Coming up in the punk-era ’70s, he played drums and still counts the Clash’s Mick Jones as a friend, but says mildly, ”It was more a way to get drunk and get laid.” Upon landing in America, Ferguson got some dirt-under-your-nails jobs: ”I worked on 127th Street in Harlem, construction work. I worked upstate New York, landscaping. In the 1980s I tended bar a little bit.”

Oh, yeah: the bar. As any regular viewer knows, Ferguson says, ”I’ve made no secret that I’m an ex-drunk.” A recovering alcoholic, sober since 1992, he sports a recently etched tattoo on his right arm: the Latin phrase Dulcius ex asperis, or ”sweeter after difficulty.” It’s mentioned that Internet videos from the ’80s have floated around showing him singing funny songs with an acoustic guitar: ”That was me before I was sober.” Yes, he looks pretty ”relaxed.” ”Yeah,” he says, laughing, ”’relaxed’ — relaxed as a fokkin’ newt.”

Once he landed the Late Late gig, he was tutored by a master: Peter Lassally, who produced the Johnny Carson Tonight Show for more than 20 years and David Letterman for four. The 74-year-old Lassally sums up his advice: ”I told him not to play to the studio audience, that he was just talking to one listener, who was in the camera.” Ferguson took it to heart: ”Sometimes I’ll say to the camera, ‘Oh, crappy audience tonight,’ and the audience thinks I’m kidding but I’m not. I’m tellin’ the folks at home, if some of this stuff is dyin’ in the studio, you know why — it’s them, not me!”

Aside from a stray bum audience, the job has other stresses. ”In the very beginning there was some network pressure here that I would dye my [graying] hair, and I said I’m not doin’ it. I did it once and I felt like such an idiot.” While Ferguson does well in female demos, he adds, ”I understand there’s a desire to reach the 18-to-24 male demographic, but here’s the problem: I don’t chase 18- to 24-year-old men in my personal life, so I’m not gonna do it on television.”

Twice divorced, with a 6-year-old son named Milo, Ferguson shoots down a rumor that he’s recently become engaged to his girlfriend, art dealer Megan Wallace Cunningham, as ”crazy talk.” As for the future, his production company is developing a game show tentatively called The Really Big Game Show With Craig Ferguson, ”but I doubt that [title] will remain. I’ll host it, it’ll have improv actors and contestants; hilarity and cash prizes will ensue.” He’s sold a sitcom pilot with the comedian Henry Cho to CBS, an idea for a drama to The CW, and has an offbeat project starring Matt Baetz, a production assistant for The Late Late Show. What’s it about? ”A production assistant for a late-night show,” he grins. ”It’s kinda like Loser Entourage.” Also the author of the 2006 novel Between the Bridge and the River, he’s writing another, about ”a catatonic stroke victim who has a love affair with a crow that sits outside her bedroom window, but it takes a lot of time to explain how they fell in love.”

Great, but what about your day (night) job, Craig? Signed to CBS until 2010, he says, ”Three [more] years is such a long time, I don’t know. I might stay, I might go.” Does he ever worry that such talk, along with other frank remarks about the celebrity life, might hinder his future?

”No. I worry about other things: Will I do something absolutely horrendous and embarrassing and get into a lot of trouble? Will I say the wrong thing at the wrong time — which is only a matter of time?… [But] you only have to look at the behavior of [stars] to know that it doesn’t matter if you speak your mind, because a lot of people who are clearly crazy are speakin’ their minds in ways that are clearly insane and it does not affect the work that they get.”

He pauses and then speaks, if possible, in an even thicker Scottish accent. ”I’ll just see where Providence takes me and try to look like I got there confidently.” Spoken like a true ex-Bastard From Hell.