Published Sep 29, 2015Craig Ferguson has been around for a quite a long time. The Scottish-born actor and comic has amassed nearly 30 years of experience in stand-up comedy, sitcoms, late night TV and writing both fictional and biographical. In his decade-long run as host of The Late Late Show, he changed the landscape of late night television, offering a new generation of viewers a fresh take on what a late show could be. He has five shows in Ontario this week as part of his 2015 tour called "The New Deal." He talked to Exclaim! about his punk rock Whovian past, his influences, and the nitty-gritty stuff he's built his career on.
Craig Ferguson's formative years came about during the height of punk rock in the UK. Craig was an able drummer with no foreseeable ambitions in TV or show business to speak of until he met a fellow Scotsman who would go on to play a starring role in the rebooted sci-fi hit, Doctor Who.
"I was at a party and the band was playing. They announced it was their last gig because they were losing their drummer, and I was pretty drunk so I said 'I'll be your drummer.' The singer was Peter Capaldi, who's now playing the Doctor. I joined the band and Peter and I became great friends. Peter's interests, although he was the singer in the band, were in film and acting and stuff."
As it turned out, Capaldi was a particularly big fan of American stand-up comedy.
"He had Richard Pryor albums and Steve Martin albums and I had never heard any of that stuff. He played it to me and I loved it. [Peter] said 'You should do this! You should try this!' and because bands were like that at the time, you could do that, it was very experimental, it wasn't just punk rock bands it was performance poets and stand-up comedians, so that's how I got into [comedy]. It was really through my relationship with Peter in that time period. That was my early education. It was rough, the crowds were boisterous and drunk, but it was very exciting and youthful and vital. It was a good time."
Ferguson's introduction to comedy may have been with American comics, but the playful absurdity he became known for on The Late Late Show seemed to many as something refreshingly un-American. Ferguson had been unknowingly taking notes on British comedy all his life. Billy Connolly was a master class in stand-up for him, as were Monty Python, Dudley Moore, and absurdist radio shows on the BBC. "It all becomes mashed together and becomes who you are."
He began to pursue a career in comedy in 1985 or '86. His evolution as a stand-up has given him some interesting insight into his own performance habits, some of which he has long since kicked to the proverbial curb.
"I think what happens is that over time the affectations of nervousness slip away, so I feel like what I do now is purer than it was then. When I was 25 or 26, there'd be a lot of pacing backstage and psyching yourself up and all that kind of weird adrenaline rush-y stuff before you go on stage and it was almost like a performance before the performance. Over time, you start going 'What is this? Who is this for? This is not for the audience, this is some kind of weird performance for myself,' and you begin to realize that while adrenaline is useful, it's not always your friend. It can mess with your concentration on stage. It can put you in a fight or flight mode that makes you not live in the zone of what you're doing. I think the stand-up now is purer than it was then. I do what I think is funny and what I feel like I want to do and fuck the consequences and fuck being right or wrong about it. I just do what I want to do. So weirdly enough — I'm 53 years old — I think it's more punk rock now than it was when it was punk rock."
I asked what he meant by "affectations of nervousness," and if they're an unconscious defence mechanism for those who are afraid of having a bad show.
"I think that there's a lot of worry about that in the early days. Not every show is your favourite. Some nights, you may feel a little nervous or something before you go on stage, and then you just have to look at the laws of fucking mathematics. You go 'Well look, I've done this show before, I've done this job before, I've been doing it for almost 30 years and most of the time it works, so the chances are it's going to work tonight and if the audience doesn't like it, then they're mathematically in the minority, so fuck 'em. That's kind of how I feel about it.
"At the very beginning I used to see the audience as hostile — I don't look at it like that now because most of the time when I'm dealing with an audience now, they know who I am and they know what I do before I go out there, so they're not hostile, they're there to see me and I'm there to see them, so it has more of a reunion-y party feel to it than it does a 'I have to survive by my wits' feel about it. So it's not quite in the same vein, it's not confrontational anymore."
When hosting The Late Late Show, Ferguson built his reputation on the zany improvisational nature of the show. However, being an author — he plans on making his first novel Between the Bridge and the River into a trilogy — he doesn't shy away from writing exactly what he wants to say in exactly the way he wants to say it. With the combination of explicit improvisation and painstakingly scripted comedy, which side does he identify with or enjoy more?
"I think that it's all kind of the same thing in a slightly different scenario. When you write, you know the feeling when time disappears and you look up suddenly and it's four hours later and that's a very satisfying, very weird interesting feeling. On stage riffing is just writing, but in a room full of people. So it's a very similar sensation, to me they're not different and apart things. There is that rush when you say something on stage and it's the first time you say it and it gets a huge laugh, but it's still writing because you're thinking 'If it's getting that kind of laugh I'm going to do that bit tomorrow.' So it's all really writing, it's just some of it is public and some of it's private. But I don't really feel adrenaline in the same way anymore — not crippling amounts of it. I do feel a bit because it's exciting and it's fun.
"I want each show that I do to be the best I can do in that moment. So I think you use whatever resources you have available. You have written material and you have your mind working up, pumping and riffing. I think if there's a skill to this and clearly there is, then what it is is creating what the German actress Ute Lemper calls the illusion of spontaneity. You shouldn't be able to tell the difference as an audience member when I'm telling you a written joke or when I've thought of it in that second, it should all feel like it was done in that second."
Craig Ferguson has returned to television since leaving The Late Late Show as the host of Celebrity Name Game for "a bit of fun and money," but his focus lies in pursuing stand-up comedy for as long as people will let him. He is one of the headlining acts at JFL42 in Toronto this week. It's one of over 50 stops on his three-month-long North American tour, "The New Deal."