In the Feb. 11 issue of Calendar, I spoke with Craig Ferguson, erstwhile host of CBS’ “The Late Late Show,” who since last week has been running his own series, “Join or Die with Craig Ferguson.” Thursdays at 11 p.m. on History Channel. (He also hosts a syndicated game show, “Celebrity Name Game,” but that is neither here nor there.) Named for the Benjamin Franklin political cartoon he sports on his right forearm -- an 18th century cry for unity of a kind all but drowned out in the current cacophony of governance 2016-style -- the show features Ferguson and a changing panel of three guests who attempt to determine, playfully but thoughtfully, what, for example, was history’s worst political blunder or medical idea, its biggest frenemies, America’s greatest Founding Father. (The audience gets the final vote; it is not binding.) It’s a framework for discussion that engages what’s best in the Scottish-born, American-by-choice host: his puckish humor, his inquiring mind, his love of surprise, his talent for talk.
Accordingly, there was much more to our interview than the print feature could contain. Here is some more of it. As it begins, we are considering the omnipresence of the camera-phone.
The Internet has given people the idea that anything you can right-click and save belongs to them. At the same time, people are more willing to share things they make without necessarily worrying about a payday; I think some of those attitudes have changed generationally -- people put stuff out there, because that’s how it works now.
That’s the way it goes with standup specials as far as I’m concerned. What you get doing a standup special kind of pays for making a standup special; maybe you make a little more. But the idea, for me anyway, is you’ve got this act and you’ve run it a bunch of times in the theaters, and you’re not going to keep doing that because that makes you stale. So you put it into a special, and then it becomes a, is it a gift? Yeah kind of. And then hopefully these people will come and see you the next time you’re in town, but it’ll be a different act. I kind of envy musicians -- I’d like to be able to say, “Here’s a joke I wrote in 1987,” and everybody joins in. But then again I don’t envy them, because it must get very distressing to play stuff you wrote when you were 18 years old when you’re 55.
I don’t know that it’s necessarily the case, if you live it in a way that’s appropriate to the moment.
Right. I’ve done long runs in the theater; there is that. The trick is not to get it right on night one, the trick is to get it right on night 57, because that’s a different skill set. I’ve done it before – I didn’t mind it – I did “The Rocky Horror Show” for a year in the West End, and what it becomes is your journey through the evening. So like, play starts here, I have my cup of coffee here, that song’s there, I’m off there, I say hi to that guy there, do that thing there – that’s the journey, and what it looks like on the stage is the character’s journey hopefully. But what your journey is, is the journey of the evening, from arriving at the theater to going home. And you kind of make that walk that path every night. It became quite comforting actually in a way; I liked it; actually I was doing it just towards the end of the drinking; so it was the only thing I could count on any day, the routine of it. Because the rest of my life in the six months or a year leading up to rehab wasn’t as predictable. So there is comfort in it, for sure, if you can stay in the moment.
What kind of student were you as a kid?
Unsuccessful. When I was very young, I was very -- straight A’s and very attentive. When I was 13 or 14 years old, I entered what at the time in Scotland, it was something called comprehensive education; it was a catch-all thing. It was a very big school, it was a very didactic and very kind of impersonal form of learning. It was also a violent time. So I got distracted, and -- like, my kids go to good schools, and first of all I’d be all over them, but if they started to wander off like that somebody would call me. And I don’t think that happened then. It was a tough time in education in Scotland; it was underfunded and understaffed, and I was under-attentive. I’m not blaming the system for it; I think I got distracted. I think I was looking at other things, music and girls.
Was there a point where you came out of whatever state of distraction you were in, and thought to yourself, “I’m going to read some books”?
No, I always read. One thing that the Scottish education system really did do for me and I’m very grateful for is they taught me to read -- they taught me to read early, and they taught me to read on my own, and they forced classic literature on me, so much that I got interested in it. And I learned to absorb the rather difficult and florid styles of the 19th century, which helps when you’re dealing with Russian writers or 19th century American writers. So that sort of byzantine vocabulary doesn’t scare me; in fact it attracts me. So Dickens or Herman Melville or the letters of Abraham Lincoln don’t hold any great threat; I think they gave me a big vocabulary.
Do you read nonfiction too?
I do. But I have found that what I’m drawn to right now is writers like Philip Kerr, who writes noir novels about a German detective called Bernie Gunther; he’s a Berlin policeman in the 1930s – he’s not a Nazi in any way, in fact he’s a Social Democrat -- but he gets caught up in the course of history. And all of the characters around him are well researched real people. It’s fascinating stuff. Or C.J. Sansom, who writes about a lawyer in the court of Henry VIII; I find that kind of well-researched historical fiction quite fascinating and interesting. It’s just speculative and academic historians would be very cross about it, and rightly so. But I’m not not an academic historian, so it’s OK.
When you decided to become an American citizen, did you lose anything in the process?
No. I think America’s unusual in that regard, historically, because, you know, if you’re a French American you’re from a different set of circumstances. But if you’re American of your own volition, you don’t lose what you were before; America doesn’t require that of you. I mean, if America and Scotland go to war, they might require it of me -- I suspect that’s unlikely though, in the current conditions.
We’ll have to see who gets elected.
No matter who it is, I think it’s unlikely. I think in that regard America is different from any other country. Irish Americans will say ‘I’m Irish’ but they’re also American. You can be both. I never really struggled with that. And it wasn’t really a decision for me; in the process of evolving as a human being I think I became an American. From quite a young age. I think -- the first sense of it I got was watching the moon shot when I was 7 years old. Everyone in the world is influenced by America; everyone it the world knows about Coca-Cola, everyone in the world knows about NASA. Basically it’s a binary system -- America, or not America. I mean there are other cultures, of course; but America is, like, rock and roll, the blues, country music. It’s too big to ignore culturally.
But even since becoming American, it’s changed. Cornell West said something that still reverberates with me -- “Black people have never had the luxury of believing in American innocence.” And it’s such a powerful phrase that it changed my idea of being an American. It doesn’t make me less patriotic or glad to be an American, but it expands the notion of it, to realize that there’s more to it than, you know, some parchment and fife and drum music. There are problems attached to it, there are issues involved. It became quite contentious actually in one of the shows we did on who was the greatest Founding Father, and I disagreed very strongly with everyone else on the panel. And the audience. And I changed it to what I wanted -- which is very un-American. But everyone else said George Washington and I said, “No, he’s not allowed to be because he had slaves.” His achievements are undeniable, but he owned slaves, which means he cannot truly be a great man. So I made it John Adams.
The new series reminds me of British panel shows, like “My Word.”
That’s exactly what I was trying to do, is these BBC Radio 4 or BBC One or BBC Two discussion programs; there used to be a great show on British television called “Call My Bluff,” where people would give three different meanings to an obscure word and you had to guess which one and there was some very clever old duffers who would do it; I watched it when I was a kid and I always loved that show because it was funny but it was also interesting. And Stephen Fry now does “Q1" which is a lovely show.
How do you choose the panels?
Really it follows a formula, mostly. There’s going to be an expert, a scholar; then usually a comedian, because comedians have to be observant, they have to be quick; if it’s not a comedian than someone with an improvisational background who has a sharp mind and will, even if they don’t know the information, can react to it as they hear it. And then the third person on the panel is usually someone I’ve talked to, liked and respected in the 10 years that I did the late-night show and just drawing from that pool, which is a lot of people. So that’s basically the formula for it; somebody that I know and like, somebody that knows what they’re talking about; and somebody who can hang.
How is it working with three guests at a time instead of one?
It’s easier, actually – I’m not trying to steer the conversation much beyond the format of the show. I’m not a journalist, I don’t have an agenda, there’s no story for me to pull out; and we’re not really talking about the personalities of the people there. The only thing I tend to do is if somebody hasn’t said anything in a while -- sometimes the academics get shy -- I’ll go, “Hang on a minute, what do you think?” It’s just being a good host, really, keeping the dinner party going.
You mean for CBS? No, I never felt that from them. They would raise an eyebrow every now and again when I would say, “I want to do a bunch of shows from Scotland,” or something like that, but only in the most gentle, corporate ways; nobody really said no. What became of me and late night is, I think late was changing; I think it has changed. We talked about this back when I was doing it. I never felt like I belonged in it anyway, and I felt increasingly that I didn’t. I don’t regret the show or wish to close the door on it in any way; I’m very proud of it and I loved doing it. But it was time to stop and do something else. I couldn’t lay the blame honestly at CBS; I don’t think there’s blame to be laid, I think it was a natural progression. It was the right time to say that’s enough of that.
Even though people were disinclined to believe you when you said it.
Well they always were. That’s one of the odd things about that particular genre of television. The minute I started at 12:30, the question became “When and do you want and how are you going to get 11:30?” But I never wanted 12:30, never mind 11:30; why is that a thing? And I was very vocal, much to the chagrin of my representation, about I’m not in this to do that. And you’re right, people are disinclined to believe it, and, there’s nothing I can do about it.
People have gotten used to the idea that it’s a job, like Supreme Court justice, that once you’ve got it, you’re in it for life.
And would that be attractive to you, because that’s not attractive to me? The idea of doing a late night show for the rest of my life, has and always will be an unattractive option to me. I understand that some people like that; some people like salted fish; I don’t. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to do it, and I think there are people who do it very well. I think the current crop of guys are actually very good. But I don’t want to do that.
How much of a plan did you have when you handed in your walking papers?
I didn’t really have one. I was scared. But I felt that that in itself was of worth. I was frightened about what would come up, what will happen now? It was frightening, there’s no doubt about it; transitions and change are scary. And I didn’t know what I was going to do and I didn’t know if I would get any work and how it would be and maybe that would be OK and maybe it wouldn’t. And it was tricky for a bit; it was like, I don’t know how to be. And then, you know, when Trump announced he was running for president, I was like, “Now he runs?” But actually, I’m so glad I don’t have to talk about that every day. It would drive me crazy to have to negotiate and navigate my way through it, because it’s so vicious. I’ve done the sectarianism – I don’t need that.
Especially given the odd relationship of late night and politics now, where politicians get made fun of but also are asked on the show.
I think politics is a fabulous refuge for pseudo-intellectuals, because you can always just yell louder than somebody else and nobody knows you’re stupid. But I think a lot of political discussion on television is a substitute for actual discussion; and it’s not really discussion, anyway, it’s just how loud can you shout until the commercial break.
It’s a crazy year.
Well, I wonder how much of it is just – as someone who is an American later in life, it seems to me Americans love the circus of politics; they love the razzmatazz of a good parade and marching and banging drums and waving ribbons and flags and stuff. So I don’t know how much of this is real. I remember, you know, talking to a Canadian journalist who was alarmed at the rise of Donald Trump; and I was like, “Well, I don’t know how real this is.” He said, “Well, look at the people who are going to see him -- in Birmingham, Ala., all these people turn up on a Monday night.” I go, “What else is there to do in Birmingham, Ala. on a Monday night?” I’d go see him; it’s something to see. I’m not sure that I buy that this is actually politics; I think it might actually just be, um, show business.
Yeah, I think it has a little bit. I do the school run more often now. I do the school run at the end of the day as well as the beginning of the day. And things are a little looser. I don’t have to, you know, put pants on some days. It took a bit of getting used to. I won’t lie to you. It was different at first. First it was better. Then it was kind of real. Then it was different. Then it was real different. And that’s kind of how it is now -- it hardly seems like it was me that did [“The Late Late Show”]. And my wife, who has been with me through the entire thing, is like, “I had no idea you were so uncomfortable, because you’re so much better now than you were then.” I think I was just overworked, it was partly that; it was too much.
Are there other projects knocking about in your head?
Yeah, I have … stuff. There’s a production company I have at Lionsgate and we’re putting some stuff together. But I kind of like to allow them to gain their own momentum a little bit. Like when you’re writing, right -- I don’t know what I’m writing but I’ll just keep writing for a bit and just see what happens. So that’s kind of how I like to do it. I think I might be writing a book, I’m not sure. I’m four chapters in; it might be four chapters of a book that never gets written, I’ve certainly done that before. Or I might be writing a book. There’s a documentary that I’m making right now, or I might be just gathering footage that will never work, about the band Dead Man Fall. I used their song for my very last late night show; they’re from my home town in Scotland and they’re about 20-something years younger than me and we’re very similar in our stories. I’m bringing them to America and we’re going to do some dates and they’re going to record, and we’re going to film it. And I’m doing a game show so I can pay my bills and have some fun and exercise that muscle, and I do standup because that’s what I do and I’m comfortable doing it. But I think after 10 years in a very structured form of life, I’m not hungry for that; I’m not looking for a daily show or have to know what I’m doing next October. I’ll be all right.
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd