On Christmas morning 1991, Craig Ferguson was ready and determined to end his life. After an all-night bender, he woke up in the storeroom above a London pub, covered in vomit and piss, and decided he couldn’t take it anymore. “I was a drunk, a loser and a disaster of a human being,” he writes in his 2009 memoir, American on Purpose. So the then 29-year-old Ferguson came up with a plan: He would walk down to the Tower Bridge and take a swan dive into the Thames River. On his way out he ran into a drinking buddy, who offered him half a pint of sherry for the road. Ferguson ended up getting so drunk he completely forgot to kill himself.
What a difference 20 years can make. The raging alcoholic who once thought suicide was his only option is now clean and sober—Ferguson went into rehab shortly after his near suicide attempt—and the host of CBS’s critically acclaimed late-night talkfest The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson. The show has jockeyed for first place over the years with the competing Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and Ferguson is widely considered to be the brainiest host in late-night television, thanks to his stream-of-consciousness monologues and unscripted interviews. Forget the Emmys: Ferguson is the only talk show host who’s won a Peabody. He’s upbeat and inventive. In a cynical world, he begins every show by announcing to the audience, with nary an ironic wink, “It’s a great day for America.”
That kind of unwavering optimism doesn’t happen overnight, especially for a guy with Ferguson’s troubled backstory. Born in Glasgow and raised in a working-class town 15 miles to the north called Cumbernauld, he had a relatively happy home life with his postal worker father, schoolteacher mother, two sisters and a brother. But Ferguson’s early education, both at school and on the streets, consisted almost solely of drugs, booze and fighting. He eventually discovered punk music but soon moved on to comedy, doing stand-up or small TV roles in Scotland and abroad, before moving to Los Angeles and getting cast as the pompous British boss Nigel Wick on The Drew Carey Show. Since then he’s tried his hand at almost everything, from animated-movie voice-overs (How to Train Your Dragon) to novels (Between the Bridge and the River) to screen writing (Saving Grace).
His true calling came in an unlikely place, when he was picked to replace Craig Kilborn as host of The Late Late Show in 2005. Almost immediately Ferguson demonstrated that he wasn’t interested in doing another by-the-numbers talk show. Some nights he’s thoughtful and contemplative, explaining his pride in becoming a U.S. citizen, eulogizing his deceased father or inviting Archbishop Desmond Tutu on to talk about South Africa and apartheid. Other nights he’s divinely silly, putting on skits with a repertory ensemble of hand puppets, including a foulmouthed bunny and a pig who pontificates about swine flu, or exchanging bons mots with his robot skeleton sidekick, Geoff Peterson. Sometimes he can be both at the same time, as he was so expertly this past summer after receiving an envelope filled with a white substance briefly thought to be anthrax. He addressed the subject frankly on that night’s show and then turned it into a game, grilling two of his interns to find out who had reacted the most cowardly.
We sent writer Eric Spitznagel, who interviewed Paul Rudd for Playboy in October, to meet with Ferguson at his Late Late Show studio office in Hollywood. Spitznagel reports, “From the moment I walked in, Ferguson was outgoing and gregarious. Of course, putting strangers at ease is pretty much his job description. We talked for most of the afternoon on his office couch, and wedged between us was a small throw pillow with the phrase tick fucking tock hand-stitched on the front. Ferguson told me that he’d had the pillow made shortly after his father’s death, as a reminder that life is fleeting.”
PLAYBOY: You seem to legitimately enjoy every guest who comes on The Late Late Show. That can’t be true, can it? There must occasionally be people who annoy you.
FERGUSON: Oh sure, I fake it all the time. But it’s not like I see them for that long. Host really is the perfect description of my job. It’s a party, and you have to be a good host. Some nights I feel like a host at a restaurant. I’m the guy in a monkey suit standing next to a podium waiting for the next fat cat to come in. It’s a service position. Not that I’m being subservient, but you kind of have to be nice to people even when you don’t feel like it. They’re your guest.
PLAYBOY: You sometimes start an interview with “Where are you from?” Do you think geography tells a lot about a person?
FERGUSON: It’s just something to say when I can’t think of anything. Everybody’s from somewhere. I’ve never really thought of myself as someone with any kind of deliberate strategy for interviews. I like to be spontaneous. I don’t do any research on people before they come on the show. I don’t care. I’m doing a little comedy show, not investigative journalism. I just want some laughs.
PLAYBOY: That may be true most of the time, but you devoted an entire show to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Obviously you didn’t invite him for the hilarious banter.
FERGUSON: No, not really. [laughs] Although that would be funny. “Keep it light, Desmond. This is a bad room for apartheid.” As you probably saw, in the course of a conversation with Desmond Tutu there are a lot of silly moments. There’s a lot of horror too, certainly, but you’ve got to take it all.
PLAYBOY: Did you ever worry that you might be in over your head?
FERGUSON: I knew he was a charismatic speaker. Maybe it’s a weird kind of arrogance, but I thought, It’s going to be all right; I can do this. Because if I screwed up, this is the man who headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He’s not going to come down hard on me for fucking up an interview. I kind of felt the gift of the Desmond Tutu interview was Desmond Tutu. There’s no need for me to compete with Desmond Tutu, so why not just enjoy the luxury of being able to talk to someone who has been so influential in the world?
PLAYBOY: You displayed a similar humility with Cornel West earlier this year when you invited him on the show to talk about Black History Month. You began by confessing that you don’t know a lot about American history in general.
FERGUSON: I’m not afraid of someone knowing something I don’t, because a lot of people do. Probably most people know something I don’t. Maybe it’s a product of age, but I care less about whether people think I’m smart or not. If smart people think you’re smart, that’s great. If dumb people think you’re smart, what’s the fucking point? Why should I care what they think? Why should I care what most people think? There’s no endorsement in numbers as far as I’m concerned. Millions of people thought the earth was flat, and it isn’t. So when it comes to validation from the mob, I just don’t care.
PLAYBOY: There was a time when getting The Tonight Show was every talk show host’s dream. Is that still the ideal?
FERGUSON: I can’t speak for anybody else, but it definitely isn’t for me. I don’t want it. I don’t understand why anyone would want it. Clearly it’s not a route to happiness. I think I have the advantage over other guys who do late-night shows in that I didn’t grow up with Johnny Carson. I respect and admire him, but I didn’t grow up watching him on The Tonight Show. I can appreciate his genius, but I don’t want, and I never wanted, to become him. It just comes with too many compromises.
PLAYBOY: That could be true. When Conan O’Brien got The Tonight Show, some of his more salacious characters, such as the Masturbating Bear, disappeared.
FERGUSON: I know it would alarm me if I got an earlier time slot and some executive said, “You can’t have the robot sidekick anymore.” I’d be like, “What the fuck are you talking about?”
PLAYBOY: “We need you to get rid of the puppets.”
FERGUSON: No puppets? Fuck you. No puppets, no me. I don’t like it when people tell me how to do my job or think they know what works and what doesn’t. I’m always amazed when a writer pitches a joke and says, “This will get a big laugh.” Oh really? How the fuck do you know? Anybody who’s worked in comedy for any length of time will tell you that the best-case scenario is every joke has a shot. That’s all. You get no guarantees beyond that.
PLAYBOY: There’s so much improvisation on your show. What do your writers actually do?
FERGUSON: There’s not much written material. Most of it’s spontaneous, and I come up with it while we’re taping. But we write the monologue in advance, and occasionally they do bits and pieces for other ideas.
PLAYBOY: What was the genesis of the puppets? Did you come to work one day and say, “Puppets are funny. Let’s do something with puppets”?
FERGUSON: That has a complicated backstory. It started with a buddy of mine named Steve Jones, the guitarist with the Sex Pistols. He had a radio show in Los Angeles called Jonesy’s Jukebox, and he’d play all these records from his collection. I was driving to work one day, listening to his show, and he was playing “The Lonely Goatherd” from The Sound of Music. [sings] “High on a hill was a lonely goatherd / Lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo.” It just made me laugh. So I came to work and said, “You know what? I’m going to lip-synch that ‘Lonely Goatherd’ song on tonight’s show.” There were these hand puppets lying around the office, and we used them for the bit. That was kind of the beginning of it.
PLAYBOY: What appeals to you about puppets?
FERGUSON: I like things that are different and weird. When I was first trying out for the show, I remember thinking, If I ever do this, I want it to be something fucking different. There are too many of these shows already. I don’t want to be like everybody else. Let’s fuck with people’s expectations. If there has to be a sidekick, then let’s make it a robot skeleton.
PLAYBOY: Geoff Peterson.
FERGUSON: Geoff, right, though that’s an odd thing. Geoff is emblematic of my failure to deconstruct the genre. We created Geoff as a protest against the idea of a sidekick, but Josh Thompson, the guy who operates him, is so fucking good, he’s become a really good sidekick. So we’re back to fucking square one. But that’s all right. He makes me laugh. That’s the number one rule. If it makes me laugh, it’s in.
PLAYBOY: What’s the story behind Geoff? Where did he come from?
FERGUSON: It started with the movie Ghost Rider, which I really liked. Any movie that has a skeleton on fire riding a motorcycle—I mean, fuck, what else do you fucking need? Come on! If you don’t fucking like that, you probably live in a cave in fucking Bora Bora. That was part of it. And then I used to say this thing to annoy Milo, my oldest son. He’s 10 now, but he was about eight at the time. I would pretend to be a villain and say, “I’m going to get my own robot skeleton army and take over the world.” He’d go, “Dad, you can’t do that!” “No, I’m going to do it!” Then I started to say it on the show, because the line between your private life and your TV life begins to blur after a while. And then Grant Imahara, one of the guys on [the Discovery Channel show] MythBusters, said to me, “I’ll build you a robot skeleton as a sidekick if you get me 100,000 Twitter followers.” I tweeted that, and he got 100,000 followers in about two days, so he had to build it.
PLAYBOY: Do you spend a lot of time on Twitter?
FERGUSON: Not really. I come and go with it. Sometimes I love it and sometimes it makes me angry.
PLAYBOY: How does it make you angry?
FERGUSON: I remember someone on Twitter gave me a hard time for doing an anti-atheist joke in Nashville. Because it’s such a religious town, apparently he thought it was pandering. He wrote something like “What’s next, an anti-Arab joke in Israel and an antiwoman joke is Saudi Arabia?” Hey, atheism is a stance. It’s a position, it’s an opinion. Being a Jew and being a woman are just things you are. But if you have an opinion on something, be prepared to defend it. And by the way, if you’re an atheist and you can’t take a joke, you’re not a proper atheist.
PLAYBOY: Everybody thinks they’re an expert when it comes to comedy.
FERGUSON: And they are! It’s the one area in which everybody is legitimately an expert. You’re in charge of what makes you laugh and what doesn’t make you laugh. You’re the expert. But people forget that it’s still subjective. People say, “That guy’s not funny.” Oh shut up. Why, because he doesn’t make you laugh? So if Steve Martin doesn’t make me laugh, he’s not funny? [makes buzzer sound] No, wrong. Of course he’s fucking funny. It’s like when people say, “I don’t like rap music.” Well, don’t worry, Grandpa. It’s not for you.