SPARTA, N.J. &
The format of CBS' "Late Late Show" is as routine as its name. There's a host at his desk, celebrity guests, the occasional skit, an opening monologue.
And yet, with Craig Ferguson originating his brand of shrewd silliness, this is an hour unlike other talk shows. Tune in Craig, you get a contact high. Which sure beats just watching TV.
The contact is almost physical at times: At key listen-up moments in his monologue, he moves in close to the camera and gives it a chummy swat, jiggling the picture. The effect is more than funny. It's almost like he's tapping your shoulder, replenishing a tactile connection.
"That's what I've got: me and you," he says in an interview. "I want to break down the barrier between us for that hour.
"The joy I get from the show should be transmitted to the viewers."
During his show (weeknights at 12:37 a.m. EST), Ferguson is a kinetic cutup, loose-limbed and quick-witted. While he carries on, his face cycles briskly from wide-eyed wonderment to sly knowingness, naughty flirtation, that expansive, charming grin.
The soothing Scottish brogue of his native Glasgow can take flight into an emphatic squawk, or the grand pronouncement that "it's a great day for America, everybody!" That's how he starts each nightly monologue. Then a wisecrack explains why.
But, seriously, he does believe it's great. Smitten by America since first visiting as a teen, Ferguson was officially sworn in as a U.S. citizen earlier this month. He proudly shared video from the ceremony with his audience.
Most late-night hosts don't have much to say about who they really are. But on the air Ferguson is self-disclosive and deftly unguarded. He mines humor from tough times including two divorces, career setbacks, and his past drug and alcohol abuse. Last February he devoted a monologue to mark his 15th year of sobriety. In January 2006 an entire show paid tribute, with laughs and tears, to his dad, who had died the day before.
Of course, he generally dwells on not-so-weighty life issues, such as a recent meditation on moviegoing when he voiced plans to see "The Spiderwick Chronicles."
"I don't really know what a spiderwick is," Ferguson admitted. "I think it's a combination of Spider-Man and Wikipedia: He fights crime and gives you the wrong answer for everything."
Ferguson, who hits the road lots of weekends, spoke to The Associated Press one recent Saturday night backstage at an auditorium in Sparta, N.J.. Soon he would have a house full of fans convulsed in 80 solid minutes' worth of laughter.
At 45, Ferguson is not only a talk-show host and standup comic, but also an actor, writer and musician of sorts: At 16 he quit school "mainly to drink" and joined a punk-rock band on drums.
He has appeared in several films, and written and starred in three, including the 2003 comedy "I'll Be There," which he also directed. Two years ago he published "Between the Bridge and the River," a daring novel with an autobiographical streak.
Until he took over "The Late Late Show," he was most widely known as Nigel Wick, the imperious British boss on Drew Carey's long-running ABC sitcom. Ferguson landed the role after his arrival in Los Angeles in 1995 (seeking the American Dream as his bank balance bottomed out at 27 cents).
But since Jan. 2005, he has steadily redefined late-night talk in his own image, and, from his snug, no-frills L.A. studio, made inroads against "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," his NBC rival. In the past year, he has narrowed the gap from 610,000 viewers to 120,000. The first week of February, when O'Brien's writers were still on strike, both shows averaged about 1.8 million.
With O'Brien taking over "The Tonight Show" from Jay Leno in 2009, Ferguson is poised to edge out a yet-to-be-named "Late Night" replacement.
He won his job after auditioning for "Late Late Show" head Peter Lassally, a former executive producer for David Letterman and Johnny Carson. Ferguson cites one of the tips from this talk-show guru: "If the guests look good, you look good."
"I get that," says Ferguson, an interviewer who takes good care of his guests. In fact, he facilitates chat so playful and amusing his guests seem unconcerned when the project they came to plug is sometimes barely mentioned.
"I'm as nihilistic and depressed and snarky as anyone else," says Ferguson with a plummy chuckle, "but for an hour a day, I'm NOT."
Standup comic Randy Kagan, who joined the "Late Late Show" writing staff last fall but began touring with Ferguson nearly two years ago, marvels at his lack of star attitude.
"He stays available to people," says Kagan. "And I think that helps him creatively: He's open and listening to everybody."
But even for a guy with people skills and show-biz chops, being host of "The Late Late Show" brought unexpected challenges.
"I was extremely confident at first," says Ferguson. "And then I started to panic, 'cause I realized how difficult doing this (crap) every night was gonna be. Pretty much anyone who's a good performer can do a late-night show for a couple of weeks. But it's when you're on show five-(freaking)-hundred, and they just keep coming...! I don't think you really find out if you can do it for, maybe, your first 300 shows."
As of last week, Ferguson had polished off 622.
More than just a proving ground, it's been a learning process.
"I stopped wearing a tie for a while &
about a year, maybe," he recalls. "I was experimenting in trying to be more relaxed. 'Cause every time in my life before that, if I was wearing a suit and shirt and tie I was either getting married or in court &
neither of which worked out for me.
"Then, the night my father died, I couldn't NOT wear a tie. And I actually felt OK wearing it."
Then a few weeks ago, he forgot to button his jacket before going on the air. He liked how he felt.
"Now I don't button my jacket, and I'm much more relaxed. I know those are tiny things and it sounds (freaking) weird, but that's my world," says the man busy breathing new life into late night. "It's about finding ways to make yourself comfortable in a suit."
'Late Late Show' host Craig Ferguson is remaking late-night talk with silliness and smarts
SPARTA, N.J. &