Hanging on the wall of Craig Ferguson’s Late Late Show office in CBS’s Los Angeles production complex is a large painting, done by his ex-wife’s mother, of a nighttime view from a jet cockpit. It’s been there since he took over the talk show from Craig Kilborn in 2005. “I used to look at this painting and think it was an airplane coming in to land,” says the tall Scotsman, who is sitting underneath it in his preshow garb of a T-shirt and gym pants. But since taking up flying over the past couple years, he’s realized that what he’s actually looking at is an imminent crash scene. “The airplane is coming in too high; all the lights on the runway are wrong,” he points out. “This is an airplane that’s about to try to land on something that’s not a f---ing airport!”
Many, too, had predicted a crash landing for Ferguson when he was hired for the 12:35 a.m. show that airs after David Letterman’s. He was a nearly unknown comic (his biggest role until then had been as a series regular on The Drew Carey Show) with a thick Scottish accent who didn’t grow up worshipping at the altar of American television. He is the first to admit that he had no idea what he was doing when he started. His initial attempts to adhere to the chat-show genre’s conventions—tell some one-liners in a monologue, then ask a celebrity guest some questions off a blue card—didn’t work at all.
But three years in, he has succeeded by making up his own format—one that is looser, more intimate and more charming than anything his competitors are doing. “Eighty percent is improvised on any given night,” says Ferguson. That includes his opening monologue, which appears on the teleprompter as a bulleted list of topics he’d like to discuss, as well as the guest interviews, which he typically begins by pointedly ripping up one of those blue question cards. Another regular bit on the show consists of him responding to viewer e-mails that he first reads only 30 seconds before the cameras roll. On a recent show he addressed a Tennessee man who wanted to be on the show and had e-mailed, “Do you ever book no-name, talentless guests?” Ferguson raised his eyebrows as if it were the most inane request he’d ever heard before responding, “We have a no-name, talentless host, never mind guests.”
It was typical of the sort of humor that Ferguson regularly employs, much of which revolves around the shtick that he’s as surprised as anyone that he’s got a TV show. Unlike, say, Jay Leno’s or Letterman’s, Ferguson’s show isn’t a series of jokes you can retell at the office. Instead, he riffs about whatever seems to have crossed his mind that day—say, having gone three weeks without coffee or a news report about thousands of Dutch people who believe the world will end in 2012—and the result is a nightly presentation that feels personal. “I tried to do the cookie-cutter version of the telling your jokes there, doing your thing over there, and all of that didn’t work for me,” Ferguson says. “The surprise was, when I ditched the traditional format, the show got better.”