The looser format also has made The Late Late Show a favorite stop for celebrities. “You have no idea what’s going to transpire when you walk out onto the stage,” says Emily Deschanel, sister of Zooey and star of Fox’s crime series Bones. “The idea seems terrifying, but I never get nervous because I trust him completely, and you just know he’s never going to let you crash and burn.” Hollywood publicist Stan Rosenfield, whose roster includes George Clooney and Helen Mirren, says his clients love the Ferguson experience. “He creates a comfort level,” he explains. “Everyone I have put on the show really liked it and Craig. When you go there with a client, he makes you look good.”
For more than a decade, NBC’s Late Night With Conan O’Brien has been the unquestioned ratings leader at 12:35. But Ferguson, who got a profile boost when he hosted this year’s White House correspondents’ dinner, has been narrowing the gap and even won the weekly ratings for the first time in April. He couldn’t have picked a better moment to find his stride. Next year will bring the biggest shake-ups in late-night TV in 15 years when O’Brien moves up to 11:35 to take over The Tonight Show from Jay Leno, leaving Ferguson to compete with newcomer Jimmy Fallon.
Peter Lassally, Ferguson’s executive producer, sees the shifts as a huge opportunity for Ferguson to find new viewers. “I can’t wait until 2009,” he says. “It’s going to change everything.”
Ferguson, 46, is an accidental talk-show host. He dropped out of high school at 16 (“Mainly to drink,” he has said) and toured the UK in a punk band before becoming a stand-up comic who, unsurprisingly, was more prone to amusing ramblings than structured jokes. But, as he recounted in a moving Late Late Show monologue, in February 2007, inspired by Britney Spears’s troubles, his alcoholism grew worse, and he contemplated suicide before sobering up in 1992.
He left his middling career in England for L.A. in 1995. “A lot of people come to L.A. looking for something,” he says. “What I came here for, I realize now, is to be okay with myself.” Within a year of his move, he landed a regular role on The Drew Carey Show as Carey’s department-store boss. He married in 1998 (it was his second marriage) and divorced in 2004. (Today he and his ex-wife live on the same block in the Hollywood Hills to make joint custody of their seven-year-old son simpler.) For the past three years, he’s dated art dealer Megan Cunningham.
In addition to pursuing his acting career, he’s written three movies, one of which he also directed (the first two had modest theatrical releases; the film he directed, I’ll Be There, which follows a washed-up musician looking to meet a daughter he sired during a one-night stand, went straight to video). He’s also written a novel, Between the Bridge and the River, which received positive reviews when it was published in 2006. Recently he signed a deal to write a memoir, which he hopes to publish in the fall of 2009.