Winging It: Craig Ferguson

Craig Ferguson abandoned talk-show traditions and became the dark horse of late-night TV.

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Winging It: Craig Ferguson
Craig Ferguson on the helipad on the roof of CBS studios in Los Angeles

Winging It: Craig Ferguson

Craig Ferguson abandoned talk-show traditions and became the dark horse of late-night TV.

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.”

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.

“It’s all just telling stories,” Ferguson says. “Late night is no different than making a film, really, except that it’s faster, and if you do a crap one, you can do a better one tomorrow. Writing a novel and doing stand-up—that stuff is very similar.”

That’s not to say he thinks any of it is easy. When he first met Lassally, who was in charge of finding a replacement for the departing Kilborn, “I said, ‘Thank you for having me, Mr. Lassally. This will be a lark,’” Ferguson recalls. “And he said—and I remember this as clear as day—‘No, no. This is not a lark. I have few discernible talents, but one of them is finding guys like you, and if I’m right, you’re lightning in a bottle.’”

Lassally, who had to convince both Letterman and CBS head Les Moonves to hire Ferguson, says his first impression of Ferguson was that “he was intelligent and had a great presence, a great sense of humor, a quick wit—he was just comfortable with himself.” Still, there were things Ferguson needed to learn: For one, to kick his bad habit of flapping his jacket open. And, he adds, “apparently when I’m nervous, I have this creepy laugh.” Lassally emphasized that Ferguson needed to stay calm. “He taught me one huge thing about comedy,” Ferguson says, “which is that adrenaline is not my friend. At 12:30 in someone’s house, they don’t need some yelling foreigner with a creepy laugh.”

Fortunately, he found a way to deal with his adrenaline: flying lessons, which Cunningham gave him for his birthday. “After the first 15 hours, I stopped crying,” he says. “I was so terrified, beyond anything I could imagine. Then it started to change. Now I’m totally riveted by it.”

In February he received his pilot’s license (one day after he was sworn in as a U.S. citizen) and bought a Cessna, which he takes out three or four times a week. “Aviation and physics don’t care about how you’re doing in the 18-to-24 demo,” he says. “There are hard-and-fast rules.” Those are just about the only ones Ferguson feels compelled to follow these days: “Other than the laws of physics, rules have never really worked out for me.”