Fast and Loose With Craig Ferguson Live

By Nick Kolakowski
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 13, 2007

Between a late-night show on CBS and a 2006 Emmy nomination, it's not as if comedian Craig Ferguson needs the validation of a live crowd. He's appearing at the Warner Theatre on Saturday, part of a one-week, five-stop comedy tour, because stand-up is in his blood.

"Once you do it, it's always on your mind," the 45-year-old host -- and sometime actor, novelist, screenwriter and director -- says from Los Angeles, where he tapes "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson."

Indeed, standing behind a live microphone gives him an opportunity a national television slot does not. "Once you're onstage you don't have to worry about the FCC or the censors, so you can cut loose a little bit," he says in his distinctive Scottish brogue (he does a dead-on Sean Connery impersonation). "When you're sitting in the theater, you're in my house."

Which might explain why, despite the rigors of co-writing and hosting a nightly program, Ferguson finds the time to do stand-up two weekends a month. And, as with his show's opening monologues, he plays the live material fast and loose. "It varies wildly from night to night -- what it'll look like is anybody's guess," he says. "I know guys who go up there with their whole routine memorized word for word, but that technique has never worked for me."

Although Ferguson might not know what form his Warner Theatre evening will take, he doesn't plan on resorting to the tried-and-true targeting of political foibles. "I'm not a citizen yet, so I love everybody," he says with a chuckle. "Once I get my citizenship, watch out."

Since Ferguson took over the "Late Late" desk from another Craig -- that would be Kilborn -- in January 2005, about 2 million nighthawks and insomniacs have tuned in regularly for his combination of chat and warped humor -- solid numbers for a 12:35 a.m. time slot. The eclectic guest list has included Ben Kingsley and Avril Lavigne, and although Ferguson might not have the visibility of David Letterman, whose Worldwide Pants produces the show, he is upbeat about his prospects, joking, "Eventually everybody sees the show, because everyone has those sleepless periods in his life."

Besides, once you've been a drummer in a Scottish punk band called the Bastards From Hell, everything else is comparatively upmarket.

Raised near Glasgow, Ferguson started out in music before being bitten by the stand-up bug. After that, it was a long and winding road to late-night prominence: One of his most famous early gigs was under the stage name Bing Hitler, and he found jobs writing and acting for such British series as "The Russ Abbot Show" and "Red Dwarf."

In his early 20s, he tried to take Manhattan, and Manhattan kicked him back. He returned to Scotland, alternating between acting, comedy and bartending. Soon enough he had his own show on the BBC, "The Ferguson Theory," and in 1995 he made another run at America, meeting more success and gaining familiarity with viewers as supporting character Nigel Wick on "The Drew Carey Show." He also ended up in movies, including "Lemony Snicket's a Series of Unfortunate Events" (a blink-and-you'll-miss-it role) and such smaller films as "Saving Grace," which he wrote, and "I'll Be There," also his directorial debut. Then, after a highly public audition, CBS threw him into the deep end of late-night hosting.

Now he's in the process of getting his citizenship, in more ways than one. He has been campaigning for honorary citizenship in as many towns and states as possible, no matter how flyspeck. "In terms of the states, if you get named an honorary citizen of North Dakota, then South [Dakota] is in the bag," he says with a laugh. "It's an electoral campaign."

According to the Rapid City Journal, South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds warned the talk-show host not to let his new title go to his head.

Not that Ferguson has a reputation for egotism. Indeed, his late-night routines are almost brutally self-deprecating as he opens up to his audience about everything from his battles with alcohol -- he has been sober for 15 years -- to his father's death in 2006. Using the show to eulogize his gruff but ultimately loving father probably contributed to his first-year Emmy nomination.

Unlike comedians willing to eviscerate anything and anybody for a laugh, Ferguson has a reputation for moderation. Earlier this year, he was probably the only late-night host on the planet not to use Britney Spears as fodder during her infamous meltdown. Comedy "should be about us attacking the powerful people, attacking the politicians and the Trumps and the blowhards," he said during one monologue. "We shouldn't be attacking the vulnerable people."

After a rough initial period on the job, Ferguson has found a groove, but he doesn't harbor an overwhelming desire to move to a slightly earlier slot. "Being paired with David Letterman is as cool as it gets; it's no small potatoes. Besides, the late slot tends to be very crowded," he says. "I'm very happy where I am."

Craig Ferguson Warner Theatre 202-397-7328 Saturday

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