All this week, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson has been presenting a fast-paced, freewheeling comedy travelogue, showcasing the late-night host’s trip back to his home country. A few celebrity friends were invited along for the ride, and local citizens and national politicians were interviewed as well — all resulting in a mini-series of wonderfully varied and unpredictable programs. On Wednesday, halfway through his show’s In Scotland week, I spoke with CRAIG FERGUSON about the shows, and other things, in this exclusive TV WORTH WATCHING INTERVIEW.
Reader warning: In casual conversation, as on his CBS program, Ferguson is not above uttering the occasional expletive. We present an unedited version of his comments, so if you’re offended by an occasional F-bomb, stop reading now.
Still here? Good. You’ve been fucking warned. Quite literally… –DB
Q: I know you don’t normally look at your own stuff — but do you have a sense of how this is being packaged and presented?
A: This stuff I do look at, because it’s a different way of making the show. I sit in the edit pretty conscientiously, towards the end of the edit. Ian Kornbluth, who edits the shows and is one of the directors [along with Tim Mancinelli], he and I have long conversations beforehand. We’ve been working together for a long time. He did [the show’s 2011 road trip to] Paris, he did that weekend we did in Vegas, so we’ve been around the block a little. He knows what I want. And then I come in towards the end of it, and say, “Nah, it’s got to move faster, got to do this, got to do that,” that kind of thing.
Q: The sort of pace that you’re doing, piece to piece — how much of that is preordained, and how much of that is totally on the fly?
A: It’s on the fly in the sense that we don’t know where anything is going to go until we’ve shot it. We don’t say, ‘Okay, we’ll shoot this bit, we’ll shoot that bit, we’ll shoot this bit.’ We just go and shoot the shit out of it, and go home, and we try to decide what the fuck we’re going to do with it.
Q: I’ve seen only the first two shows as we’re talking…but the interview with the First Minister [of Scotland, Alex Salmond], I thought was magnificent…
Q: …And I don’t know if he was prepared for you, in terms of how serious some of your questions were going to be. But he answered them.
A: I think underestimating Alex Salmond is a mistake that no one in Britain wants to do at this point. Even his enemies, I think, are beyond the point of underestimating him. That is a very smart politician. You know who he truly reminds me of, a little bit? [Bill] Clinton. He’s got that kind of uber-charming, very clever thing going on. And, like Clinton, I don’t know if I agree with him half the time – but he’s a charming motherfucker.
Q: How did you get the sense that he was reacting to you as you were asking him about history, and about future politics?
A: I think he was honest about his opinions. You never know with politicians. That’s why I don’t talk to them that much. With any politician — and I don’t just mean it of Alex Salmond, I mean, like, any politician – I always kind of feel they’ve got their hand in my pocket somewhere. It’s kind of like talking to a magician. You’re not quite sure what the fuck is going on. But I felt he was fairly straight up. He answered anything that I asked him, which is more than you can ask for any time that you talk to these guys.
Q: From the first night, when you went in the graveyard with Mila Kunis — there, at some point, she skips while she’s going towards the monument you want to steer her toward. And you sort of scold her for skipping. And I was thinking — in most cases, I would think that was a very conscious choice to do that, but I really think that was just her being her.
A: Yeah. She was just being herself. She didn’t mean anything by it.
Q: It was such a great exchange — and then later on, when you started talking really seriously. That was one of things where I got the sense that, without the cameras, without the crew, you would have had pretty much the same conversation at that exact second.
A: Oh, no doubt. That’s why I asked Mila to come, because she’s one of the few people that have got the cojones to do that. That’s really why we ran it as an eight-minute, unedited shot — a single shot for the entire thing, which, of course, you never see on television. We ran it like that — it’s fine. The crew is getting in the way in the background, and the P.A. is running between the gravestones, and I’m like, ‘Fine. Fuck them. Leave it in.’ It looks good. People aren’t stupid. They know what that is.
Because the longer you stay on one shot, the more the honesty becomes apparent. And I think you’re right. Mila was just being herself.
Q: It actually goes back to the earliest days of live TV in the States, when everything had to be unbroken.
A: Right. I kind of like that… It’s a useful tool that shouldn’t be shied away from. I mean, film students are always fucking jerking off about the length of single-camera shots. You know, like, ‘Oh, Scorsese’s shot in Goodfellas, when they go into the restaurant,’ or ‘The beginning of Touch of Evil,’ or ‘the start of The Player!’ Yeah, right. Well, there’s an eight-minute piece of TV uninterrupted, motherfucker! (Laughs.)
It’s just a tool, though. It doesn’t make it a good or bad show. It’s just there are times when you use it, and times when not to use it — and I felt very strongly that that was a time when we should just play exactly what happened.
Q: It’s really nice to know you have a perception of the sort of guests that would react well, given that free-range-chicken approach.
A: Well, it’s like movies. It’s all in the casting. It’s all in the casting. You get the right people, you have nothing to worry about. And that’s really what it is. Castaway with Pauly Shore? Not as good a movie.
Q: Come on. That’s like a Mad Lib. Anything with Pauly Shore…
A: I don’t know. I think Cast Away with Pauly Shore is Bio-Dome. But that’s really what it is. It’s about the casting. And I have no objection to famous people, but people you meet on the way, you have to get a sense of who’s going to work. You haven’t seen it yet — or maybe you did see it. Did it play last night, the guy who owns the smoked fish place?
Q: Yeah. That played Tuesday night. [It was a piece on “Smokies,” the smoked-haddock delicacy from Arbroath, in which Ferguson, just before interviewing the proprietor, Bill, uses one of his patented Late Late Show deadpan joke constructions and advises viewers, “You should never confuse a Smokie with a Snooki. One is a fishy little thing that always smells of smoke. The other one’s a Smokie.”] That was wonderful!
A: Right. He’s terrific. So, I mean, even though you can’t understand what he’s saying, it doesn’t matter. Amelie was subtitled. It’s still a beautiful fucking movie for Americans. That’s what it is. You just get people that have that thing, whether they’re famous or not.
Q: It’s the eclectic part of it that is so charming. Your tastes come out through that as well. I don’t know many other people who would have asked, much less gotten, David Sedaris.
A: (Laughs.) Yeah. Sedaris is a bona fide stroke of genius. If you can get him, you should. He is a postmodern Mark Twain. I mean, that guy’s fucking sensational. Maybe Mark Twain isn’t good enough. Maybe he’s a postmodern fucking Descarte…
Q: There’s nobody better than Mark Twain, if you’re talking to me.
A: Right. Well, there you are then. He’s a postmodern Mark Twain. How I feel him — he’s a wonderful, weird, absolutely no-doubt-about-it American mind.
Q: And the ‘Crumpets’ conversation that we’ve already seen on Monday, with the colostomy bags… (Laughs)
A: Yeah, it gets pretty fucking weird, that thing. We shot for about an hour and a half, around that dinner table. I don’t think we played one last night, but the next three shows all have ‘Evening Crumpets’ in them, and they’re all a bit nutty.
Q: When you talk about the freedom of doing things and doing them with the right people, just talk a little bit about how Josh Robert Thompson [who operates, and provides the voice of, robot skeleton sidekick ‘Geoff Peterson’] has blossomed as your actual, honest-to-God sidekick now.
A: I think Josh reacted the same way to creative freedom and support as I did. It’s like, he was tentative at first, he couldn’t quite believe he was getting away with it. And the more he gets away with it, the better he gets. That guy’s as good a sidekick as anyone who ever did that job. In fact, I’d go as far as to say better — because he’s working a fucking robot puppet at the same time. You know? So he’s about as good as anyone I’ve ever seen in that position. Like anyone.
Q: The Equus joke from a few weeks ago [too convoluted to explain here, though it involved the Dos Equis spokesman, an encore by Late Late Show dancing mascot Secretariat, and a Dos Equus ad lib] still has me spinning.
A: (Laughs.) Yeah, he’s a pretty smart motherfucker.
Q: With as many years as you’ve been doing this show now, I imagine, if you look back and guessed then what you would have accomplished now, that you would have guessed that you’d be doing a little bit more screenwriting and acting. But on the other hand, you have a bestselling book, you’ve done all this other stuff, you did the Presidential thing [hosting the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2008]. How do you gauge your own voyage since you started your talk show?
Oh, man. It’s funny. I gauge it not through career accomplishments — because after a certain point, it’s a little bit like personal wealth. Beyond a certain point, it doesn’t do much for you, other than you get some things that you kind of always wanted. And that’s great, and I’m not negating that. But really, I gauge personal happiness, really, from my personal
life. From my wife, and my kids…
I now understand that I would do this anyway. And what I mean by that is, a couple of years ago — actually, a little more than that, about eight years ago, maybe more than that – I was working on a screenplay with Mick Jagger. So I toured around a bit with the Rolling Stones. And I got a very strong sense, when I was doing that and when I met Keith Richards, that Keith would be just as happy playing with a shitty band in Eelpie Island as playing with the Rolling Stones at the fucking megacenters. It’s just what he does. And I think I understand this is what I do. And If I wasn’t doing it on CBS in late night, I guess I’d be doing it on the radio, or on another TV show… This is what I do. And that, I think — there’s a measure of contentment that comes with that. I’m doing what I should be doing. I understand that.
Q: Follow-up question: What was the screenplay project that you were working on with Jagger?
A: Oh, God. It was years ago, and it went into development hell. It was with Paramount. (Thinks a moment.) Oh — it was called Swap. It was actually from your buddy Mark Twain: It was a reworking of The Prince and the Pauper. It was the story of a rock star and a roadie that changed places. It was never made — we wrote about two or three scripts, and then it went the way of most movies, which is, ‘Ah, fuck it!’ And then we moved on.
Q: And was Jagger intended to star in it, or just to write it with you?
A: I think he was going to be starring in it. I think that was the idea…
Q: You’ve said, both nights so far on the Scotland telecast, that the place was brighter and nicer than you remembered. Does that carry through to the rest of the shows, and once you’ve left and come back?
A: Yes. Very definitely. That was my overriding sensation of the entire voyage. I think the truth is, I didn’t feel threatened any more. I think that probably allowed me to see the country as it is. It’s a beautiful country, and it has the most interesting and wonderful and strange and odd history.
It’s a little bit like, you know, if you live in New York, you never go up the Empire State Building. But you’re away from New York for 20 years, you go back, you go up the Empire State Building and say, “Fuck, why didn’t I ever go up here? It’s great!” It’s that kind of a sensation, a little bit. I think I kind of took the country a little bit for granted when I was there, and when I was back, I didn’t so much…
Q: And did you allow yourself a little sense of pride, with some of the things you were able to do, and some of the people you were able to do them with? Interviewing the First Minister, for example?
A: I don’t know. I mean, I’ve met a lot of powerful and famous people.
Q: But is it different doing it at Arbroath? That’s what I’m wondering.
A: Maybe a little. It doesn’t really work like that for me. I don’t seem to get the sense of things like that when I’m in those moments. Because when you’re in that moment, you’re in that moment: I’m talking to this guy about this subject, therefore, that’s what I’m doing, I’m not doing anything else. I’m not thinking, ‘Oooh, he’s powerful,’ or ‘Wow, what’s the history of this place?’ I’m thinking, ‘All right, tell me about this, tell me about that.’ I’m having a conversation with someone. I think sometimes later on – usually at the edit, or something like that — you think, Wow, look at that. That’s usually when you have time to reflect on it. But in the moment, not really.
The last time I really felt that happening was at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, when President George W. Bush made a joke about a punk band I was in, called the Bastards from Hell. He said it was also the same name of Dick Cheney’s band — which I thought was a great joke. And, in that moment, I went, ‘Wow. The President of the United States just made a fucking joke about a band I was in, and referenced the Vice President of the United States. Now that really is fucking something.’ It’s rare, though, that you get to experience these moments inside those moments. It’s usually afterward…
Q: Let me end the interview by telling you: One thing you may take for granted that I don’t, and I really appreciate in these sorts of settings, it’s really amazing that you’re doing what you’re doing, off the cuff, and doing it so well. That these extended interviews, where you’re like riding a bronco and deciding where it’s going to end up — the control that you have, and the fact that you so often find something wonderful and know when to stop all at the same time, it’s very impressive.
A: Yeah, I think you learn that from a couple of failed marriages — knowing when to shut the fuck up.
Q: But there are a lot of people in Hollywood who have been through multiple marriages who can’t do this sort of stuff, so there’s got to be something else.
A: I know that. (Laughs.)
I think that I had a very lucky thing happen, in that I fell into a position where I was guarded creatively by happenstance, because of [CBS executives] Les Moonves and Nina Tassler and [Ferguson’s Worldwide Pants boss] David Letterman all being in the same place at the same time. That kind of freedom, when you’re thrown in with people with tat kind of power – if you combine that with the influence of [Late Late Show executive producer Peter] Lassally, that’s a very unusual happenstance. And I think that’s where I got really lucky. Every one of them said, ‘Make mistakes. Make mistakes. Make mistakes. It’s okay.’ And if you combine that with the drive and the determination and the Machiavellian kind of stealth of buddy Michael [Naidus, the Late Late Show producer], that kind of puts me in a position where I really can be free to do what I want to do, and relax doing it.
So even though you say, and very kindly, that I do this, I don’t really see it that way. I see it more as, I reap the benefits of an extremely fortuitous change of events.
The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson in Scotland continues Thursday and Friday nights at 12:37 a.m. ET on CBS.