Craig Ferguson: The Scot who conquered America

Craig Ferguson has been quietly establishing a reputation in the US for 14 years. Then he took centre stage – in front of George Bush and the toughest audience of all

Craig Ferguson has made something of an art of lowering expectations about himself and then sneaking up on his audiences, almost unawares, and worming his way into their heart. He's been unknown for so long – or, rather, out on the very margins of show business celebrity – that his obscurity has, in some ways, turned into his greatest asset.

Who am I talking about? The need to ask the question addresses the point all by itself. Ferguson is a 45-year-old Scottish-born comedian, screenwriter, author, actor, reformed alcoholic and all-round bundle of creative energy who barely took the time to raise his profile in Britain before heading to the other side of the Atlantic 14 years ago.

For the past three years, he's been quietly establishing a reputation in the United States as the host of The Late, Late Show on CBS, the comedy chat show that follows on directly from David Letterman and attracts a fanbase of insomniacs, college students and returning party-goers who turn on the telly to try to sober up before they go to bed.

His fans love him, but don't talk about him much. When it emerged a few days ago that his show had started winning the ratings battle against the direct competition – Conan O'Brien's late-night programme on NBC, it surprised just about everyone except the 1.8 million or so viewers who tune in to him regularly.

Now his obscurity may be fading for good, thanks to his appearance at the weekend as the top-line entertainment at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner. This is a notoriously hard gig for any comedian. It's not easy to be funny when George Bush is sitting just two seats away, and Dick Cheney locks his beady eyes on you.

It's not easy to decide whether to be cutting or sycophantic, ultra-political or harmless, aggressive or sweet. Worst of all, it's a lousy crowd – journalists, political operatives, ambassadors and Washington officials – all of whom take themselves ridiculously seriously and have both high expectations and a low threshold of tolerance for any perception that the comedic jabs are directed at them.



Watch Craig Ferguson's full speech



Two years ago, the satirical comedian Stephen Colbert demonstrated perhaps the greatest courage of any White House dinner speaker, subtly and hilariously ripping the heart out of the Bush administration, and the US press corps which has failed so dramatically to hold him to account. Colbert's performance achieved instant classic status thanks to its ready accessibility on YouTube, but it also went down like a ton of bricks in the room itself. The screenwriter and director Nora Ephron remarked at the time that Colbert had shown it was possible for a comedian to kill and bomb at the same time.

Adding to the challenge facing Ferguson was the fact that this was George Bush's swansong as president. Do you really kick a man when he's on his way out the door? And, if not, what do you do?

Ferguson's answer was to take refuge in his single favourite comic shelter – extreme self-deprecation. "I can't tell you how excited I am to be here," he started out. "I realise many of you may not share that excitement given that you have no idea who I am."

He then explained, patiently, that his show went out well after midnight on CBS. He was, he said, "all they could afford after they finished Katie Couric" – the super-expensive newsreader whose efforts to revive the CBS evening news have been an embarrassing flop. He then remarked that the crowd at the dinner was so notoriously tough no American comic wanted the job. "Just another case of immigrants taking jobs that Americans don't want," he deadpanned.

In just the first couple of minutes, he had asserted his unassuming charm and, for the most part, won the room over. After that, he had much freer rein – cracking jokes about Los Angeles and the Democratic presidential nominees, excoriating the pomposity of the New York Times, which decided not to buy a table at the dinner this year on the grounds that the event undermined the credibility of the press, and making fun of Donald Rumsfeld, the former, largely unlamented Secretary of Defence and chief architect of the disastrous Iraq war effort.

Not everyone loved his performance – it was, to reiterate, a tough crowd. Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post took him to task because he wasn't more acerbic about the powerful men and women he was addressing, and interpreted his self-deprecation as a form of advance apology for chickening out. (Two years ago, incidentally, the Washington Post took Stephen Colbert to task for the exact opposite, saying he had essentially violated the unwritten rules of etiquette with his withering take on Bush et al.)

The New York Times has been silent as the grave, following his line that the paper was full of "sanctimonious, whining jerks". The Jayson Blair and Judith Miller scandals – both instances of the Times failing spectacularly in its basic public duties, as the paper itself has acknowledged – did far more to undermine the credibility of the press, Ferguson suggested, than anything that could possibly happen at the White House Correspondents' Dinner.

For the most part, though, the reviews have been good. The Baltimore Sun said he had proved to be "the Goldilocks comedian, not too hot, not too cold. He seemed just right."

If nothing else, Ferguson has now passed that threshold so memorably established by Oscar Wilde: he is now someone who is talked about, which has to be better than someone who is not talked about. His days of taking people by surprise with his relaxed delivery, effortless humour and occasional outburst of Scottish spikiness may now be over.

To his quiet fanbase, this comes as little surprise. I first encountered Ferguson two years ago, at a book reading for his debut novel – a crazed, undefinable fantasy ride called Between the Bridge and the River.

The book, which I read with much greater enjoyment than I was expecting, was a comic meditation on religion, sex and death, presented as a rollicking head trip in which characters have psychotherapy sessions with Carl Jung in their dreams, ping in and out of the First World War, embark on love affairs with fatally beautiful women and provide a hilarious running commentary on the minutiae of what they are watching on television. More surprising than the book, though, was the gaggle of fans who turned out to hear him at a well-known independent bookstore in West Hollywood. Many of them were women who plainly had some sort of crush on him. They laughed at every joke, wildly applauded the extracts he read and (this being Hollywood) bombarded him with questions about how he secured his publishing deal.

It is remarkable how well his self-deprecation goes down, in a country where received wisdom would advise against any such thing, for comedians or anybody else. That West Hollywood crowd got a huge kick out of him describing himself as a "vulgar lounge entertainer", just as the White House seemed to relish his calculated modesty in passing himself off as some "late-night television guy" who wasn't going to presume to know anything about politics or offer his insignificant opinions.

Ferguson is a Glaswegian who got his start in showbusiness as a member of an obscure (and, he says, very bad) punk band called The Bastards From Hell. From there, he launched himself on the British comedy circuit under the outrageous stage name Bing Hitler, providing support to bigger-name acts including Harry Enfield of Loadsamoney fame. He went down a treat at the Edinburgh Festival, and some sort of viable career beckoned with appearances on Red Dwarf, STV's Hogmanay Show and a variety of now-forgotten television ventures.

His big break turned out to be nothing but. A show of his own, called The Ferguson Theory, bombed badly, and he scampered away to America to see if he could try his luck more successfully there.

It took him 10 years, but he managed it. He landed a regular part on the amiable sitcom The Drew Carey Show, which introduced him to a wide audience and also, perhaps more importantly, provided an entrée to the show business world more generally. He wrote several screenplays, some of which – most memorably, the Brenda Blethyn cannabis comedy Saving Grace – made it into production.

Then came the invitation to do his late-night show. Almost immediately, he won points for bravery, because he kept his opening monologues largely improvised – a very tough trick to pull off night after night, but one rewarded by a far greater feeling of spontaneity than the slickly scripted one-liners dished out by Jay Leno or David Letterman.

He's proved he's unafraid to get personal, sometimes very personal. After his father died in early 2006, he turned an entire episode into a eulogy, sharing his grief with public figures who had themselves been recently bereaved. His heart-on-sleeve approach helped earn him an Emmy nomination that year.

A year later, he used his experiences as a former alcoholic to rip into the negative press coverage of Britney Spears, expressing great sympathy for whatever psychological or substance-abuse problems she might have been dealing with. That stance earned him a spot on the national television news.

Part of what makes Ferguson so appealing is that he is clearly a man of many demons, who channels them into his surprisingly amiable comedy. As he has recounted, his drinking made him so depressed (or perhaps it was the other way around) that he seriously considered throwing himself off Tower Bridge on Christmas Day in 1991. The only reason he didn't do it is that he got drunk again and forgot about his plan.

He hasn't touched a drop since 1992, as a direct result of that experience. In a country with a recovering alcoholic for a president – Bush went sober in the mid-1980s – that on its own can only garner him sympathy, support and the promise of a bright, bright future.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher We have a fantastic special n...

Tradewind Recruitment: History Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an 11-18 all ability co-educat...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Recruitment Genius: Transport Administrator / Planner

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee