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
Tuesday 29 April 2008
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.
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