an interview with Craig Ferguson on his standup tour (3 NYC shows this weekend), new ABC comedy pilot and more
interview by Jonathan Dick
After a decade of providing an alternate and award-winning perspective on the late night show's formula of acerbic wit, topical humor, and the blessedly obligatory absurdist tendencies, Craig Ferguson stepped down last year as the host of The Late Late Show. An immediate anomaly amongst his contemporaries, Ferguson's role as host was defined by a narrative that was as unabashedly honest as it was hilarious. The Scotland native took a different approach to what's often a pessimistic, self-loathing MO for the late night context, choosing instead to disarm otherwise gut wrenching realities by telling stories both from his own personal life as well as those from multiple lives ranging from the famous to the infamous to the wonderfully normal. Since leaving The Late Late Show, Ferguson has signed on to star as an agoraphobe who leaves his apartment for the first time in 11 years in a pilot for ABC, The King of 7B.
In the meantime, the quick-witted and incredibly charming comedian who made his start in standup is currently on the road with his Hot and Grumpy Tour: Walking the Earth tour, which includes three shows at Town Hall, starting tonight (3/6). He was originally supposed to play last night (Thursday, 3/5) but that show was moved to Saturday (3/7) at 10 PM. There's a 7 PM show on Saturday, too, and tickets to all three are still avaialable. Some other dates on his tour have been rescheduled due to The King of 7B, and all are listed below.
Ahead of these shows, we talked to Ferguson about the tour, the new pilot, his time working as a bouncer at legendary East Village club Save the Robots, and more.
I wanted to ask you about the new show you've got lined up, The King of 7B. Going from something that's seemingly a bit looser like The Late Late Show to something that's a bit more scripted and focused like a television series, was there a bit of a challenge for you with that transition or was the change fairly natural?
Strangely enough, going into the idea of a pilot - should this show be picked up because you never know with these things - but if it gets picked up and then it goes on a journey into who knows where the hell it ends up, I mean, it's scripted but then an open-ended story, whereas late night for all its freedom is not an open-ended story. You're doing a monologue, you're doing some sketches, you've got a couple of guests, and then this and that. No matter how much freedom you can create for yourself within that with your Robot Skeleton or your fake horse, it's very constricted, whereas going into a story which begins with a man who's facing a crisis and should that story be opened up and goes to series and the series goes on for a length of time, you don't know where it's gonna go. So I feel like it's more open-ended. In the construction of it, it's more scripted absolutely, but that's fine because the people who are writing it are very, very close to that script. (Laughs)
Your storytelling is familiar territory both for you and your viewers. You've made a career by simply providing a narrative of the American experience from your point of view. Is that something you feel led fairly naturally into you playing this character on the new show, Prentiss Porter.
In a way, yes. Really what it is is that Prentiss Porter is a character who I found enough allegory and identification with my own situation. This is man who's been trapped in a very comfortable but very confining situation for a long time and now has seen something that he wants outside the window and is prepared to frighten himself and take the risk of seeing what happens if he starts taking steps outside of whatever comfortable prison that he's in. So yeah, I saw parallels with my own life, and I found that very, very attractive. But, you know, what really attracted me to the project was of course the script but also the people involved in the making of it. That's a big carrot in a situation like this.
Obviously with your own background in writing, I'm curious if you had a hand in writing any of the script yourself.
No, no. Not at all. They've written this, and I am not a writer on this show at all. Howard Franklin [who wrote and directed the Bill Murray comedy Quick Change] wrote the script, and it's all Howard. You know, they'll start cutting the claws for me once we get into rehearsals. That's usually how the process works, but I can't claim any glory in the writing here.
Looking at the premise of the show, I couldn't help but see the parallel to the same kind of stories you provided audiences for ten years on The Late Late Show where you offered a perspective that was obviously funny but also rooted to some very serious aspects of the human condition and society in general. It's interesting because that kind of self-honesty is something that's sorely lacking in the American sitcom. For the most part there's not so much a narrative as there is a kind of abbreviated non sequitur glance at these characters and their lives that bear little relevance to the American story. Do you see that as well and was there a kind of deliberate attempt to avoid that sort of thing with this show in particular?
My hope is that it's exactly as you described. We haven't really begun yet, but the script does tell a story, and the idea tells a story, so my hope for the show is that that's what we embark on - that we embark on the telling of a story which is funny and engaging but tells the story of the lives of these people around Apartment 7B. It remains to be seen how it's done. We're just getting going.
Switching gears a bit, you've got the shows here in New York on your Hot and Grumpy Tour: Walking the Earth. I love the title because it's something I can relate to as I embody both things most days. You've obviously got several roles that you fill and have filled for some time, and going back to that idea of transitioning between those, is standup something you see as pretty much a separate world entirely from working in television, or are there parallels to those as well for you with both just being different pressure valves in a way?
It's a little of all of what you said. Certainly it's a pressure valve, but it's always been that way. In all the time that I was doing the late night show, I didn't stop doing standup. I would go out and do standup dates every year just to make sure that I - it's kind of like if I were a musician, and I played the piano when I was with a giant rock and roll band, I would still want to go play the piano in the honky tonks. That's kind of what I did with standup. I never left it alone. It was always a place for me to be outside the confines of broadcast television and sponsors and the FCC and "Don't say 'fuck,' and don't say anything bad about the sponsor." The realities of working inside that kind of environment, I mean, you sign up for it and so you do it, but they can be a little restrictive, and standup is entirely dependent on the First Amendment. (Laughs) You can say whatever the fuck you'd like, and that has always been my love and remains so. Standup to me is a very interesting hybrid of writing and performing because you write on stage. You write in front of the audience. You write some of the show before you go up there, but much of the show you write in that moment, in the arena with everyone else present, and I find that fucking great. That's so energizing and interesting and fun to do that. I couldn't ever not do it, so I've always done since I was in my early 20s I guess, and I've never left it for any length of time. I stopped doing it for a little bit in my 30s, and I wish I hadn't. It made me unhappy, and I'm glad that I went back to it and stayed with it.
Talking about your standup routine and your approach to comedy in general, there's not a high level of cynicism or misanthropy, which is often a standby with comedy or at least American comedy. Obviously you've got satire and there are of course darker elements to it, but overall it's very positivist in a way. I know recently there's been a bit of commentary from the standup world that the art itself is dying out and that no one really cares about it anymore or that the dynamic has simply changed to the point that it's irrelevant. What's your perspective on that given that more positive but still brutally honest approach that you have?
I think standup is only dying if it's dying for the individual who says it's dying or the individual who doesn't wanna see it. It's kind of like the executive at Decca that told Brian Epstein that "guitar bands are over," and he wasn't gonna hire the Beatles. It's like really? Shut up. It's really about "Oh, people aren't painting anymore! Everything's done on computers!" Oh shut the fuck up. It's just a medium. It does exist or it doesn't exist. It's neither here nor there. It's a way of delivering a message, standup comedy. It's an art form just like painting or playing the fucking piano or making sculptures out of Q-Tips - whatever the fuck it is you do, that's what you do. That's just how I express myself, so whether or not someone else has an opinion on the medium, it doesn't really matter to me. What I try to do with my own personal life is to try and relieve myself as much as possible of my own personality and of the kind of poisonous and toxic nature of too much cynicism and bitterness, and if that is reflected in the standup - good! That means I'm being honest with who I am. It's not a concerted effort. I don't try and make it clean so the audience is comfortable with it. I don't try and avoid using cuss words so that people who don't like cuss words can stand it. It's not for the audience. It's just to remain true to myself and that's all. Whatever aspect the standup has it should be a reflection of the person who's performing it I think.
You mentioned your personal life, and I'm obligated to ask since this is a publication based out of New York City, but you worked as a bouncer at one time at Save the Robots, correct?
(Laughs) Oh yeah, yeah. Absolutely.
(Laughs) Would you care to offer an anecdote about what was obviously a hallowed experience for you?
(Laughs) Oh man, I think "bouncer" is kind of a glamorous word. I was a snotty ass doorman. I wasn't really a bouncer, and I only did it for a couple of nights. I was too drunk and too inefficient at the job (laughs), but it's become sort of part of the legend that I was a bouncer at Save the Robots. I was there when it opened, and I was there in a semi-efficient capacity (laughs), but it was a long time ago, and I think that most of the people who were involved are dead now. So yeah, it was a different time.
I heard that space is still being rented out and by a couple of metalheads at that. So the story continues on, Craig.
(Laughs) Oh yeah, I believe that. That neighborhood has changed but not beyond recognition. It's still kind of there.
Going back to your life story, Craig, and seeing yourself as someone who was once this kid growing up in Scotland who had these dreams and aspirations, and it's something you touched on in your memoirs, but I'm curious to know how that narrative looks to you now. In many ways you've been a manifestation of the American dream, a term that today is derided or viewed negatively because of that cynicism we discussed earlier, but that's something you have a great deal of respect for. Is it something you still see having a huge impact on who you are and the attitude you take in your approach to comedy and even your personal life?
Yes. Absolutely. It's part of my life experience. It's difficult for me to be cynical about American aspiration and the American dream, if you like, when it's clearly been my story. To be cynical and bitter about it would make me a liar just to appear fashionable to those who are genuinely cynical and bitter. I'm not saying people's stories aren't different. I had an interesting conversation with Dr. Cornel West who's a fantastic and very interesting man, and he said "Black people have never had the luxury of believing in American innocence," which of course everybody's experience is different, but my experience is what it is, and I can't make it different. I can't lie about it. I don't wanna lie about it. I just tell the truth, and this is what happened to me. I just try to be honest and try to be true to myself and true to my experience and try and be honest about what I think is the right thing here or there or point out foibles comedically or otherwise that you see in the world. I just don't think you can worry too much about the clatter of the Internet or the mob or whatever we're calling it now are saying. Just do your fucking thing.
Craig Ferguson - 2015 Tour Dates
03/06/2015 - NEW YORK, NY - TOWN HALL
03/07/2015 - NEW YORK, NY 7PM - TOWN HALL
03/07/2015 - NEW YORK, NY 10PM - TOWN HALL
03/08/2015 - MORRISTOWN, NJ - MAYO CENTER
03/19/2015 - WINDSOR, ON - COLOSSEUM AT CAESARS WINDSOR
05/23/2015 - LAS VEGAS, NV - CHELSEA THEATRE
05/28/2015 - JOLIET, IL - RIALTO SQUARE THEATRE
05/29/2015 - MERRILLVILLE, IN - STAR PLAZA THEATRE
05/30/2015 - MILWAUKEE, WI - RIVERSIDE THEATRE
05/31/2015 - WAUKEGAN, IL - GENESEE THEATRE
06/04/2015 - INDIANAPOLIS, IN - EGYPTIAN ROOM
06/05/2015 - NASHVILLE, TN - SCHERMERHORN SYMPHONY CENTER
09/19/2015 - PHILADELPHIA, PA - MERRIAM THEATRE