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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Ferguson a standout late-night standup
Craig Ferguson takes his cues from himself in his freewheeling and excellent CBS show.
By Eric Deggans, Times TV/media critic
Published August 16, 2007
The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson Airs at 12:35 a.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays on WTSP-Ch. 10.
LOS ANGELES - In person, the 10 coolest minutes on network television unfold as always: a cramped stage, frenzied cheers and, at the center, Craig Ferguson.
Watch him during a recent taping, and you see a freewheeling comic completely in his element. Suavely assuring the crowd "your phony enthusiasm feels almost real," Ferguson's Scottish burr powers a cheeky, stream-of-consciousness monologue filled with funky touchstones.
First, he notes Nicolas Cage has written a comic book punch line: "Who's going to read it to him?" Next, he uncorks a picture of now-paunchy former Batman star Val Kilmer ("Batman, meet your ultimate enemy: the sit-up!"). Moments later, he's in a bad wig offering a spot-on impression of Michael Caine auditioning for the lead role in Batman Begins, cigarette and cocktail in hand.
This is the heart of the quirky success of CBS's Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson: a sprawling dialogue with the audience that shows off the host's kinetic wit, expansive life and fearless attitude.
Hours before, stretched out on a massive couch filling his cramped office, Ferguson revealed how he hit on his winning formula.
"My predecessor . . . would have a bunch, maybe five or 10 jokes, written down for him, and he would read the joke from the cue card, get the laugh and read the next joke," he said, speaking about Craig Kilborn, the former Daily Show anchor who hosted The Late Late Show from 1999 until 2004.
"I absolutely came in and started doing the same thing . . . but I would talk a little bit before I started reading the next joke," Ferguson said. "Far and away, the most successful material was the stuff in-between. Right about two months into the gig, I said 'Let's not write any more jokes.' "
That decision birthed a display unlike any other on late-night TV.
Whatever is on his mind
Most nights, he introduces himself as "TV's Craig Ferguson," and pronounces it a "great day for America." After that, no one knows what might come next - not even the host himself.
When Ferguson's father died, the monologue became a dissertation on their difficult relationship. Any night can bring self-deprecating references to the 45-year-old's two failed marriages, his young son or his lifelong struggle with alcoholism.
Britney Spears' head-shaving, tattoo-applying February meltdown sparked a pledge from the host - himself celebrating 15 years sober - to ease up on celebrity addicts hitting bottom.
To be sure, there have been Spears and Lindsay Lohan jokes since that day. But, in a business where hosts seem to relish delivering nasty comments, Ferguson treads a thin line between poking fun and drawing blood.
"We on this show should not be making fun of these people who are clearly in agony," said the host, still a little bewildered by a July 26 statement from Lohan's mother, Dina, praising him and criticizing Tonight Show host Jay Leno. "There's a difference between a mother of two young children shaving her head . . . an act of self-mutilation . . . and then a 21-year-old actress with no real responsibilities getting caught in a DUI."
Clearly, the industry is watching. Last year, Ferguson earned an Emmy nomination - which became a well-worn gag when he lost to Barry Manilow - and stars such as Rescue Me creator Denis Leary admit recording the show just to watch his opening patter.
Let others trade gossip on whether Saturday Night Live alum Jimmy Fallon will get Conan O'Brien's 12:30 a.m. gig (Conan's scheduled to take the 11:30 p.m. slot when Leno retires in 2009.) Ferguson is quietly setting his own standard, building a loyal audience along the way.
His big break
Drew Carey, who gave Ferguson his big American TV break playing boss Nigel Wick on Carey's self-titled ABC sitcom, said, "If anybody needed a show named after him, it was Craig Ferguson."
On Carey's show, Wick usually had only a few lines in a couple of scenes. So Ferguson passed the time writing the movies The Big Tease, Saving Grace and I'll Be There (which he also directed and starred in), eventually earning more cash as a screenwriter than an actor.
"Sitting in his trailer instead of watching TV and goofing off, he'd be up there writing away," Carey said. "I never knew you could make that much money doing (little) movies."
Ferguson had a different explanation for his wide-ranging showbiz pedigree, which includes stints as a drummer in various punk bands, a stand-up comedy career under the stage name Bing Hitler and publication of his 2006 novel, Between the Bridge and the River.
"I'm kind of a 19th century throwback, you know," he said. "I'm an immigrant and I have this kind of immigrant mentality about the new country and opportunity and work and maybe it's a little too much sometimes."
Uneasy with fame
The only time Ferguson nearly lost his audience's devotion: when he went along with a test to divide his precious monologue with a commercial break, helping the program's ratings but incensing longtime fans.
"We lasted four days. . . . The reaction was resounding," said Ferguson, who saw e-mails and telephone calls pile up the morning after the experiment started. "When people get p---- at something I say, I pay very little attention to that because, you know, you can't do a show like this every night and not offend somebody. But with something like a format change, I think that belongs as much to the audience as it does to me."
During a recent visit, the taping started with a performance by the musical guest, grownup teen idols Hanson. Because Ferguson's studio space is so tight, only the band could fit onstage, with Ferguson's desk pushed to the side.
Later, he recorded a skit playing U2 singer Bono, taped an interview with Desperate Housewives' James Denton and updated his latest effort to obtain honorary citizenship from all 50 states. Through it all, Ferguson's pleasure at leading the proceedings was nearly palpable.
Which makes another admission so surprising: that he may leave the show at the end of his six-year contract.
Turns out, the Glasgow-born entertainer has figured out one thing he doesn't like about his job. He can't stand being famous.
"I just don't know if I like being that visible," he said. "I don't know if I would want to ramp that up any more, you know. And people here find that, I think, quite difficult to (understand)."
His unique appeal
Lifting the sleeve of his blue soccer shirt, Ferguson proudly shows off the result of particularly festive night in Miami: a tattoo of his family crest containing the Latin phrase Dulcius ex aspirus, or "sweeter after difficulty." Rattling off the names of his favorite haunts in Delray Beach, he wondered aloud about a post-Late Late Show life spent crafting standup routines and books from a seaside bungalow somewhere in the Sunshine State.
He hopes to earn citizenship by the year's end, but still is not quite willing to see himself as a major TV star - which may be why viewers like him so much.
Ferguson sums it up with a story about legendary late-night producer Peter Lassally (Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, Late Night With David Letterman), who picked him for The Late Late Show.
"Peter told me, 'I have very few discernable talents, but one of them is being able to spot guys like you . . . and if I'm right, you're lightning in a f------ bottle,' " Ferguson said.
"I think (he) saw something in me that I didn't see myself. And now I almost believe it, too."