"I hate when I feel manipulated by any artist or film maker or writer or musician. Anything. Do your own stuff and let others appreciate it, or not appreciate it. Let people make up their own mind. Because to try to please everybody in a certain demographic is just hateful."
– Craig Ferguson
Guy MacPherson: Is this TV's Craig Ferguson?
Craig Ferguson: Is this Guy MacPherson? That's a lovely Jewish name.
GM: How are you?
CF: I'm good, my friend. How are you?
GM: Excellent. I'm half-French, half-Scottish. So it's Ghee.
CF: Ghee MacPherson. Well, of course, that makes perfect sense.
GM: But I say Guy because Ghee and MacPherson don't go together.
CF: Right, yeah.
GM: And I don't speak French.
CF: (laughs) Then it's going to leave you looking kinda awkward when you say, "Je m'appelle Ghee. That's all I got."
GM: And that's all I got. That's right. I appreciate you taking the time.
CF: I'm sorry I'm a bit late. I got held up in a meeting.
GM: That's all right. You've got to be one of the busiest guys in show biz.
CF: You think?
GM: All this stuff you've got going on. You're a regular Steve Allen of the new millennium.
CF: (laughs) Oh, God. I fucking hope not. Yeah, I'm kinda busy. I kinda try to keep myself, you know, busy.
GM: Steve Allen wrote books, he was a musician...
CF: No, actually I say that just because, God, am I kind of doing that much? Am I working that hard? Steve Allen, I don't know much. I mean, he created the Tonight Show, though, didn't he?
GM: That's right. Talk show host, standup, musician – he wrote thousands of songs – he wrote novels and books. Just like you.
CF: Yeah, well, I hope so. We shall see.
GM: Are you that driven?
CF: No. Actually not. I don't know what it is. I mean, the standup I do because I love doing it. It's fun. The novel that I wrote [Between the Bridge and the River, Chronicle Books, 2006] was something that I worked on really before I started doing this show. I wrote most of it before I started here. It comes out anyway. I mean, if I wasn't doing this show I'd be writing another novel, I'm sure. You know what I mean? It's something that you do because you can't not do it. It's the reason why anyone should be in show business, by the way. You shouldn't be in show business unless you think, "I can't not be in show business."
GM: That sounds driven to me.
CF: I suppose so.
GM: It's something that's in you that's gotta come out.
CF: I suppose I'm looking at the word 'driven' as meaning the word 'ambitious', and I don't know if I'm that ambitious. But driven, yes. Yeah, in a way because I think that ambition would be like... Actually, you know what? I was talking to someone the other day who asked me if I had my eyes on the 11:30 slot at any point. And I actually don't. You know what I mean? I like the slot that I'm in. I'm fine here. I can do what I want here. I like coming after David Letterman and all of that stuff. But driven is probably slightly different from ambitious.
GM: But if Letterman were to leave, you wouldn't want to see someone else step in instead of you.
CF: It depends. I don't know. I would quite happily see Jon Stewart in there I think. So I'm not... There's not a career plan. Maybe that's what it is.
GM: And there never has been?
CF: Never has been.
GM: Then you're just the luckiest guy in show business. Or most talented, I guess. You get all these breaks.
CF: I work hard at what I do when I'm doing it. But I don't do it with an eye to what I'm going to do after that.
GM: Back in your punk rock days, what kind of future did you see for yourself?
CF: You know, the Sex Pistols in those days used to have a song called No Future. I think that's what we all thought. I didn't really think about it. I suppose I thought I would die of some drug-related death in my mid- to late-20s. And the fact that I didn't I suppose is lucky for me.
GM: Very lucky. Although maybe you would have been more famous.
CF: No, I don't think so (laughs). It would just be an anonymous drug-related death.
GM: Were you in any groups we would know?
CF: No, not at all. Not at all. We were all hideously unsuccessful.
GM: What were some of the names of the groups?
CF: Uh, I was in the Bastards from Hell, the Dreamboys, the Recognitions, James King and the Lone Wolves. I always had a problem with this band, the Lone Wolves, because I thought if it's the Lone Wolves how come there's four of us in the band? But that logic didn't seem to bother anyone else in the band. I felt that it was wrong.
GM: It's punk rock! Anything goes.
GM: Did you have a name, like Sid Vicious or Joey Shithead?
CF: No, no, no.
GM: Were you just Craig Ferguson?
CF: I was just Craig Ferguson.
GM: Not TV's Craig Ferguson.
CF: No (laughs). That's my punk rock name, TV's Craig Ferguson.
GM: You went from punker to standup comic?
CF: Yeah, I guess so. Yeah, I did. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GM: That doesn't make sense.
CF: Oh yeah, it does. I mean, in Britain at the time there was a lot of alternative comedy going on. And actually one of the coolest things to do was to be in this alternative comedy circuit. There was a huge wave of standup that went through Britain in the late '70s, early '80s. A bunch of us actually went to Montreal. Canada was one of the places outside of Britain that would recognize it.
GM: The Just For Laughs festival you're talking about.
CF: Yeah. In fact, I'm going back there this year. Although it sounds now like an odd progression, actually then it made sense because it was the same people hanging out in the same nightclubs. Everyone was kind of in the same big drunken mosh pit.
GM: So you went to Montreal. Did something come of that to make you say you're going to move to Los Angeles?
CF: What happened was, because I did Montreal and I did standup at Juste Pour Rire there, I got invited to America to do a pilot in '88 or '89, or something like that. And I did this pilot with Zach Braff and Gwyneth Paltrow, funnily enough. And it didn't get picked up. So I went back to Britain and they went back to what they did, which I think for Zach, he was still at school. And then what I did was I did standup and acting and I tended bar between gigs over there. And then eventually I came back here in '95 to look for work. And finally got it.
GM: So you weren't coming over with anything.
CF: No, I didn't have a damn thing.
GM: And you say look for work. That was in show business, clearly.
GM: You weren't looking for bartending work.
CF: No (laughs), no. I didn't have a visa for bartending work. I was only allowed to work in show business.
GM: Was it acting work or standup?
CF: Yeah, when I came over I did a sitcom with Betty White and Marie Osmond.
GM: Sounds great.
CF: It was dreadful. Although I made friends with Betty White and I'm still friends with her today. I love Betty White. And from that I got a job on The Drew Carey Show. And that's what kept me in America.
GM: What kind of comedian were-slash-are you? Were you that much different than you are now when you do standup?
CF: No, I don't think so. I was a lot drunker than I am now.
GM: That equals funny.
CF: Er, I don't know if that's true.
GM: For the audience, maybe.
CF: I don't know if that's true for the audience. No, no, no, no. A lot of drunk people think they're a lot funnier than they are.
GM: That's true, yeah.
CF: No, I was probably much the same. I was kind of heading towards what I do now. The monologue thing that I do at the start of the show is really what my standup is like, except it's a bit ruder. Basically, I don't know what's going to happen. I don't have an act scripted out. I have a bunch of bullet points that I work from and it'll be different on any given night.
GM: How often do you perform now, other than your monologue which is essentially what you do, only cleaned up?
CF: The monologue is brand new every day. And standup I probably do maybe four gigs a month or something like that.
GM: Did you follow standup growing up? Or was it just because you and your buddies were in that scene?
CF: It was partly because of that scene and partly because of Billy Connolly, who was a great hero of mine when I was a child. Because he was essentially from the same background so I was fascinated that someone that sounded like one of us was in show business. Billy was kind of like Elvis to me. Billy kind of created this whole new idea that Scottish working class people could be in show business.
GM: You do Sean Connery on your show; do you ever do Billy Connolly?
CF: (doing Connolly) "A wee bit of farty poo jobby, you know?" I actually haven't done Billy. It's funny. In America he's not as recognizable as he is in Canada or in the UK.
GM: Your monologues on the show have really evolved because when I first started watching it was more or less like the other talk shows, wasn't it?
CF: Yeah, it was bog-standard bullshit, reading gags from a teleprompter. But I get really bored with that. And I hated doing it.
GM: So you went to the producers and said you want to change it?
CF: Yeah. I went to the producer, Peter Lassally, and I said, "I gotta stop doing this." And he said, "I've been waiting for this. Okay, good."
GM: Really? So there wasn't a fight or anything?
CF: Not at all. No, the only fight I've ever had with Peter is he wants me to wear a tie and I don't want to wear a tie. He still wants me to wear a tie and I still won't wear one.
GM: So you won.
CF: Uh, so far.
GM: There's no point. You look relaxed.
CF: I am relaxed. It is the most relaxing out of the day, actually.
GM: What about writing this monologue? Is there a lot of pressure every day to come up with something new?
CF: That's the meeting I've just come from. Yeah, there's a horrible amount of pressure every day to do it. It kind of hangs over you every day. But at the same time it's the challenge of every day. I mean, it's a real thrill when it's right. When it doesn't quite come off, I think it's still good to do because at least we had a crack at it (laughs), you know what I mean? When it doesn't quite work, it's one of those rare things in American television that you can actually see someone fall flat on their ass. And it's not edited out. I think you take all the fun out of stuff when you don't see things fall on their ass. Johnny [Carson] never cut out stuff that didn't work. He would do it.
GM: It almost seemed like he would purposely put in stuff that didn't work.
CF: Peter Lassally, my producer, was with Johnny for 30 years. And I asked him if Johnny put stuff that wouldn't work, because I thought the same, and he said, "No, he never, ever did." It was always (laughs) just annoying... Not annoying, but he just turned a sow's ear into a silk purse.
GM: And it humanizes the host, too.
CF: I think so. I think it allows... I don't need people to think that everything that comes out of my mouth is the funniest thing that's ever been said by a bunch of crack writers in Hollywood. There's a kind of distance that that creates between the host and the audience, which I don't think you really need.
GM: And you're charming enough to get away with it and quick enough on your feet to come up with something if you do tank.
CF: You have to be. That's the one thing. You better be fast. Because if something dies, you better cop to it and think of something quickly.
GM: How much of it is spontaneous?
CF: It changes from night to night. Some nights 90 percent; some nights, you know, 40 percent.
GM: So it's up to you? When you're in the moment you can decide to go off-book?
CF: It's done absolutely as-live. I go out, I do it once, we never do retakes on it, we never stomp down on it. We go with what we get. That's it. It's an unusual thing. There's not a lot of people doing it right now. You know what? It's kind of like a radio show, I think, in a way. We just go out and do it. A lot of people in the mornings are doing that. These zoo radio shows.
GM: Oh, please don't compare yourself to a morning zoo.
CF: Well, I'm not. Some are good, some are not good. But there are people who go on and talk for a long time. And some of them are really good.
GM: Except that they have wacky sound effects.
CF: Well, I have the whip crack thing.
GM: How different is your monologue from what we'll see here?
CF: It's a little more R-rated and also it's a lot looser because I can follow a train of thought and not worry about the time it's taking. So if I start talking about, you know, marine biology in the 1970s and I feel that it's funny and the audience thinks it's funny, I'll talk about it for ten minutes and then go back to what I was originally talking about. You can't really do that on the air because there's commercials and timing. I get basically 11-and-a-half, 12-and-a-half minutes at the start of the show to go anywhere I want. It takes about 11-and-a-half or 12 minutes to get warmed up doing standup, you know what I mean? So it's more R-rated for sure, but then it's also freer in a kind of creative way, I think.
GM: Most American talk show hosts are from the midwest.
GM: Did you ever think that your accent or nationality would hold you back?
CF: Not for one second did it bother me. I'm the only one that it didn't bother, but then again it's my accent and my nationality. It never bothered me. And also I was coming into the job at a time when the governor of California, the state in which I make this show, has an accent thicker than pea soup. So that didn't really bother me.
GM: Not so much after you got it, but before. Were you thinking, "Ah, I'll never get a show like this"?
CF: Oh, yeah. I did before it. Yes, absolutely. I thought they'll never give it to me because of that. Afterwards, though, I thought, no, fuck it, I'm in.
GM: Do you ever get any mail from people saying, "What is this guy doing?" because of your nationality?
CF: No, not anymore. I've been here for a while. I think the first couple of months there was stuff come in, but the proof is in the ratings.
GM: What are the ratings like?
CF: We break records every week on this thing.
GM: Really? Are you beating Conan [O'Brien]?
CF: We are bumping up against him Monday nights and Thursday nights. This is the highest ratings this time slot's ever had for CBS. I mean, Conan's a great show and he's been doing it for a long time, and I'm not saying that we're there, but compared to what this show has ever done, yeah, it's better than it's ever been.
GM: It's funny, talking about the accents, but Canadian entertainers are always told to lose their accents lest anyone find out their horrible secret.
CF: Hey, listen, there's plenty of people who told me to lose it. But they were wrong.
GM: People are smarter than that.
CF: Yeah. It's okay. I mean, people can handle it. The idea that America or even Canada has all one accent and everybody has it is just complete nonsense. Sixty percent of the population of California don't even speak English as their first language. So the idea that everybody's walking around talking like Tom Brokaw is just ridiculous.
GM: You talk about how much you enjoy doing standup. It seems to be in your blood. Guys like Bob Newhart, who are eighty and with successful TV shows and don't need to do it, and Jay Leno, who doesn't need to go out and do standup, but they continue doing it. What is it about standup?
CF: It's highly addictive. It's just hard to explain. Unless you've done it, you don't really know. It's like crack. Once you do it, you can't really go back. You gotta get more. It's the most honest and immediate performance I've ever been involved with. You know right away if something's working or not working. You know right away and you're right there. Especially if you're improvising a lot, which is what I do, you're kind of all in it together. I love that feeling. A good audience will make me a better standup.
GM: And a bad audience?
CF: A bad audience will make me a different standup (chuckles). I don't know. These days a bad audience for me is an audience that's quiet, I guess. But I don't get a lot of those, knock on wood.
GM: Canadians are quieter.
CF: Well, thank you for that lovely bit of encouragement (laughs).
GM: I'm enjoying your novel.
CF: Oh good.
GM: I just got it on Wednesday, so I'm only on page 60 but I like it.
CF: Thank you.
GM: Are any of these characters loosely based on you?
CF: Yeah, all of them are.
GM: Because you said something at the beginning how the story is true even though it's filled with lies.
CF: Yeah, that's exactly how I feel about it. The essence of it, the heart of it is true, the emotions of it are true.
GM: Were you constantly writing down little phrases, turns of phrase and bits of dialogue when you were working on it? Because you have some great ones: a moustache that "advertised the color of his pubes", or "being in her company was like mainlining joy directly into his system", or smokers who congregate outside offices are "like little pockets of pickets for earlier death".
CF: When I wrote the book I was constantly writing it. I tend to binge write. I don't write for a long time and then I do nothing but write for maybe three months, and then kind of don't write anything else for a while. It's binge-y more than actual consistency. I'm not really consistent in any way. The only thing I do consistently every day I think is take care of my son and this monologue. And in that order.
GM: Were you writing this book while you were looking after your son, or did that come before? How old is your son?
CF: My son's five. Yeah, I sure was. I wrote the book for my son. In a way. The dedication at the start of the book is for him.
GM: All that cunty language for your son.
CF: Well, it's not for him reading in the nursery. But he can read it when he grows up.
GM: After you wrote it, how soon did you find a publisher for it?
CF: I think it took about five or six months.
GM: And did anyone try to advise you – any of your people – "Hey, you can't talk like this, you're TV's Craig Ferguson!"?
CF: Yeah, yeah. Lots of people have lots of advice but they're wrong. The only people who are right are the ones I agree with.
GM: I agree with that!
CF: I find that in life, the only politicians that make any sense are the ones I agree with. The only reporters who make any sense are the ones I agree with. The only reviews that make any sense are the ones I agree with. And everyone else is wrong.
GM: And often the best art is that which doesn't try to find an audience but the audience finds them.
CF: I couldn't agree more. I hate when I feel manipulated by any artist or film maker or writer or musician. Anything. Do your own stuff and let others appreciate it, or not appreciate it. Let people make up their own mind. Because to try to please everybody in a certain demographic is just hateful.
GM: Is this a story that's been with you a long time, ruminating around in your head?
CF: I think it must have been. I mean, I didn't know how it was unfolding until I actually started. I had an idea for a book, and really had an idea for about two-and-a-half chapters of a book. But by the time I'd written two-and-a-half chapters, I had gotten interested in the characters and I wanted to see how it would work out for them. So I just kept writing.
GM: That's about where I've read to, then.
CF: Yeah. Now you're heading off on untrampled snow.
GM: (laughs) Thanks for that Canadian imagery.
GM: Now I understand.
CF: NOW you understand.
GM: Were you a disciplined writer in that you would start writing at a certain time every day and end at a certain time?
CF: No, not at all. I lack discipline in nearly all things.
GM: What was the writing process?
CF: Sporadic. It was, like I say, binge writing. It was three months on, three months off, a week on, two months off. I think it took me about two years to write the book.
GM: And what was the editing process like? Was that hell?
CF: Minimal. I wouldn't... I had a number of offers for the book but I wouldn't make a deal with any publisher that wanted to make any real significant edits. I took out a couple of legal things that apparently would have gotten me in a lot of trouble. And that was it. The rest was spelling mistakes and typos.
GM: That's what an editor should be!
CF: Exactly. You say that to any writer and they're like, "Oh my God, you're kidding?" But the lucky thing was, I mean, the book I wrote for myself and if I started to change it to find a market for it, like what we were talking about, it wouldn't have been honest. And even though it's a fictional book, it has to have an honesty. And that honesty is that I stand by it and everything in it.
GM: So they weren't saying, "Well, I think this section would be better over here"?
CF: Oh, yeah, yeah, there was a lot of that. But like I say, if I don't agree with something, they're wrong.
GM: Are you a big reader yourself?
CF: I do, yeah, I read a lot.
GM: Do you have influences in writing?
CF: Sure, yeah. Everything I've ever read, probably. I'm a voracious reader. I read crime fiction, I read the classics, I read anything.
GM: I think you have to be to be a good novelist, don't you?
CF: I think so. I think you have to love... You have to be interested in what you're writing in the same way that you're interested in a book that you read. You have to want to know what happens. And kind of un-put-down-able and all that kind of stuff. It has to cast the same kind of spell on you.
GM: You've received generally great reviews for this, haven't you?
CF: Yeah, I have.
GM: Were you expecting that?
CF: I've gotta be honest. I was not expecting that. I thought I would actually get trashed because I was doing the talk show on television, if nothing else. You can't do two things! Because people don't know you and they think, "Well, this is a guy who talks on television." This is like, you know, Pat O'Brien writing a book, do you know what I mean? But the reviews that it got, which were fantastic, and it's in its first printing and in the LA Times best-sellers list for a few weeks. I mean, it's done really well. For literary fiction, it's sold an enormous amount of copies. It's a real best-seller, so it's good.
GM: Are the publishers hounding you for another one now?
CF: Uh, yeah, they're hounding me but luckily I didn't make a deal. So I was just like, yeah, when another one's ready I'll make a deal for it. I won't make a deal for a book I haven't written. That doesn't seem right to me.
GM: Lots of celebrities have written books: Terri Hatcher, Lorraine Bracco, William Shatner. These are, I suspect, ghost-written but I don't know.
CF: I don't know if they're ghost-written but it's not the same type of thing that I've been working on.
GM: William Shatner has written science fiction books. And I wonder if he really wrote it or if he just told someone the idea and said, "Now go write it."
CF: You know, I really don't know. I suspect in the case of Shatner, he probably wrote them.
GM: You've written a few screenplays that were made into films. Did you just want to do a novel, or did you think that this story must be told in the novel form?
CF: One of the reasons for writing a book is I was tired of making films because I hate the compromising that you have to go through with turning a screenplay into a movie. You just have to; there's so many people involved. And with a book there's not. A book, you write it and it's done and it's yours.
GM: Now are you going to adapt it to film?
CF: No, absolutely not.
GM: You sound definite.
CF: Definitely, I will not make a film of this. Nor will I allow it to be made. I haven't sold the film rights, and I've been offered the film rights to it a few times and I won't sell them.
GM: Why is that?
CF: Because I don't want it to be a film. I know how to make films. If I wanted it to be a film, I'd have made it. I wanted it to be a book. And when I finished writing the book, the story was told, it's finished. And if you want to know the story of this book, you've gotta read the book. And if you don't want to know it, good.
GM: That's interesting. Because these days a lot of people are thinking, "Great! More money!"
CF: Yeah, but there's gotta be some magic left in the world. It can't all be about fucking money, surely. And I didn't write the book for money. And trust me, I'm not making any fucking money out of it. I can make more doing a night of standup than I got for the entire two years I spent writing the book. I wrote the book because I wanted it to be what it is; I didn't write it to get royalties or a revenue stream from it. It's not to say that I discount doing the standup. I love doing the standup and when I'm doing it, it's very much the first thing on my mind. But if you've spent two years getting a book right, it's two years of your life. You've got to make sure that you've done it properly.
GM: And you'll get more revenue when the paperback comes out.
CF: Maybe. Well, yeah, I'm sure of it. But honestly, I don't think of it. I really don't. I didn't do it for that.
GM: You had a bit of a controversy with Canada in your show, I read.
CF: Are you talking about the posting on Wikipedia?
GM: Is that true or not? Because you never know with Wikipedia.
CF: It's horseshit. It's fucking horseshit. I've got relatives that live in Toronto. My Uncle James has lived in Toronto for, God, nearly 40 years. Sorry, my Uncle Ronald. My Uncle James lives in New York. My Uncle Ronald has lived in Florida [sic] for 40 years. It's horseshit. What I said that night was after the plane crash, which nobody was hurt in, by the way. So I mentioned it and I poked some fun about, you know. It was bullshit. But the idea that there was this great uproar and that I somehow had some anti-Canadian bias is just bollocks. The fuckin' Scots built Canada. Don't give me this crap.
GM: (laughs) Okay. That's good to clear it up because with Wikipedia, some people swear by it and others...
CF: Wikipedia is an unedited... It's the bathroom wall, Wikipedia. People can write on it anything they want.
GM: Yeah. But they say that it's self-correcting so if somebody puts something wrong on it...
CF: Well, I'll fucking correct them then. It's garbage. And also I remember them saying in it I had to apologize to the people of Canada. I have never apologized to the people of Canada because I had nothing to apologize for.
GM: I suppose your ratings are just as good here.
CF: I don't know what the ratings are like in Canada.
GM: I guess a test will be when you go to Montreal and Vancouver.
GM: Have you been to Vancouver before?
CF: Many times. Actually, I was in Vancouver when I found out I had this job.
GM: The TV job.
CF: Yeah. I was at the Sutton Place Hotel. I was doing a TV show for ABC and I got a phone call saying I got this job and I headed straight back to L.A.
GM: Have you ever done standup here?
CF: Never done standup in Vancouver.
GM: Just coming in for the day?
CF: I'll be in for the weekend. I like Vancouver so I'm going to stay for the weekend.
GM: I hope the weather's good for you.
CF: Well, you never know but that's the northwest, isn't it?