Latenight host comfortable speaking from the heart

You know, Desmond Tutu told me I was crazy when he was on the show,” Craig Ferguson says impishly in his deep Scottish accent. “But he said it was the type of crazy that people need, and that made me feel like I had permission from a higher authority to do whatever I wanted to do on TV.”

Even though Ferguson felt freed up by the holy man’s blessing, the host of “The Late Late Show” had already created something of his own in the 12:30 p.m. timeslot by the time the archbishop appeared on his show last March.

Over the past 1,000 shows, Ferguson has both danced with puppets and talked about his struggles with alcoholism. He has given profoundly emotional eulogies for his parents and had the kinds of relaxed discussions with guests such as country singer Toby Keith that don’t feel much like a structured interview at all. Ferguson wants actual conversations with his guests and is willing to be a little unorthodox to make them happen.

“I think you have to ask people the right questions,” says Ferguson. “If you ask someone what it was like to work with George Clooney, that doesn’t leave them anywhere to go, but, if you ask them if they’ve ever been drunk in Mexico and had sex with a midget, then you might get an interesting answer.”

It’s not just his approach to interviews that is irreverent.

Ferguson sees monologues as largely unscripted chats with his audience; he uses a prompter, just with bullet points, only for the longer pieces.

“It would be more difficult for me not to be personal,” says Ferguson, who is also an author, screenwriter and musician. “It’s also a real safety net, because there’s no executive who can tell me how to tell it because I was the one lying in my own filth when I was drinking. So I’ll tell it how I want.”

Since Ferguson was a standup comic used to dealing with live audiences long before hosting “The Late Late Show,” reacting to the day’s events and developing jokes or monologues from that material comes naturally. For some of Ferguson’s writers, working with a host who’s fast on his feet means they could be hashing out ideas with him all day and have it all trumped by a last-minute development before the show tapes.

“A good example of that would be the roof-leaking monologue,” says Ted Mulkerin, a head writer on the show. “We had worked on some things that day, but there was a night when the roof started leaking before we went on the air, and Craig was able to just walk right out there and talk about it for 10 minutes.”

Co-head writer Jonathan Morano agrees.

“Our budget is one rung up from public access,” Morano says. “That puts a lot of pressure on Craig to be able to do things without a lot of explosions, and he’s always able to come through — in part because of the skills he has from doing standup comedy.”

As optimistic as any newly naturalized American and as deeply suspicious of power as you’d expect a former punk rocker to be, Ferguson marvels that he’s been able to do what he has on his show without much interference.

“I had the backing of Les Moonves because he knew me and trusted me and a protected timeslot right after David Letterman,” says Ferguson. “It’s been the perfect storm for someone like me, and I know this kind of thing never happens. I’m very thankful.”

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