NEXT CHAPTER

Why Craig Ferguson Really Left Late Night

Nearly one year after leaving The Late Late Show, late-night’s goofy rebel discusses his new comedy special, the real reasons he left his show, and how it feels to be free.

09.10.15 9:15 AM ET

When Craig Ferguson first met Mick Jagger, at a hotel in Istanbul two decades ago, the Scottish comedian blurted out—and to this day he can’t fathom why—“You’re adorable!”  

“That was really stupid,” Ferguson laughs, recalling the episode. “I wish I hadn’t done that.”

The former host of The Late Late Show and I are speaking in advance of the premiere of his new comedy special Just Being Honest, which airs Thursday night on EPIX and is his first major coming out since vacating his CBS late-night show last December after 10 years.

His escapades with Jagger are a centerpiece of the special—the Rolling Stones frontman once enlisted Ferguson to pen a screenplay for him that was almost certainly a plagiarizing of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. “It’s a hell of a story, and I’d say about 90 percent true,” Ferguson says.

If that’s the case, it’s about 10 percent less honest than most of what we’ve come to expect from the star, who has made a career out of unexpected candor, authenticity, and a punk rock mandate to do the kind of comedy that he wants to do, traditions and decorum be damned.

Tune in on any given night of his Late Late Show tenure—on which you might have seen, say, a gay robot skeleton sidekick named Geoff dancing along with Ferguson and a pantomime horse—and you got a sense of his madcap rebel streak.

Rewatch his poignant 2007 monologue recounting his history of alcoholism and journey to sobriety, which culminates in a pledge not to ridicule Britney Spears at the height of her shaved-head meltdown. “Comedy should have a certain amount of joy in it,” he said. “It should be about attacking the powerful: the politicians, the Trumps, the blowhards”—how timely—“We shouldn’t be attacking the vulnerable.” Watch the whole 12½ minutes for a reminder of the power of his unrivaled confessionals.

Or revisit his 2009 interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which won Ferguson a Peabody, for proof, as the awards organization noted, of Ferguson’s unique ability: insisting that “one of the silliest hours on television (what with the trademark hand puppets and skeleton robots) could also be one of the smartest.”

“I can’t envision a time where I would be able to do comedy where it’s like, ‘Hey, aren’t bananas weird?’ and such,” Ferguson says, as we talk about Just Being Honest continuing, as its title suggests, his grand tradition of public honesty, this time through the lens of aging (the joys of colonoscopies), nostalgia (partying with Mick Jagger), and a hatred of those shoes that look like feet. “All I can do is comedy I have a connection with. And I find it easy to access an emotional vein if I go with personal stories.”

As we freely talk, a rarity in the controlled world of show business, about how he’s fared in his year freed from the shackles of late-night—a “relief,” he says—and the reasons why he left, the title of his special becomes less of the apology for offending anyone that it might seem at first blush than it does a life motto.

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“When you do a show on American broadcast television, not just American but any broadcast television, or maybe any television, there’s always an implication of please don’t offend the sponsor, please don’t upset the FCC, all that,” he says. “Though it was very loose—my late-night show was about as loose as you get on late-night television—there’s still a sort of institutionalized mindset that I developed, no one put it on me, but I developed in the sense that I better be careful.”

Just Being Honest, in which he warns the audience in the first moments that he is bound to offend each and every one of them and abounds with arias of four-letter words, serves as catharsis after his 10 institutionalized network years. Ferguson tees off on everything from transubstantiation—the Catholic belief that the biscuit turns into the body of Christ—to Kenny G.

It’s on the topic of “offense” that Ferguson launches into one of those ranting, impassioned—though always redeemably thoughtful and astute—monologues that were a highlight of his late-night run. “It seems to me that the climate of the day is that if you disagree with what someone thinks, you get called a fucking Nazi,” he says. “But I think the whole idea is that you can have evolving opinions about things.”

“Ranting” might, however, be the poorest characterization of Ferguson’s nature. It implies rage, or perhaps even bitterness, when instead the star’s career has always been marked by remarkable amounts of humbleness, gratitude for opportunities, a bit of contrition, and—that magic word again—honesty about all of it.

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As he recounted in his 2009 memoir American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot, he grew up chubby and bullied in a dodgy suburb of Glasgow—a childhood that makes a comedy career a thing of destiny—and played in a punk band called the Dreamboys with fellow now-successful actor Peter Capaldi, who encouraged him to try out comedy.

His rise on the comedy circuit coincided with a descent to rock bottom addiction. On Christmas Day 1991 he planned to end his life by jumping off London’s Tower Bridge, but was distracted by a friend who offered him a glass of sherry. Rehab soon followed, and the specificity with which Ferguson divulges all of this has influenced his fans to quit drinking themselves.

The rest of the ’90s were good to Ferguson. He was steadily employed as scene-stealing boss Nigel Wick on The Drew Carey Show from 1996 to 2004, and the next year succeeded Craig Kilborn as the host of The Late Late Show. With his unorthodox approach to the genre, it quickly became the case that more than his brogue set him apart from his late-night peers.

His largely ad-libbed monologue each night eschewed the easy one-liners favored by most hosts. Idiosyncratic, sometimes rambling, and almost effortlessly engaging, these monologues seemed as if they were occurring to him on the spot. The effect: He wasn’t talking at the audience, but with them. While so many late-night shows ushered viewers to sleep with nyuk-nyuk lullabies, his Late Late Show jolted you awake with Ferguson’s energy and drew you into conversation.

His interviews with guests were similarly unscripted, with Ferguson forgoing prepared questions to the point of literally tearing up his note cards before each interview. Some celebrity guests found this jarring. Others, like Kristen Bell and Mindy Kaling, began each appearance by gushing about how it made his their favorite show to visit.

Contrary to reports, Ferguson’s exit from The Late Late Show had nothing to do with David Letterman announcing his retirement and Ferguson not being asked to be his successor.

“It used to enrage me when I was doing the show that people would assume I was trying to get the 11:30 p.m. show that came on before it,” he says. “Why the fuck would I want do that? To this day people don’t believe that I left because I didn’t get the show. It’s horseshit.”

When I point out that the reason so many people harp on that is because of a clause rumored to be in his contract that stipulated he would get a $5 million payout if he was passed over for Letterman’s gig, he politely cuts me off. “Yeah… that was never reported accurately.” Does he want to clear it up? “No, no, no. I don’t want to get into all that shit.”

He happily, however, assesses the nine months he’s spent without the Late Late Show’s regular employment. “At first it was a little strange,” he says. “But I was relieved to get out.”

Relieved? “I remember it very fondly,” he says, reiterating several times how glad he is to have done it and how proud he is of the work he did on it. “I don’t miss it though.” The thing is, as much as we enjoyed Ferguson’s take on the late-night format, it’s a format that he, perhaps unsurprisingly considering how often he denigrated it, never warmed to.

And now he doesn’t have to.

“It’s a little frightening in the way that change can sometimes be, but there’s relief,” he says of life now. “You see one of the major things that I got weary of in late-night was being part of a gang I didn’t want to be a part of. They’re all a great group of guys—nothing against them!—I just didn’t join that band. I felt… pigeonholed is too strong a word. But I felt that I wanted to do something different.”

Besides Just Being Honest, Ferguson has busied himself with a few guest-starring roles and a regular gig hosting the game show Celebrity Name Game, a job he cops to taking for, arguably, the right reasons: It’s easy, it’s fun, and it pays well. Season 2 premieres in syndication September 21, and he’s already shot over 250 episodes.

“There’s no reinventing the wheel here, but I have a good time doing it,” he says. “It’s not Tale of Two Cities, but it’s not meant to be.”

That’s not to say that the nostalgia and anxiety about aging that make for such prevalent talking points in Just Being Honest don’t stalk him while on the job, particularly when he remembers his wilder punk rock days and looks at the family-friendly game show host he’s become—or at least is playing for the time being.

“I would think, ‘Wait a fucking minute. What is this?’ I’ve got on a big, loud suit and I’m saying, ‘Oh, one more point for this team!’ And I’m like, what’s that about?” he says. “But the key to it is this: I don’t feel settled into anything. This is something I’m doing now. Will I do game shows forever? Absofuckinglutely not. Will I do it for a little while? Yeah. It’s easy and fun and I make a little money.”

No, “forever” is reserved for stand-up. “I’ll do it as long as they let me.”

Thinking back at his lengthy run in late-night, Ferguson can’t help but laugh. When he was considering taking the job in the first place, his friend Eddie Izzard advised him to do it but warned that if he did it for more than two years, people will think that’s all that he does: host. “So I said I’ll do it for two years, but then did it for 10.”

It’s almost confusing to hear Ferguson talk about how much he felt he didn’t fit in in late-night, given the accolades he received while doing it. The Peabody-winning interview with Desmond Tutu is iconic late-night television. How could he be a poor fit in a genre in which he was widely considered to be among the examples of excellence?

“Here’s the thing: I’m still doing it,” he says. “I’m just not doing it late-night.” Ferguson compares it to David Bowie and his alter ego. “I haven’t ceased to be me, or ceased to perform and do what I do,” he says. “What I did is… I guess I stopped dressing as Ziggy. It’s still me, but it’s not that me.”

He continues: “I used to be in a punk rock band saying, ‘You’ll never get me in a suit sitting behind a desk,’ and there you go—I did it for 10 years.”

He’s proud of those 10 years. He’s glad he did it. He’s glad it’s over, and, if he’s being honest, thinks we should all be glad, too.