Did you hear the one about the Scotsman . . . who came to America and got a late-night TV show?
STUDIO CITY, Calif. It's about five minutes after the end of a taping of "The Late Late Show," and new host Craig Ferguson is in a great mood.
"I feel good. I feel energized. It was a good show tonight," he says in his small dressing room at CBS Television City. "For the first week I felt very nervous and adrenal. But now it doesn't feel like that."
Mind you, Ferguson has only been hosting the show for about three weeks at this point. And he came out of nowhere to win the job after Craig Kilborn quit quite suddenly and the network was left to audition various hosts on the air including Ferguson, who was best known for a co-starring role on "The Drew Carey Show," and who had no experience as a talk-show host.
"I was a bit of stunt casting," Ferguson said. "I think I was the same level as ALF, the alien puppet, as, 'Maybe this will be the guy that takes over.' And then slowly it was whittled down to me over a kind of grueling and humiliating audition process, which I don't want to ever do again."
It wasn't a career he sought, but it's one he clearly relishes. "I had never thought in my life about being a talk-show host," Ferguson said. "It's not something that you think is going to go to a Scotsman, anyway, coming to America. It didn't occur to me."
But once he guest-hosted a couple of times, he was hooked. He told executive producer Todd Yasui and Peter Lassally, an executive for David Letterman's Worldwide Pants (which produces "The Late Late Show"), "Give me a week and I'll nail this. I really love this. I really want to do this in my life."
Lassally, who was Johnny Carson's executive producer, was somewhat surprised himself. "Who would have guessed that we would pick a Scotsman to be a host of a late-night show?"
"Craig has three qualities that are really important for a host," Lassally said, "and that is, he's smart, he's funny and he's very likable. And, beyond that, he knows how to be himself."
Which makes him a natural. Ferguson is funny, and he is smart and he's actually interested in what his guests have to say. "Yeah, it's this revolutionary new technique I'm trying of actually listening to people who are talking," he said. "I think it's a very old-fashioned way to interview people. I don't know how to interview people and I don't want to learn. I know how to talk to people, but I don't want to learn how to interview them. I don't think that's my job. Other people are much better at that."
And, unlike some other hosts, Ferguson isn't always looking for the next joke. "My feeling is, I get 10 minutes to come and do my little thing at the start of the show. And after I do that, it's not about me, it's about them. If I say something funny during an interview, great. But it's not my agenda. I'm not there to do that score point off my guests. They're my guests."
Which is not to say that he doesn't add witty comments to the interview segments. But he has conversations sort of the way Tom Snyder used to only funnier. "Saying to somebody you're funnier than Tom Snyder, that's like 'You're more delicious than haggis,' " he joked self-deprecatingly.
But after just days on the air, "The Late Late Show" started booking celebrities it had never been able to get before. "We noticed immediately that the guest bookings became much, much easier," Yasui said. "And I think what happened is, the first couple of nights, publicists saw the interviews he did . . . and they realized what a great interviewer he is."
Ferguson hangs on every word of his guests. He's spontaneous because he can't do it any other way he has note cards with prepared questions but he loses his place when he tries to read them. "I'm much more interested in talking to the person. Most of these people are very interesting. I mean, they're really interesting. That's why they're on a talk show. . . . They come one and you talk to them. It's a great job, I think."