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."
He also has a pretty good idea of what his job is. "I think the job description is all in the title you're a host. And what I think a host does, is you try and make your guest feel welcome. . . . That's all I'm trying to do is be a host in an environment where the viewer is welcome and the guest is welcome. This ain't CNN. I'm not trying to forge to the real hard stuff."
It's hard not to like Ferguson in person, and his charisma radiates from the small screen. Watching "The Late Late Show" is like visiting an old friend. "I think that bringing a bit of your life to it works, doesn't it? The more I kind of feel comfortable out there, the more I say, 'Yeah, let me tell you what happened to me last night,' I think that's what the folks want in late night. I don't think they like someone yelling."
While he's quite obviously a Scotsman, it's not like he seems at all foreign to American viewers. "I think of myself as American by choice. I chose to be here," said Ferguson, who added that he's in the process of seeking citizenship something that will play out on the show. "I've got a feeling with CBS behind me, I can grease a few palms in Immigration and get in there a bit quicker, but maybe not.
"I've been in this country 10 years now and I think of this as home. . . . I'm originally from somewhere else, but that's the story of Americans, isn't it?"
About the only real change anybody at the network has made to Ferguson came in the form of a new haircut a couple of days after he premiered in January. "I guess if we had done tryout shows, somebody, somewhere would have gone, 'Eh, let's make his hair different,' " he said. "Actually, I got sent off to get my hair cut. They sent me down to some Beverly Hills, ludicrous place where they cut my hair for the price of a house."
And he's a bit bemused by it all. "There's a crack staff of people who follow me around all day with gels and potions and loads of crap," Ferguson said. "Amazing. They're always fiddling with hair."
They're sort of fiddling with the show as it evolves, too. The speed with which all of this took place is nothing short of dizzying. "It's fascinating to me that I have since found out that most people, when they start up a show, have about three months. They do try-out shows they get shows that they don't air and stuff like that," Ferguson said. "I had, what,two-and-a-half 2 1/2, three days?"
"Two-and-a-half days," Yasui said.
But Ferguson said he's glad it worked out this way.
"It's like rip the band-aid off. Let's go," said Ferguson, who is relishing sort of "winging it and having fun and enjoying it. And owning my own mistakes on the show. . . . Believe me, I've made mistakes. And I'll continue to do that. I think I've learned that I just got to accept that, take it on the chin and move on."
His enthusiasm has infected the staff, mostly holdovers from the Kilborn show, who are seeing their jobs through the eyes of someone who's new to the genre and completely enthralled with it. "It's great," said one staffer. "There's so much excitement here now. We're having so much fun."
That's a thought Ferguson echoes. "It's a lot of fun. And what I dread is that it becomes a routine. It's not that yet."
And it looks like he might be a part of the late-night lineup for some time to come. Not only have the "Late Late Show" ratings picked up since he took over, but there's already considerable conjecture that CBS has found the successor to David Letterman when he decides to retire.
But, for now, being the man who comes on after Letterman is a huge deal for Ferguson. "Every now and again I will go, 'Oh my (gosh), I cannot believe it!' Usually, walking out to start the monologue, the room is bumping and the music's going and the folks are on their feet and you see everybody, and you say, 'Oh, I really am here. It's just unbelievable.'"And then you've got work to do and you kind of go on with it."
Highlights of Craig Ferguson's career
1962Born in Glasgow, Scotland.
1994Stars in his own BBC television show, "The Ferguson Theory." Establishes himself as one of Great Britain's leading comics.
1995Moves to Los Angeles. Stars with Marie Osmond in sitcom "Maybe This Time" for ABC.
1996ABC adds Ferguson to "The Drew Carey Show" playing Carey's boss, Nigel Wick.
2000Co-writes and co-stars in the film "Saving Grace."
2003Comment on this story Directs, co-writes and stars in the film "I'll Be There," which receives the Audience Award at the Aspen, Dallas, and Valencia film festivals. Ferguson is also named Best New Director at the Napa Valley Film Festival. He returns to the United Kingdom for some TV guest work.
2004Ferguson lands a role in the major movie "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," which stars Jim Carrey and Meryl Streep.