The Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson heads to Scotland this week, with episodes that see the host returning to his hometown and confronting some of the ghosts that have haunted him since his youth. Of course, those same episodes also feature dancing horses, gay robot skeleton Geoff Peterson (“I don't know that there's anything that makes me laugh like that fucking skeleton,” he said), David Sedaris discussing colostomy bags over dinner, and Ariel Tweto being adorably clueless — so it's all much the same mix as usual.
Thursday night was Ferguson's first evening in the spotlight at the Paley Center for Media, and in a post-screening chat with Entertainment Weekly's Lynette Rice, he was his usual self-deprecating self.
Rice started off by asking Ferguson about his choice of traveling companions. For instance, how does one get Mila Kunis to agree to improvise a chat in a Scottish cemetery? Ferguson said, “I wanted to take people who had been good on the show … and were available.” That included Tweto, from Discovery Channel's Flying Wild Alaska — “She has an odd story, I liked that,” he said — and Kunis, as well as Michael Clarke Duncan and Rashida Jones. “You don't want to give them too much information,” Ferguson continued. “I said let's go and we'll have a good time. You want to get people who will just throw themselves into it.”
Ferguson took the show to Paris last summer, but he confided before Thursday's event that he thinks the Scotland shows are among the best he's ever done. (He said he'd like to take the show to New York — “although they already have a lot of talk shows there” — or to the American South in future.) However, when Rice asked if it was a logistical nightmare filming abroad, producer Michael Naidus, sitting in the audience, nodded.
Onstage, Ferguson said, “We really don't have any money. We had to cobble bits and pieces together, not have a sketch a few nights… I always say [to fans], if you want more sketches, send money!”
Ferguson admitted he hadn't been back to Scotland much in recent years, but he found it greatly improved. For one thing, in 1979, a year after he left school, corporal punishment was outlawed in the schools. “Kids [now] didn't seem afraid of the teachers,” he said. “It was a paradigm shift for me.
“I was a wee fat boy worried about getting hurt” in school, he admitted. “I was frightened all the time, but I was also a little shit — a big fish snapping up the little fish.
“Part of this trip back was I wanted to show them that I'd gotten it wrong about Scotland,” he said. “Something changed. I loved it [this time].”
The highlight of the week may be Ferguson's return to the Spur Hotel in Cumbernauld village, where at 19 he got into a life-altering pub fight with a guy named Cal Calhoun. “That all happened in the place where we shot it,” he told the Paley audience. “And it's all the same! Same smell, same decor — it's spectacular!”
A local kid noticed them filming the segment and asked someone what was going on. Told it was Craig Ferguson, he reportedly said, “Oh, my Uncle Cal beat the crap out of him!”
One reason he's proud of these shows, Ferguson said, is demonstrated in his cemetery conversation with Kunis. According to him, she just showed up (from a European film set) and he said, “Are you ready?” and she said yes. “It's one shot, eight minutes, no cuts. A production assistant runs through the shot, you don't have to wonder who ruined it — you saw who ruined it!” he told the Paley crowd. “Also, you don't have to do it twice, which is great.”
Asked about the improvisational quality of his show, Ferguson admitted, “It's not that we fly by the seat of our pants. We're not afraid of failure. And it's very human.
“I'm a terrible interviewer,” he continued. “I'm not a journalist — although I have a Peabody Award — and I'm not really a late-night host. What I am is honest.
“The longer I'm on the air, the more cocky I get, that Peter [Lassally, executive producer] and Michael [Naidus], CBS, [production company] Worldwide Pants back me, so I say fuck it, let's see how far we can go.
“Is it really that important?” he asked rhetorically. “It's just television, for God's sake. It's not medicine or something.
“This is a terrible arrogance I have: I think I'm interesting enough, if [the guest] is not,” he said, adding with a laugh, “I look forward to seeing that in print.”
The Scotland shows air every night this week on CBS at 12:35 a.m.