NEW YORK (AP) - As Craig Ferguson faces a new rival in late night, he will carry on as host of CBS’ “Late Late Show” with the blessing of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
A recent guest on the show, Tutu touched Ferguson’s hand after being introduced, declaring, “I think you’re crazy.”
But it’s a good kind of crazy, added Tutu, the anti-apartheid champion and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, chuckling heartily: “We WANT you. We WANT your craziness!”
Their conversation was both playful and probing. It was a dialogue no viewer will forget, an experience Ferguson calls “a life-changer.” And beside him, Tutu was seated in the guest’s chair where, the same week, Paris Hilton sat while Ferguson chatted her up. How crazy is that?
Four years in, Ferguson hosts TV’s craziest late-night talk show. And the freshest, too, even if measured against his brand-new NBC competitor, “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.”
What sets him apart? For starters, Ferguson insists, “I’m NOT a late-night talk show host. I don’t know what I am. But I’m not that.”
Some of what he is: a 46-year-old actor-comedian-author-filmmaker who, before his current gig, was best known as the pompous boss on “The Drew Carey Show.” He’s a Glasgow native newly anointed as a flag-waving U.S. citizen. He’s a funny, shrewd, seductive force of nature with a Scottish brogue.
And since being tapped by David Letterman to follow in the 12:30 a.m. slot Dave produces, Ferguson pursues a nightly challenge: “To do less show. To deconstruct it more. You do your ‘octomom’ joke, then you say, ‘Well, THERE’S the octomom joke.’”
Since January 2005, he’s been at it, redefining late-night’s possibilities in his own image and increasingly merging “The Late Late Show” with himself.
Meanwhile, he has other creative outlets. A memoir, “American on Purpose,” is due out this fall as a literary follow-up to his well-received 2006 novel, “Between the Bridge and the River.” And the past few years, he’s kept a busy schedule of standup dates. One appearance, titled “A Wee Bit o’ Revolution,” premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. EDT on Comedy Central.
Pacing the stage of Boston’s Wilbur Theatre, Ferguson cracks up the audience reflecting on his mother, early drug misadventures, alcohol rehab, fellow Scotsman Sean Connery, busted marriages (last December, the twice-divorced Ferguson wed longtime girlfriend Megan Wallace Cunningham, an art dealer), Oprah Winfrey and Americans’ beautiful teeth.
Those topics may already sound familiar to his regular viewers, but in concert “I’m a little nearer the knuckle,” says Ferguson, who describes his talk show as “a gentler madness.”
It’s madness on a shoestring. Based in Los Angeles, it airs from a matchbox studio where “the roof leaks, we don’t have a band, we don’t light the show properly,” as Ferguson reminds his audience with comic indignation.
The show’s very cheapness is a source of inspiration.
“I complain about it, but I think it’s probably been the best thing,” says Ferguson. “It allowed us to develop this odd little show which is different from the other shows.”
And a world away from the Fallon-era “Late Night,” which is based at 30 Rock in New York and comes fully equipped with an eye-popping set, an announcer and a powerhouse seven-piece band, The Roots.
“It’s high-def and stuff!” says Ferguson, rolling his eyes in mock amazement. “It’s almost like he’s making a show in the 21st century!
“But I’m actually kind of pleased that Fallon’s doing what he’s doing. I think the competition for his show is more Adult Swim (cable network) than me. I don’t think we’re going for the same audience.”
Though the ratings runner-up, Ferguson had steadily been closing the gap on Conan O’Brien. Then, to no one’s surprise, Fallon was received as the new host of “Late Night” with a surge of viewer sampling.
Ferguson contends this ratings horse race is beside the point.
“I have to do a show which is of interest to me, or else I’m lost. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was interested in Paris Hilton’s cleavage _ I wasn’t faking that. And then, the next night, I was talking to one of the greatest figures in contemporary world history. Because I admire him and because he said yes.”
Here’s a talk-show host who hopes now to book U.N. Secretary General Kofi Anan, but often opens his show doing silly voices while wagging a hand puppet.
“I’m crazy,” he concludes with rascally pride. “I KNOW I’m crazy ‘cause Desmond Tutu told me, and he’s very clever. He said, ‘You must free yourself, be more of who you are. Be MORE crazy.’ And I’m going to.”
Comedy Central is owned by Viacom. CBS is owned by CBS Corp.
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EDITOR’S NOTE _ Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org