Craig Ferguson, host of CBS's The Late Late Show, is coming to Comix to perform stand up and, while he's in town, will make a Letterman appearance and will promote the paperback edition of his book, Between the Bridge and the River. Gothamist sat down to discuss his Scottish upbringing, his take on comedy, and why bullies seem to ruin everything.
How often do you perform stand up outside of the Late Late Show?
A lot, actually. A couple of weekends out of the month.
What sort of riders do you have?
I don't need much. I ask if I can have a soda before I go on and that's pretty much it. I don't have the brown M&Ms taken out.
What inspired you to include a readers' guide in the paper back edition of your book?
Apparently, it's the way things are done now. I wasn't too sure about doing it, to be honest, because I thought that I'd said everything that I wanted to say in the book. In the readers' guide, I just asked some questions that I asked myself when I was writing the book.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
I like Kurt Vonnegut, Dostoyevsky, Herman Melville, Joseph Heller, Irwin Welsh, Lawrence Block. The thing I'm into right now is well written crime fiction. Ken Bruin writes this fantastic Irish noir that's really cool. Because I'm a high school drop out, I read the classics because I wanted to read them. No one pushed me into doing it. I have a dilettante's approach to classic literature, which is that I've only read the stuff that I felt like reading. The perfect novel, I think, is To Kill a Mockingbird.
Religion plays a big part in your book and I wanted to know what sort of role religion played in your life growing up.
I had a strange relationship with it because, when I was growing up in Scotland, religion was a divisive jumping off point for violence. The Catholic/Protestant thing that exists in Ireland is very strong in Western Scotland where I grew up. There was a lot of arguments about that, so I always equated religion and the church with being something that somehow connected to danger and violence. I think there's a certain validity to that if you look at the state of the world today. People get very passionate about their beliefs and get angry about other people who don't share it and it gets down to very small points. I had very mixed feelings about it growing up. I'm not anti-religion at all, actually. As I started writing the book, I think I was probably if not an Atheist then very close to it, but, through the writing of the book, I think that cracked it open a little bit and I became less convinced of any kind of belief. I'm certainly not attached to fundamentalism in any way. In fact, I don't think I can even say that because that would be a fundamental stance.
Another thing you write about is corporal punishment in the Scottish School system. What was your experience like with that?
I was beaten black and blue. It's very difficult to respect people who hit you. For a teacher to be effective, for me, I have to respect them. I'm a great believer in considering the source, so if the information is coming from someone who would quite happily beat you to the point of tears with a leather belt it becomes very difficult to listen to them with any degree of concentration or respect.
What were you like in school?
Academically, I was very successful until I was about fourteen. Then I completely lost interest. Socially, I tended toward the bad kids. I was smoking reefer around the back of the school and was drinking hard cider on the weekends.
Were you the class clown type?
Maybe a little bit of that. You didn't want to stand out too much in the school environment that I was in. You wanted to try and give off an air of contained violence. It was more like prison than school.
What sort of methods did you have to get laughs?
I didn't have methods. I don't have methods now. It wasn't the sort of "protect yourself from bullies by being funny" sort of thing. That's a little trite, I think. It's a case-by-case basis. Just because you make someone laugh doesn't mean they're not going to hit you next time, so your batting average would have to be a hundred percent. It's who you are. I try not to use trickery. I guess there are techniques. If it sounds like a joke, has certain construction, then it'll be more likely to get a laugh, but I try not to do that as often as possible.
Are bullies something that you had to deal a lot with growing up?
I think it's something everyone had to deal with growing up where I grew up. There's a lot of bullies still around. Turn on the TV or read the newspaper. The world is full of bullies all banging and shouting their opinions. It doesn't seem to go away after school, as far as I can see.
Why do you think people become bullies?
The sense of empowerment. The illusion of control. A way of coping with the fear you have inside. Self defense. I suppose it's fear, although it seems a little passé to say that.
What sort of role do you think outsiderdom and alienation play in the live of a comedian?
I think they're very useful, to be honest. For a long time, I thought that it wasn't. I thought that being an immigrant in America was somehow a disadvantage until I realized that, basically, this is a country of immigrants. Everybody kind of feels like an outsider. It's nice to feel included but there are lots of times in everyone's life where you're going to feel like an outsider. It's a very human thing. In a strange way, feeling like an outsider is all encompassing. It's the Celtic paradox.
Since comedy is so subjective, I wanted to know what, in your opinion, are some indications of good and bad comedy?
Personal taste is everything. Comedy that contains joy tends to draw me in more. I like surrealist, joyful, daft, irreverent, iconoclastic comedy. I tend not to be drawn to cruelty, although there's that in a lot of comedic things. There's a certain element of cruelty in a man slipping on a banana peel.
What's your comedic philosophy?
What I try to do is do work that doesn't keep me awake at night going, "I shouldn't have done that. That was underhanded." I try to remain loyal to my own feelings about life in not just comedy but everything.
Who are some guests that you'd like to have on the show that you've yet to have?
I can't think of anyone I'm jumping up and down for. It's a case-by-case basis. When I go to a booking meeting for a show, which is usually once a week, I have veto power but most of the time I just say, "Let's see what that's like." I've been doing this long enough to know not to confuse someone's public persona with who they'll be when they turn up here. I realize that what you're going to get might be different from what you think you're going to get. I try to stay out of it, to be honest and see what they'll like when they arrive.
What are some projects outside of the show that you're currently involved in?
I have a production company at CBS, so I'm making a couple of pilots this season as a producer. One is a single camera sitcom and the other is an improvised game show. And, of course, another book, which will take years.
What do you like to do after each show?
Catch my breath. It's quite a physical thing. There's a lot of energy involved, so I usually just sit down for a minute.
Tickets for Craig at Comix are selling fast, so buy them while supplies last.