‘Late Late’ host keeps it funny

By Frazier Moore

NEW YORK — 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,” premiered Sunday 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.

“ 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.”

2008, The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

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