Craig Ferguson May Be God, But Craig Kilborn Is So NOT!
If you don't believe me, then check out this slavering profile I did for today's features sections, outlining how the quick-witted Scotsman pulls together the 10 coolest minutes on television: His legendary, stream-of-consciouness-style monologue.
I had the pleasure of visiting Ferguson in his office at CBS' sprawling Studio City complex. It was a surprisingly small space, dominated by a huge, brown secitional couch and wooden coffee table, where we kicked it for about a half hour in the middle of a busy day, where he would record elements for two different shows at once.
When I asked how he pulls together the monologue, he said this:
"We don’t really write it in a conventional sense. What we do is, we sit around and talk about subjects. I choose what I want to talk about that day. Then … I sit down with funny guys and we make each other laugh for about an hour. The writers’ assistant bullet-points that conversation. Then the writers go away for an hour and they put it into some kind of structure they think might work … those bullet points come back to me and I go through again and think, well, I’ll do that and then I’ll come up with that and I’ll come up with that.
"And if there’s any specific jokes that I think are funny, we’ll write down a joke. And then we pare it down to, like, words and phrases that go into the teleprompter. So words and phrases like, you know, the cat lady, giant ass, spaceship, William Shatner, the Bahamas …
D: So, like notes, as if you were doing standup.
F: Exactly like that, yeah, it’s exactly like that. But, you know, I have rehearsed in the room in a sense. It’s not rehearsed word for word because it’s not finished being written until it’s finished recording. And so, some nights, you know, I pay a great deal of attention to what’s on that prompter, and some nights I don’t really pay much attention to what’s on the prompter. There’s usually a trick. If you watch the monologue a lot, if you hear me say, what the hell was I talking about, it’s usually, I’m going back to the … I look at the (notes on the) prompter and I got it, and we’re back."
What strikes me, besides the fact that Ferguson is about as self-effacing and witty in person as you'd expect, is that his success also says something about his predecessor, Craig Kilborn.
Ferguson is way too nice to say it, but when Kilborn was hosting the Late Late Show, you could never tell how much of his self-centered and superficial attitude was a put on and how much was reality.
And considering how the Daily Show became a political and cultural powerhoue AFTER he left the building, it's also interesting to note how much success Ferguson has had AFTER Kilborn left there, as well.
Wonder what TV show Kilborn could improve by leaving next?
See more of my conversation with Ferguson by clicking the link below...
Here's more of our conversation:
D: Well, it’s interesting because you do have these little touchstones that you always come back to, and for other performers, you’d get tired of it. You know, it’s like, why don’t you do something else? It seems like the audience looks forward to that. They look forward to I’m TV’s Craig Ferguson. They look forward to It’s a Great Time in America.
F: Well, I think the reason why is that’s the only thing you can count on. (laughter). That’s the only thing you can go on. The rest of it is definitely off of that. There’s about three or four phrases I will say in every show and other than that, nothing will be the same. And I think that there’s a … also, but there’s a certain degree of comfort with it. Do you have kids?
D: Oh yeah.
F: Well, you know, there’s this kind of routine … it’s kind of comforting, you know? I mean, it’s like when you put the kids to bed, take a bath, it’s this, then this, then that, and that’s kind of the show … putting to bed. There’s then, there’s then, there’s then, wash your … tell your story and then off you go.
D: And actually it feels like you’re sort of climbing up the pole to the tightrope wire, and everything’s the same until you step on that.
F: Yeah, once it stops … and then who knows? And some nights are more successful than others, for sure. I mean, it’s just by the nature of it, but it feels like that some nights. Some nights I go out very confident in what I’m gonna talk about and some nights I go out and think, oh God, I’d better do some funny faces and wiggle my ass here ‘cause I’ve got nothing. And some times when you have nothing, it’s a great show and sometimes when you’re very confident in what you’re gonna talk about, it’s not such a great show. And you really don’t know it until it’s not. So it is … it’s a bit of a crap shoot.
D: You must enjoy that part of it.
F: I love it. It’s the only thing that keeps you interested. You know, if you’re going to do a show every day … I mean, I’m here 10 o’clock every morning, and I work until 7, and you have to find a way to enjoy that.
D: Definitely. So there was an experiment where they put in commercials and people reacted (laughter). So did CBS president Les Moonves come to you with this or …
F: No, this is not Les’ thing. What happened was … there’s a new rating system coming in September. So the ratings people came to us and said, you know, this is coming and do you have any plans? And so we … they asked us, you know … no, they didn’t even ask us. They said, here’s what other people are trying. It’s not … we’re not the only people who have done this. Here’s what other people are trying … front-loading some commercials, putting some stuff up front. And so we said, you know, somebody … and it wasn’t me, but I can’t even remember who it was, said, well, let’s try doing some of the monologue and then stop and then doing the monologue later. And I said, yeah, okay, let’s try it. And we were gonna do it for a week and we lasted four days, I think. And the reaction was resounding. What’s interesting was that under the new ratings system, it actually would have helped. (laughter) You know, we can’t do it because people who actually enjoy the show will kill us. So it’s gone.
D: When did you sort of realize that there was this huge fan reaction to what you were doing?
F: The morning I came in after the night before, and the e-mails were stacked and the phones had been ringing and people were pissed ...
D: Really …
F: Yeah, people were pissed. And that’s all right. When people get pissed at something I say, I pay very little attention to that because, you know, you can’t do a show like this every night and not offend somebody. And sooner or later, you’re gonna offend everybody, just hopefully not at once. But the thing … by the time you offend the next group, you hope the last one has forgiven you. But with something like that, which is a format change, I think that belongs as much to the audience as it does to me. So that I pay attention to. There’s something in the bargaining of watching the show that you switch over to something like that and it doesn’t seem right. So, you know, they reacted very strongly and it was overwhelming, so … all right, we won.
D: And I think, you know, fans had to sense that, like, the coolest part of the show, the suits were screwing with it. (laughter)
F: I’m not gonna say that that never happens, but you know, in that … I was quite happy to blow the whistle on CBS but that was my mistake. I said yes to it without any pressure which, actually in a way, I think is pretty cool because now if you did put pressure on me to do that, I’d say, are you fucking nuts? (laughter). You see what happens when I try to do it myself? So in a way, it worked out. It was best for us all.
D: Now, the other thing that I really remember is when you talked about, I think it was either Lindsay Lohan or Britney … it was Britney. And we actually printed that whole monologue in our paper. How has that affected how you talk about folks like that now? …
F: Yeah, it makes a huge change. I made the decision … that monologue was part … not partly. It was all about a personal decision. I wasn’t saying, you know, in the monologue I don’t say --- and I stand by this --- this is a personal thing. We on this show should not be making fun of these people who are … or people who are clearly in agony, you know. And the … and we’re not. We don’t do that. It makes the joke more difficult … I’ve got to be honest … because you can do some great jokes. But on occasion I’ll do a joke about Lindsay Lohan but there’s a difference between a mother of two young children shaving her head and … I mean, the act of self-mutilation and that … and then a 21-year-old actress with no real responsibilities getting caught in a DUI. These are different things, and so I look at it on a case-by-case basis. You know what I mean? It’s not that, you know, this is a place where anyone who fucks up is gonna be left alone. It’s just that there are mitigating circumstances. See, I used to always think that everyone was fair game. And to other people, that may be the case, but to me it’s not. And that’s my feeling about it. Some people are not fair game. And I would do that gag about Lindsay Lohan but I’d be very careful about how I would do it. Also the person that’s come under .. who takes the most flak on this show, the person who has been bad-mouthed and abused and made fun of on this show more than anybody else … a thousand times more than anybody else … is me. And that’s the way it will always remain on this show ... that the No. 1 target for humor and comedy on this show will be me. That’s absolutely a manifesto … because, you know, I can take it.
D: Right, right, right. And you can control it.
D: Well, you know, it’s funny. I was … you know, Drew Carey came by because he’s got the game show. Now he’s doing Price, and I was going to ask him about you, and he said that you were the most entrepreneurial guy he’d ever seen -- writing scripts, doing all this shit, making more money doing films than you were working on his show …
D: … and he really admired that about you. Can you still do that in the middle of all this?
F: No, much less so because this is so consuming. I mean, when I was working with Drew, there was time. I was doing two scenes a week. I mean, I could come on and say, Carey, you’re fired, and Mimi, you’re lovely, and I’d go off. So there was time. And the life of a sitcom writer is much more leisurely than a late-night talk-show host. You have more time. So, no, I don’t do so much. I do have a company here at CBS and we have some shows in development. I do go out on the road and do some standup. But I’m surprised that he says I’m entrepreneurial. I always thought he was entrepreneurial. I think what I am is, I’m kind of a 19th century throwback, you know. I mean, I’m an immigrant and I have this kind of immigrant mentality about the new country and opportunity and work and maybe it’s a little too much sometimes. You know, maybe I should ease off on it a little bit. And I will. I think I have as I get older as well. I think there’s a desperation when you’re young. As you get older, you maybe have noticed that … and not just give a shit (laughter). You know, I’m gonna take a day off.
D: Well, if you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
F: Standup and write books, that’s it. I’d do standup comedy and write books. I can’t see that I’d ever go back in the film business. It’s too … there’s too many committees. I might … there are some guys that I love, you know. Peter Guber that runs Mandalay is just a great guy and there's Peter Bart who runs Variety. If he’d go back into the film business, I’d go back into the film business. Yeah, ‘cause he’s terrific. He’s such an ornery old son of a bitch but he’s got passion for what he does, you know. But, I mean, he’s running Variety. That’s his thing.
D: Is that the problem? That there’s not enough people in the film biz now who have that passion?
F: There’s too many of these fuckers, you know? (pointing to executives on the cover of the Hollywood Reporter magazine). Too many executives, you know.
D: I’ve been doing this for like 10 years now, and when I started on the press tour, you had Les, you had … you know, you had guys around that were personalities. They’d come in and they’d be like, you know, we don’t give a shit what you think. This is what is what.
F: Fuck you. You don’t like that? Come on. Yeah.
D: And now these new guys, they're often empty suits. You know.
F: Can you imagine, like, Louis B. Mayer having a head shot? (laughter). Are you crazy? Are you fucking crazy? Are you fucking talking publicity for ...and so I don’t know, everybody’s a fucking actor, you know? Look at … there are five executives in the front of that paper. They all have head shots, you know.
D: Once you've got a head shot you're done.
F: You’re just another actor, just another bitch. (laughter)