Craig Ferguson balancing stand-up passion, talk-show duties


Craig Ferguson has made a great living just being himself. Maybe that's why we never saw his movies.

He's up there naked, metaphorically but probably not literally, as noted when inevitably asked about the Prince Harry scandal. "You gotta be careful, because you know me, I like to get nude! This will be a totally clothed show, this visit though. I'm gonna be wearing pants most of the time onstage, and certainly half the time I'm not onstage."

"The Late Late Show" host brings his stand-up back to The Venetian today and Saturday, for the first time in two years.

Fans may wish he visited Las Vegas with more Jay Leno devotion. But Ferguson's stand-up touring cycle is timed to TV specials - the gist of this weekend's set will make it to Washington, D.C., for a November taping - so you won't be seeing the same stuff he did last time.

"Once you're a stand-up, if you don't have an act ready to go, you feel like it's kind of nerve-racking. Like something's missing," the Scottish comedian says. "If you can't go up and do an hour, you feel like something's missing."

In Las Vegas, a comedian big enough to headline a theater or larger showroom is usually famous for something else they left stand-up to do. In the cruel circle of irony, the something else, such as a late-night talk show, often makes it hard to find time for stand-up.

But once it's in your blood? "You kind of do it because you can't not do it," Ferguson says. "If you're a stand-up for any other reason, I think you're really wasting your time."

After writing and acting in two obscure movies worth the effort of seeking out - "Saving Grace" and "The Big Tease" - Ferguson got a chance to direct one, "I'll Be There," in 2003.

He doesn't mince words on how it came out. As Ferguson writes in his memoir, "American on Purpose," the studio, Morgan Creek, changed the music, the dialogue, even the title (from "The Family Business") and "(g)enerally just sweeten(ed) the whole thing beyond recognition until it became an expensive Hallmark Hall of Fame movie."

"I was ambitious and desperate to direct my first film, so I capitulated and blew it. Never again," he wrote.

Instead, he crafted an ambitious comic novel, "Between the Bridge and the River," and became the host of "The Late Late Show." Both, he says, are closer to stand-up than movies.

"Stand-up and a novel are the same," he says. "If anything the novel's even freer because you don't even have to be funny. The idea of that kind of lone-gunman feel of the stand-up, (that) you survive on your own wits, I love that about it."

And after surviving "the political realities of working in Hollywood," Las Vegas is a fairly straight-up proposition. "I do stand-up and they give me a stage to do it on and off we go," he says. Those who run The Venetian "don't talk to me about what I do, and I don't talk to them about what they do."

But CBS renewed the talk show through 2014 and even shelled out for a new set in the studio, so they seem to like what he's doing on TV, too.

"I think CBS is the closest thing you get to doing stand-up on television," he says. "Because the show's been on for a while and because it's successful, they let my try anything I want to try."

Granted, "there are certain confines. It probably wouldn't be a good idea if I went off on a fast-food company the night there was a big buy-in."

But those who watch the show can tell he doesn't feel particularly restricted by the format. "Stand-ups in television tend to censor themselves really. I tend to let the censor do that for me," he says, adding with a laugh, "there's work for them to do and it keeps them awake."

When the 50-year-old first played Vegas in 2006, his material drew more from his own past, a lively book's worth of a career that includes punk-rock drumming and success in the British Isles as a comic alter-ego named Bing Hitler.

"The act as it was was a kind of, 'Here's who I am and here's where I've been,' and the next act after that is more like, 'Here's what I'm doing now.' ... It stays more in the present."

Ferguson became a naturalized citizen in 2008 and called his memoir "American on Purpose." Did he feel like both political conventions overdid the immigrant-dream thing?

"I think both parties are going for the very attractive Scottish talk-show vote, but I haven't decided where to go."

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

 

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