UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif.—If he is ever asked to host the Academy Awards, Craig Ferguson has a one word answer: “Never.”
I KNOW! In the press scrum following yesterday’s CBS press tour session, Ferguson was adamant about turning his back on any future Oscar hosting gig. Why? “Because the best you could hope for would be to be asked again,” he said. Sounds like he’s been talking to his boss, David Letterman, a former one-and-out Oscar host.
Earlier in the session, a reflective Ferguson asked critics to go easy on Jimmy Fallon, the former SNLer who takes over Conan O’Brien’s Late Night timeslot opposite Ferguson on March 2. “I challenge you all to this,” Ferguson said: “Give Jimmy a month before you review him.”
Ferguson’s point is that nobody knows for sure how Fallon will do—not Fallon’s mentor and executive producer Lorne Michaels, not NBC/Universal boss Jeff Zucker, not Fallon himself.
“Let’s be honest,” said Ferguson. “Who amongst you thought I’d be sitting here four years after the last time I talked to you?” Critics with longer memories will recall how Conan O’Brien was written off before he established himself to the point NBC risked it all to keep him in late night.
“I’d heard some negative stuff about Jimmy which I find a little surprising given the fact he hasn’t done anything yet,” said Ferguson. “He’s kind of like the reverse Obama—it’s like he hasn’t done anything yet, but everybody is commenting on his performance. Give him a chance.” Ferguson wisely handed off the “What about Leno at 10” question to his producer Peter Lassally, the humble Yoda of late night who has steered Johnny Carson and David Letterman to iconic late night status. Lassally raised the same concerns everyone else has, saying it’s both a brave choice and a big gamble. “If Jay Leno is a success at 10 o’clock, which is certainly a possibility, my concern would be will people go to sleep after that because they’ve had their late night ‘Jay Leno’ show?”
Ferguson spoke about his busy year, which included getting married, becoming an American citizen and hosting the Washington correspondent’s dinner. He spoke also about the passing of both his parents, who he saluted in moving, funny, generously personal moments on his show.
I asked him if part of him was glad he got the tough opportunity to say goodbye to loved ones on the air, even if it meant sharing that experience with millions of strangers. (I wish I had asked it that well.) His answer was illuminating: “I think if I have any discernible skills, it is communicating how I feel,” he said. “I think it helps me process stuff because this is, for better or worse, my art form, you know. This is how I express myself. So if I’m going through pain all human beings go through, this is how I express it.”
That essentially is key to Ferguson’s steadily growing appeal in late night. He’s an actor and an artist, rather than a stand up comedian. While he can throw on wigs and glasses and Benny Hill it up with the best of them, he can blow you away with insight and honesty. He did it yesterday at the press tour session.
“Did you ever see The Shawshank Redemption?” Ferguson asked. “When Morgan Freeman’s character is going up for parole, and he goes up for parole throughout the movie, and he tries to be good, and then he tries to be good, and he tries to be good, and they keep saying ‘You can’t have parole,’ and at the end, he says. ‘Look, I don’t give a rat’s ass. Write what you write, and then I’m just going to do – live the way I live,’ and then they let him out? That’s kind of like me in late night television.”
There it is--the truth shall make you free. Ferguson has found his voice, and he puts it to good use every single night on The Late, Late Show. Go Scotland.