Craig Ferguson, All-American Scottish Comic

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CBS

There's an old joke—the kind Craig Ferguson loves to tell precisely because it's old—that begins with a man stopping a stranger on the street and asking the best way to Carnegie Hall. The answer, for Ferguson, is to join a Glasgow punk band as a teen, find minor fame in Edinburgh's comedy scene as "Bing Hitler," a hyper-Scots nationalist folk singer, perform in a London stage production of Rocky Horror Picture, host an archaeology series for Scottish TV, move to Los Angeles in 1994, land a role on a barely-there sitcom with Betty White, play Mr. Wick on The Drew Carey Show, write and star in three independent films, act in a half-dozen studio releases, write two books—a novel and an autobiography—and, of course, follow Craig Kilborn as host of CBS's Late Late Show, get nominated for an Emmy, win a Peabody award, and become the unlikeliest success story in the history of late night TV. Once you have a fan base of millions, after all, selling tickets to a live comedy tour isn't that hard—even for two Carnegie Hall dates later this month.

Sunday night, Ferguson played the less illustrious but no less Craig-loving Midland Theater in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, a town he repeatedly called "the City of Meat" to its denizens' delight. Performing older, very white crowd and new, very white pants that he mocked himself for wearing, Ferguson devoted the first part of his show to exploring the differences between his TV persona and live act. Namely, he can't cuss on CBS, but can on stage, and spent several minutes doing so with great impish vigor.

Soon, though, it became obvious that Craig Raw & Uncensored isn't that much different from the expurgated version. Four-letter words aside, Ferguson's live appeal is precisely the same as on TV. He is a consummate professional, always prepared yet ready to improvise. He is not an edgy comic—and doesn't want to be. His material is about relationships, child-rearing, the perils of life in Hollywood. Nothing more controversial than his own drinking, a habit he kicked over decade ago. Unlike so many performers, Ferguson never tries to lift himself above his material. Never aspires to be more than "just" an entertainer, and somehow gains credibility for it. Perhaps there is an irony that Craig Kilborn prefigured both Ferguson and Jon Stewart, as the two couldn't be more different—with the latter hosting a news spoof that takes itself seriously and the former hosting a talk show that refuses to.

There is no question that Craig Ferguson is a funny man. He is particularly good with interviews, displaying an affinity for wordplay that makes his raised-on-TV rivals like Conan O'Brien and Jimmy Fallon seem positively tongue-tied. But Ferguson would be first to admit that he isn't the world's most inventive comedian or finest sketch comic—though he's better than most at both. What sets Ferguson apart—what has kept him high and proud about the hot struggles of late-night—is an utterly undeniable likability.

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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