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.
That indisputable niceness has been evident throughout Ferguson's career—as when he famously refused to pile-on during Britney Spears' head-shaving meltdown—and during his live show Sunday night, when he practically apologized for having to make fun of celebrities before deftly doing so. Those takedowns included tone-setting slams of Kate Winslet and CBS workhouse Charlie Sheen, and a description of the conundrum Ferguson faced when his own boss, David Letterman, was caught in sex scandal that masterfully somehow avoided actually insulting the boss in question.
The job of comedian and talk show host may look the same, and stand-up comedy may produce lots of talk show hosts. But the two gigs are actually very different. The comic comes to town, says outrageous stuff, and leaves. The talk show host, as the saying goes, is invited to bed with viewers every night. Talk show hosts are TV friends—surrogate pals who hang out and chat about the day. No big whoop. You can't have some guy come into your home every night and start smashing watermelons with a sledgehammer.
At his peak, Letterman was more far more influential, both as a comic and a star-marker, than his Scottish employee at Worldwide Pants. Conan became beloved only after he got fired. Arsenio at his brief best was a cultural happening. Pat Sajek defined "affable," but no one watched him do it. Chelsea Handler is more feared than loved. Jimmy Fallon is still playing "kid brother" for a role that demands avuncularity. You have to go all the way back to Johnny Carson—dare we even mention the name?—to find a talk show host that Americans were more comfortable hanging out with than Ferguson.
The most shocking thing about Ferguson's nightly embrace by America, of course, is that he wasn't born here. Carson came from Nebraska. Letterman was born in Indiana, and it makes sense that their comic sensibilities would jibe with mainstream America's. Ferguson comes from Glasgow, Scotland, and is by far the most beloved on the very short list of British wits famous in the US. Ricky Gervais may be respected. Russell Brand is famous. John Cleese is revered. Dudley Moore, Peter Sellers and Benny Hill all have the unfortunate handicap of being dead. Eddie Izzard has a big cult following. Only Ferguson plays nightly in Peoria.
Beyond the comic talent, considerable but not overwhelming, and beyond his Borg-like affability there is, of course, one more major factor in Ferguson's US success. He is openly and passionately in love with the United States. From his well-known "great day in America" opening line, to urging his audience to vote and incorporating his ongoing process of Americanization into the show, Ferguson unashamedly adores the country—even the Red States. So maybe it's no surprise the country loves him back. And therein lies unfunny, but true answer to the violinist's question, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" Make America love you.
But "practice" doesn't hurt, either.