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Craig Ferguson: 'His accent makes him exotic and different' Add to ...

The duties of American citizenship fell on Craig Ferguson like a load of bricks last year.

Before the ink dried on the papers designating him a new U.S. citizen, the Glasgow-born host of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson (CBS and E!, weeknights at 12:35 a.m.) was besieged with requests to appear at high-profile/non-paying events. "They certainly didn't wait long to come calling," says Ferguson with a wee wince.

But a new American does not say no. In one six-week stretch last spring, Ferguson performed at the White House Correspondents Dinner, helmed CBS's New York presentations for advertisers, served as the "comedy relief" at the Simon Wiesenthal memorial dinner in Beverly Hills and, in a lower-profile appearance, he delivered the best-man speech at his best friend's wedding back home in Scotland.

"I can honestly say what terrified me most was the speech in Scotland," said Ferguson, 46, "because these people are armed, they are drunk and they already hate me. The White House dinner was the least of my worries."

Ferguson got through each gig on sheer Scottish charm, which is still serving him in good stead on The Late Late Show. Since taking over the host reins from Craig Kilborn - hey, remember him? - back in 2005, Ferguson has steadily tweaked the talk-show format to produce what might be the slackest hour on network television.

Accordingly, the recent arrival of direct competition in the form of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon does not seem to concern the affable Scot in the least. "Ah, Jimmy's a very funny chap, very funny," said Ferguson graciously, "but I'm fairly sure our shows have different audiences. Jimmy will probably get the younger viewers; my audience is a little older, maybe a bit less alert ... but very loyal, I hope."

There's little chance late-night viewers will have difficulty choosing between the two hosts: Fallon's new show is glaringly skewed to the text-message generation - the first network talk show to make use of Twitter, Skype and other tech tricks while the show is actually taping. Ferguson's show, meanwhile, is a throwback to old-school talk-fests: fast and loose and seemingly sans rehearsal.

Ergo, Ferguson's fans have become accustomed to the bizarre. Wander into The Late Late Show any given night and you're apt to see the host perform a puppet show, or dressed up as the Queen in a giddy comedy skit, or engaged in serious conversation, with, say, recent guest Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

"Most nights we just let the show happen," said Ferguson. "I mean we have a rough idea, but we've never felt any pressure to produce any sort of traditional talk show, which wouldn't make sense. I couldn't do it. I'm not a talk-show host."

If anything, The Late Late Show is reminiscent of David Letterman, circa the mid-eighties, when he occupied the same timeslot on a different network. Whereas Letterman created Stupid Pet Tricks and Larry "Bud" Melman, Ferguson repeatedly dons a kilt and thickens his brogue to impersonate Sean Connery.

"You can get away with pretty much anything after midnight on American television," said Ferguson. "Really, who's up watching that late? Our biggest enemy is sleep."

The Letterman influence is not by accident. The Late Late Show is owned and produced by Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants, and executive produced by Letterman's long-time producer, TV veteran Peter Lassally.

"The loose format works off Craig's natural appeal," said Lassally, who ran The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson for two decades. "Just his accent makes him exotic and different."

Now nearing the thousand-episode mark, The Late Late Show is a nightly adventure for Ferguson, whose previous TV experience was playing Drew Carey's unctuous British boss on The Drew Carey Show.

Four years in, Ferguson still refers to his studio audience as "my cheeky monkeys." Some nights the show starts with a monologue; other nights it begins with a sketch or Ferguson simply sitting at the desk. Most often it depends on the host's mood.

"We have topical things I'm going to say, but there's nothing really structured," Ferguson said. "The monologue is not written until it's performed; then it's written. That keeps it interesting for me."

Ferguson's interviewing technique is somewhere short of laid back. Guests seem to open up readily to the host, who often abandons any planned line of questioning.

It's not all jokes. Ferguson surprised many people a few years back with the serious and semi-autobiographical novel Between the Bridge and the River, which garnered mostly positive reviews. On The Late Late Show, he occasionally abandons all comedy protocol to talk directly to the camera about whatever strikes his fancy; unlike Letterman, he's quite willing to open up his own life to the world.

Regular viewers have heard him expound on his past struggles with alcoholism (he's been sober since 1992) and his two failed marriages, two topics featured prominently in his stand-up special A Wee Bit o' Revolution, recently broadcast on U.S. cable.

Sometimes Ferguson turns serious: When his mother died last December, his touching eulogy took up most of the show. "If I have any discernible skill, it is communicating how I feel," he said. "Also, it's my mom. What was I going to do, make jokes about Paris Hilton?"

The Paris Hilton jokes are kept in reserve for when Hilton herself appears on the show, which happened three weeks ago. Ferguson allowed the celubutante to plug her latest project - a new reality show - and broached the unavoidable when he complimented his guest on her plunging décolletage. "I enjoy cleavage," he freely admitted. "I'm an American citizen, I'm entitled."

In his own dark/cheery way, Ferguson almost seems to enjoy the fact that all his fame and fortune could disappear in the blink of an eye. He went into marriage No. 3 last year - to art dealer Megan Wallace Cunningham - which caused him some brief concern for his talk-show future.

"I thought, well, that's the end of it. Now I'm happy, so I won't be funny," reflected Ferguson. "And that made me so happy we actually did a couple of good shows that week. Luckily, my psychiatrist assures me I still have reserves of unhappiness equal to Saudi Arabia's reserves of oil."

jaryan@globeandmail.com

*****

RYAN'S PICKS

FRIDAY

Heli-Loggers

Possibly you believe loggers lead the good life - out in the fresh air, swinging an axe, eating hearty meals - but old perceptions are not the reality. This remarkable series follows loggers working deep within the rain forests of northern B.C. The rowdy group is transported in and out of the rain forest via an enormous Boeing Chinook helicopter and usually works in perilous conditions and under severe time constraints. Wherever possible, the loggers employ environmentally sound techniques such as "standing stem harvesting," wherein a topped and trimmed tree is plucked up and out of the ground with minimal damage to the surrounding forest. In most episodes, the logging is superseded by grand human drama. In tonight's show, the crew boss, Gord, hands over a big job to his head tree climber, Robyn. In short order, the work site is a mess, the job runs overtime; Gord goes ballistic and one crew member storms off in a fit of pique. Who knew loggers were so sensitive?

Discovery, 8 p.m.

SUNDAY

Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

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ABC, 8 p.m.

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