Craig Ferguson: Late Bloomer

Craig Ferguson always hated to fly. Hated it. In fact, he hated it from the age of 13, when he flew from his native Scotland to the United States. He spent years sedating himself into preflight oblivion, even after having gutted out enough puddle-jumping trips to work his way up to hosting CBS's "The Late Late Show." Then one night in 2005, actor Kurt Russell, who is also an avid pilot, was a guest. Russell suggested taking flying lessons. "The first time I tried it, I absolutely loathed it," says Ferguson, 45. "But after 15 more hours of it, it shifted from morbid fear to addiction." If he hated it so much, why do it 15 more hours? "What you're really asking is, 'What is it like to be Scottish?' I don't like being a slave to fear. Fear is culturally unacceptable in Scotland." That explains the kilts.

But his next flight could be the bumpiest yet. Ferguson's upcoming gig has him a little antsy. Next week he'll host the White House Correspondents' dinner, the annual black-tie confab of political journalists, celebrities and Washington power players. Oh, and the leader of the free world also shows up to poke a little fun at himself. Maybe Ferguson should get over his Scottish pride and be very afraid. Granted, the correspondents' dinner is an insular, little-seen event. But for the past two years, it's made headlines. In 2006, faux blowhard Stephen Colbert used the podium to hurl comedic firebombs at President Bush, who, along with the audience, seemed flustered and uncomfortable. Last year ancient celebrity impressionist Rich Little fell flat, alternating between tepid impersonations and staid jokes. For any of the one-named late-night hosts—Jay, Dave, Conan, Jon, even Jimmy—hosting the correspondents' dinner would be just another side gig. But given the feverish interest in this year's election, every bit of political flotsam has the potential of becoming a star-making YouTube flash point. For Ferguson, late night's best kept secret, it's a possible tipping point.

Ferguson admits to some performance jitters, but like most folks in Washington, he's figured out how to spin. "If I do a good job, that'll be good. And if I do a bad job, that'll be good for the next night's monologue." That's easy enough to say in a rumpled oxford shirt and jeans, lounging in his Los Angeles office, a few thousand miles from the D.C. Beltway. That bravado could melt away once he's in front of a stodgy crowd, smothered by a tuxedo. Because Craig Ferguson is not that guy. In fact, he's built "The Late Late Show's" healthy cult of just under 2 million insomniacs by not being that guy. He doesn't seem like he would be comfortable in a tux, seeing as how on his show he can't be counted on to wear a tie or fasten his shirts. (Unlike his fancy-pants boss, David Letterman, whose company produces the show.) He's taken to calling his viewers "naughty, naughty monkeys," particularly when they respond to one of his naughty, naughty jokes. Like when he recalled that a guest, former costar Drew Carey, planted a kiss on him. ("Now I can't stop thinking about him," he confessed.) He puts on absurdist sketches, like his impression of Michael Caine in space, or Aquaman as an advice columnist. Then there are his chatty, ambling monologues. He's known for going off the cuff and shooting off his mouth, whether there's a laugh every half minute or not. "What I try to do is be as personal or as honest as the situation will allow me to be," he says.

Honesty has played an important role in Ferguson's life, as it does in the life of any recovering alcoholic. He spent his childhood in Cumbernauld, Scotland, decided to drop out of high school to pursue a showbiz career and, at some point, started abusing alcohol as a salve for a failing marriage and a tenuous career full of dead ends. On Christmas Day in 1992, he woke up in a London pub and decided he was going to kill himself by leaping off the Tower Bridge. The barman persuaded him to stay and poured him a generous glass of sherry. They drank and talked and drank, and Ferguson forgot he was supposed to kill himself. He's been sober since.

He recounted the story 15 years later on his talk show. It was the basis for the explanation of his Britney Spears policy—why he wouldn't seize, as many comics had, on her misadventures to fuel his comedy. The crowd giggled, thinking they were being set up for an especially crushing punch line. It never came. "I never saw that as the 'Britney Spears monologue,' and everybody calls it that," he says. "I maybe mentioned Britney Spears for five seconds of a 15-minute monologue that was really about my own suicide attempt. But that's how pop culture is: my suicide attempt is less important than Britney's haircut. Maybe that's as it should be."

Or maybe, despite his penchant for self-deprecating humor, Ferguson is more in his zone when he's focusing his energy on others. His introspective direction started the night after Johnny Carson's death in 2005. Ferguson's show was the only one with a new episode that night. He wanted to pay his respects to Carson but didn't want to oversell his connection to a man he'd never met. His executive producer, Peter Lassally, gave him a bit of shopworn parental advice: be yourself. "I told him just to speak about what Johnny meant to him as a viewer," says Lassally, who had also served as Carson's executive producer. "He did an eloquent job talking about how he remembers being a kid and hearing his father laughing at Johnny, and how the show made it less scary to be in America." When Ferguson's father, Robert, died in 2006, he used the monologue to eulogize his dad. Letters of support and praise flooded in, and Ferguson earned an Emmy nomination.

But his public profile remains low—he's still best-known for his eight-year tenure as the abrasive boss Mr. Wick on "The Drew Carey Show." Ferguson is not at all resentful of his B-list status among the men of late night. "I'm just fortunate to be here," he says, and not in the way celebrities say that when they lose at awards shows and try to contain their bile. He comes across off-screen just as he does on—charismatic, down-to-earth, weirdly normal. The jocular rapport he creates with his guests isn't confined to the set. His fear-of-flying dinner with Russell wasn't a fluke; it was business as usual. On a recent show, a chat with actress Parker Posey devolved from a conversation about her last project into a flirtatious argument about why they fell out of touch. "Pardon us just a moment," he told the audience, as they bickered quietly about whether he was supposed to call her or vice versa. "I think he's a throwback to the talk-show hosts who talked and listened," says New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, a repeat guest/dinner companion, and who referred him for the correspondents' dinner. "The listening part seems to have gone out of style, when hosts are looking for a young demographic. Craig is curious, charming and witty, and that has restored the conversation that had been missing from late night."

The challenge now is for Ferguson to become the topic of conversation. He seems perfectly happy with his rung on the ladder, but no one in show business minds a little extra attention. Earlier this month, in a heartening reversal of fortune, his ratings numbers edged ahead of Conan O'Brien's for the first time. Perhaps the correspondents' dinner will provide an extra jolt. Or maybe it'll just be a lark. "I'm only doing this because I'm vain, and because I want to be the center of attention in a room of high-powered drunks," he says. "The vast majority of the people in the room probably won't even know my name." Perhaps for now.