Following in the tradition of a series of “Late Late Show” episodes that were filmed in Paris last year, Mr. Ferguson traveled to Scotland in March, bringing along his robot sidekick, Geoff Peterson, a team of celebrity pals like Mila Kunis, Rashida Jones, Michael Clarke Duncan and David Sedaris, and, wisest of all, some cameras to film his journeys there.
At the CBS Television City studios here, Mr. Ferguson, whose weeklong Scottish adventures will be broadcast beginning Monday, spoke with ArtsBeat about the trip and the memories of broken fingers that it brought back. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
How much preparation do you need to pull off a stunt like this?
This takes a bit of planning, and we were planning it for about six months. If I didn’t stay on [at CBS], this was going to be the end. The last hurrah. Or if I did stay on, then it was going to be a week of shows in Scotland and then we do something else.
Was that ever a possibility, that you wouldn’t stay on at “Late Late Show”?
Not in my mind, but show business is show business. I always expect someone to say, “Well, thanks very much but we’re moving on. We love you but we found somebody else we love more.” No one said that. They were fine – they were like, “Re-up, everything’s great.” But I don’t live in a world inside my head where everything’s going to be fine.
And now this office is yours until at least 2014.
Right. But I’m sure a smart lawyer could get me out of here in half an hour. And CBS has got great lawyers. So I’m not sure. I’m grateful for it now.
How long have you wanted to bring the show to Scotland?
I wanted to do it when I got the show. But it takes a while to get your confidence. I like to think that in the years I’ve been doing this, there’s been a creeping sedition and we’ve been breaking down the genre piece by piece. Although there’s been some very notable failures. I wanted to deconstruct the idea of the sidekick by having a robot sidekick who became a great sidekick [laughs] and the guy who does it is so good. So it’s a huge failure – it completely endorses the idea of the sidekick.
But it takes a while to get the confidence to deconstruct it sufficiently that you can go to another city. We don’t have the money on this show to go to a city and rent a theater. So we had to be brave enough to go and just set up a card table in the street. So we did that in Paris last year. And once we got to Paris and we made a bunch of mistakes there, then we thought we’ll give Scotland a crack.
What mistakes do you think you made in Paris?
Well, first of all, we didn’t have the crew that we should have had. We turned up in town with, like, 50 bucks and a dream. Americans have gotten into trouble before in Paris with that attitude. So I think we had a rather romantic notion about how helpful they were going to be. The stuff that went on the air was O.K. It was hit or miss. I’m much more excited about this one because we added a couple of days shooting, we got a great production company in Scotland. Also, I had some contacts and some history there, and that helped.
Is it important that you have some personal connections to the cities where you travel?
In order to make it more fun, I think there has to be an authenticity to it. I had history in Paris, I got in trouble in Paris, I had done some things in Paris. Scotland? [rolls eyes, murmurs guiltily] So the next one I’ve been pitching to them is New York City. Because I got into trouble in New York City. We’ll see where that one goes, but let’s get this one out of the way first.
What locations from your past did you visit in Scotland?
We had to go to the house that I was a child in. I left when I was 5 years old, but there’s a lady who lives in it, so we went and we talked to her. It’s in a town called Cumbernauld, outside Glasgow. We went to my old high school, which was also an odd experience. I remember it as being this horrible place where everyone was very brutal. And it was. But I went back and of course it’s changed – they don’t do that anymore. They don’t have corporal punishment anymore. They don’t beat children up. The teachers were lovely and the kids were happy. It was horrifying. [laughs]
We went to a bar where I got my [rear] kicked. This guy who was like the local heavy came in and his girlfriend was sitting on my knee. This happened 30 years ago. So we went back to the exact same bar, exact same table, and we re-enacted it using kid actors. It happened to me when I was 19, but we used kids who were 12 and we put mustaches on them. See my finger broken there [shows broken middle finger], how it’s broken and bent like that? The weird thing is, my first-born son has that same break in his finger. He hit me so hard that my first-born son also had a broken finger.
What do you think you gained from revisiting some of these not-so-pleasant places and experiences?
The inventory process and stepping back in your life can sometimes be a very dark process. But it also can be extremely funny and surprising. Scotland is a much lighter and more fun place than I thought it was. I was miserable when I was there. But it wasn’t Scotland’s fault. It was my circumstances. I was – I hate to say the word humbled – but that’s what it felt like. I was wrong about this place. This is a great place full of very fun people.
For a lot of Americans, our vision of Scotland is formed either by “Brigadoon” or by “Trainspotting.”
And my experience was “Trainspotting.” And I went back and found a lot more “Brigadoon.” I don’t know if that’s my age or I’ve developed a certain American optimism or what.
Are you regarded as a celebrity in your home country?
We were shooting in Greyfriars churchyard in Edinburgh, I was standing under an umbrella and the film unit was all around, and it was a public thing. Two Scottish people walked by and somebody said [in a Scottish accent even stronger than Ferguson's], “Who is it that’s filming here?” And the other said, “Craig Ferguson.” “Who’s that?” “He’s famous, but only in America.” So it was like, you’re right. I’m not famous there.
What will you do back here in the States while these episodes are being shown?
We’re probably going to take the week off. That would be nice. It’s actually my 50th birthday that week. A very freaky number. There’s a story Billy Connolly told me, that on his 50th birthday, he got his nipples pierced. He went to some place in the Valley and he got his nipples pierced. He said, “I had to do something.” The great thing was, when the guy was doing it – piercing his first nipple – he said, “One less of them, one more of us.” So I have to, in some spiritual way, pierce my nipples. I would like to find a less horrendous equivalent. Maybe that was the trip to Scotland.
First night was amazing, happy 50th birthday to Craig!! :D