Craig Ferguson On His New Stand-Up Docuseries And The Ravages Of Life On The Road

From his years spent hosting the The Late Late Show with a horse named Secretariat in tow all the way back to his name-making turn on The Drew Carey Show and beyond, Craig Ferguson‘s made a near-lethal weapon (in the kindest manner possible) of his rollicking Scottish accent. Despite never leaving the small screen (or the big one) for too long, he’s about to return to a TV or streaming device near you with his upcoming stand-up docuseries, Hobo Fabulous. Comedy Dynamics Network will launch the series (you can watch the trailer here) on November 12 across the iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and Xbox platforms and through cable providers.

Through this project, Ferguson aims to deliver a docuseries like folks have never seen before. You know, something that goes far beyond the usual, carefully calculated behind-the-scenes glimpses that creative types like to release to prove they are human. Well, Ferguson certainly swaggers onstage in a bit of a rock-star way, but offstage, it’s clear that he carries no pretense and does not struggle upon returning to reality. For every joke that people hear live, many more moments are spent between gigs and backstage, dissecting bits and feeling out what works (and what, most decidedly, does not) and what he hopes to communicate to his audience. By the end, viewers will see a truly deep dive for what’s ultimately a team effort, and Ferguson was gracious enough to speak with us about the docuseries and more.

Whoa, you sound exactly like Craig Ferguson.

You know, it’s something that I’m working on! I’m trying very hard to keep it that way. I’m actually out in rural Scotland right now, so the accent work is doing well.

Sometimes I feel like I know what someone will sound like on the phone, and then there’s a slight difference, but you are definitely Craigy Ferg.

[Laughs] Yes, it’s me.

Well, this docuseries does show off your different shades. We see what you’re like when you’re not on stage, and you have many softer, reflective moments.

Yeah, what I wanted to do was trying to create something different for the viewer. Like, really my position on it was this: when you’re actually at a stand-up comedy show, and you know this because you’ve seen ’em, it’s a much more intimate thing. And if you’re in a stand-up comedy show that’s then turned into a special, you’ll look at that special and say, “What happened to that bit?” And “that bit was cut out.” So it’s a different sort of a thing. For me and the way I do things, I felt like with that format, I was losing an intimacy that existed in the theater. So what I wanted to try to do was to create a format for myself that gave the viewer something that the person in the theater didn’t get. To create an alternative to the intimacy of a live show. And also, Joe [Bolter] and I (who wrote the show) had set ourselves a challenge at the start of the writing period. We said, “Let’s write 90 minutes of stand-up that contains no politics. Zero politics.” And so we did!

A lot of people will appreciate the no-politics aspect.

It was an experiment and a challenge for ourselves, but because it was like that, it created a show which was intimate and reflective and anecdotal. I think this particular stand-up show lends itself to this type of format, and it was a kind-of organic thing that grew out of the way that we started writing the show in the first place, really.

And adding hot-button issues into the mix probably could have distracted from the intimacy of this format because you can get political discussions anywhere.

I think so. For me, it’s not like I don’t have political opinions, of course, but I’m getting tired of even hearing the people who I agree with. So if I do an hour-and-a-half of stand-up that doesn’t have politics in it, everyone that everyone’s angry about will still be there an hour-and-a-half later. We can still go back to being angry. I thought it might be an interesting challenge to see if we could do it, to see if we could stay away from it. And I feel like we were successful. Creatively, I felt like it, and in business terms, the show was extremely successful, and it touched a nerve in some way. It’s not like shows shouldn’t talk politics — they should. I just didn’t want to do it this time around.

This series introduces the real you, in a sense. You address not falling into the “Tears Of A Clown” pitfall, meaning that you’re able to turn off your onstage persona and don’t feel the pressure to always entertain.

Yeah, we tried to ask that question on the show to my wife and kids because they’re the people that know me best. They seem to think I can turn it off, and I think I can. Yes, I can turn it off a bit, and it’s also … the older I get, the less I can turn it on while onstage, to be honest, so I just keep talking. When I started out, it was kind-of like all fire and brimstone, and raging around the stage and stuff, and I don’t have the energy for that shit anymore. So I just talk now, and I think it becomes not such a big performance onstage, either. It’s lessened in both areas. I’ll say it! I’m getting old.

Well, I have to say that your wife seemed pretty happy that you can “turn it off.” She’s a glorious riot.

She is a very funny person, yeah. She’s hilarious. She actually wasn’t credited in the writing of this one, but I always steal stuff from her ideas anyway. And she certainly has written for me in other stand-up shows.

She might be even funnier than you are?

[Pauses] I think you could, on a good day, or depending on how you view a good day or a bad day … you know …. [Laughs] …. she is funnier than I am. And I wouldn’t be the only person to say that in our circle.

Early on in this series, you compare stand-up to being like a rock star, and then you added, “But I don’t have to do any work at all.” It’s very much work, though?

I think that it is, but it’s an odd form or work in the sense that talking about things and trying to make those around you laugh is something that I would do anyway. It is work because you’ve gotta travel, and you’ve gotta make sure the act is in shape for going out, and you can remember enough words to keep talking for an hour-and-a-half and tell the stories and do a good show. But it doesn’t feel like work in the sense like when I tended bar, or when I was delivering milk and stuff. It doesn’t feel like that kind of work.

There was a rock-star vibe to the subject, like when you were talking about the ravages of road life. I kept thinking about Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead Or Alive,” do you know what I mean? When Jon’s woefully staring out the window of a tour bus in the video.

Haha, yeah. It’s funny because there’s a lot of, it’s weirdly glamorous times. Well, not weirdly. You’re getting on the tour bus, traveling around, it’s a blast, but like anything you do, sometimes it gets a little, “Geez, I’d like to go home.” When you see rock documentaries, especially ones that are sponsored by the band, you see every big fancy gig that they do, but you don’t see the Tuesday night gig that the filler between one big gig and another. And that’s the reality of touring. Not every gig is in an enormous hall, you play small gigs on the way to big gigs, that’s how it works.

Other than missing your family, what is the greatest inconvenience that you encounter on the road?

Personal hygiene and sleep. I don’t sleep very well, and you tend to end up sleeping sometimes for an hour on the bus, and then two hours in a hotel and then half an hour backstage and stuff like that. Your sleep pattern gets screwed up, and I think that’s why people can get a little crazy on the road. I think it’s a lot to do with sleep deprivation. It’s like when your kids are really young, you think you’re going crazy, but you really just need some sleep.

Well, you took some years off from stand-up, but is it true that you returned after feeling sort-of creatively stifled on The Late Late Show for CBS?

I don’t think I felt creatively stifled. What I felt was that I had better be careful. Like, I did have to make a television show, and there are certain rules when you make a show. There are several words, obviously, that you can’t say and certain topics that they’d prefer you not talk about. If I had a 20-minute piece on how crap a particular car is, and that company is sponsoring The Late Late Show, that piece doesn’t get done. So there are — you know, maybe you’re right — there was a bit of creative stifling. But I didn’t feel particularly imprisoned by it, but I felt like I was, for the first time in a long time, in a job where I had to be careful. I wasn’t used to that, so I think stand-up allows you a place where you don’t really have to be careful. You can say what you want, and that helps.

And you were able to bring in the guys who played Secretariat for this series.

Yeah! Well, Joe was the front end of Secretariat and is now is the co-writer and the director of this series. I think, you know, he probably still puts on the horse head every now and again, and that can make him feel pretty.

Ooh, busted!

He’s been around for a long time. One of the reasons why Joe ended up directing this is that he was a production assistant on The Late Late Show. When we started working together, we found the old horse costume, and Joe jumped into the front of it, and he turned it into something. That horse has an attitude, and he’s funny, and all he had was a horse costume, and he really impressed me, to take a really shitty gig into something that really worked out.

What does the Hobo Fabulous title of the series mean? You have suggested that it doesn’t have much meaning at all.

It has a little meaning, I suppose. I joked about it on stage and said it has no meaning, so that people don’t get angry. But really, the meaning that it has to me is that kind-of vagabond life. It’s a description of, when you come down to it, someone going town to town and living on their wit.

Throughout this vagabond life, you struggled with “The David Bowie Joke.” We can’t give it away, but can we touch on it?

I wanted to show that sometimes a joke doesn’t work even if a comedian wants it to work. I mean sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but every comic that I know has a joke or has done a joke that they really do for themselves because the audience doesn’t like it. And I thought if it’s part of the experiment of doing a format like this to maybe let the audience see that, like why not see me fuck it up and fail? Why not see me try it and try it again, and it worked once, and the trial and error of comedy is interesting to see.

How long was the build-up before you actually did that joke?

That joke was just in this particular show. We wrote this stand-up just over a year ago. August of 2018 we wrote it and took it on the road in September, and showed this thing out by April of this year. So it’s been the editing and everything from there.

You’ve made no secret about your Bowie fascination and once admitted that you practiced being Bowie in the mirror when you were younger.

I think everybody in my generation, maybe a little bit younger and a little bit older, did that. I mean, David Bowie was … how do I describe his impact on everything? Especially when I was a kid, you know, when I was like 13 or 14 years old, he was everything. Everybody loved Bowie, even when punk happened, no one turned on Bowie. And they turned on everybody else, but not on Bowie.

A decent chunk of time in this series digs into how, in your words, “It’s difficult to be appropriately inappropriate.”

Well, it is! If you’ve got to say something inappropriate, it’s difficult to make it appropriate. Whenever you say something, you have to be able to back it up. It’s like with Ricky Gervais, I really like what he has to say about it: “Just because you’re offended, it doesn’t mean you’re right.” That’s what it is. You can’t worry too much about offending people. I’m not a shock comic, I’m not looking to create controversy with what I’m doing, but you’re bound to say something to upset somebody. It happens.

Like you point out, people are now frequently offended on behalf of other people, and often preemptively so.

Well, I think that’s true. And that’s framing the Groundskeeper Willie joke, which is a true story.

No more spoilers! But I do want to congratulate you on being the first person to say “Kierkegaard” in a stand-up set, and good luck with this series.

Thank you! I really appreciate it, and I know that Søren, wherever he is, would appreciate it, too.

Comedy Dynamics will begin streaming the ‘Craig Ferguson: Hobo Fabulous’ docuseries on multiple platforms, including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and Xbox, along with most cable providers on November 12th.