When TV’s Craig Ferguson dropped by ‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno’ after a 14-year sabbatical
As the voice of Owl, Craig Ferguson spent the summer of 2011 promoting Disney’s animated reimagining of the much beloved Winnie the Pooh, surfacing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and The Late Show with David Letterman.
His visit with Leno was a milestone. Ferguson hadn’t appeared on The Tonight Show since April 1997, not counting a three-second cameo during a July 2008 remote show segment at the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal [Ferguson deftly passed a microphone to the next comic].
And it was also pretty uncommon for a late night host from another competing network, particularly one whose boss was David Letterman, to drop by. In fact, the previous rival late night host to appear with Leno was Jimmy Kimmel, and that was on the ill-fated Jay Leno Show in January 2010 when Kimmel infamously pummeled the unabashed gearhead [e.g. “Strippers I don’t like in general, because you have this phony relationship with them for money, similar to that of when you and Conan were on The Tonight Show together, passing the torch”] over his critically lambasted decision to return to The Tonight Show.
So it’s likely Leno may have experienced a bit of trepidation prior to the July 13 interview, since Ferguson prides himself on not being a show biz phony…and one of his recurring Late Late Show bits was the hilarious “Jay Leno Fly.” Nevertheless, Ferguson was in fine form, and both comedians acted like old drinking buddies [Leno has Scottish ancestry from his maternal side].
This was in sharp contrast to Ferguson’s appearance on Conan O’Brien’s eponymous Conan TBS show five months earlier, a missed opportunity in several aspects. Chiefly, the Conan conversation was surprisingly dull and offered relatively few comic insights.
Ferguson walked out on Leno’s show sporting a sleek, trendy-looking black leather jacket, with a white shirt trailing below it. The two hosts embraced and shook hands in what seemed to be a genuine display of emotion.
During the wide-ranging conversation, plenty of humorous anecdotes were thrown in for good measure. By far, the edgiest joke was relayed by Leno in a moment recalling previous White House Correspondents’ Dinners, which both comedians have hosted.
Back in the mid-‘80s, Leno was about to figuratively “roast” President Reagan and was waiting to go onstage. A high-ranking military official pulled him aside and warned Leno not to make any disparaging quips. But almost immediately after the military guy was finished, then-Secretary of State George Schultz walked up to the comedian and said, “Ronnie loves it when you just nail him.” So Leno didn’t know what to do.
However, he ultimately delivered his opening joke: “I want to congratulate Nancy Reagan for winning the Humanitarian of the Year Award. I’m glad she beat out that conniving little b**ch, Mother Teresa.” As you might imagine, Ferguson and the audience were in stitches.
Leno then asked Ferguson about his U.S. citizenship, and this understandably got loud cheers from the crowd. When Leno went to commercial break, Ferguson couldn’t help but add “We’ll be right back!” much to Leno’s amusement.
After the commercial break, Ferguson discussed one of his latest trips to Russia as only he can: “Everywhere you look, all these giant, tall, beautiful people. The women, too!”
The real meat of the conversation happened when Leno asked Ferguson about his Late Late Show. Being on a different network, there was no guarantee this would happen, but Ferguson gamely addressed some fan’s concerns about whether or not he liked his current hosting job and how he eventually became a comfortable host.
“Most nights I enjoy it, but some nights I’m like, ‘Come on,’” said Ferguson. “I used to be so nervous when I started, I was thinking ‘I don’t know how I’m gonna do this every night.’ And now when I do the show I think, ‘Finally I can relax, get all these people off my back, and have an hour where I’m in charge.’“
As their natural banter progressed, Ferguson admitted his show “taped at about five in the evening, so I get there about ten minutes to five. I think you can over-rehearse these things…”
Leno didn’t try to get Ferguson off the subject of late night, and as Ferguson gazed around the studio, he declared, “We’ve got no money in our show. There’s no band, no lighting, no tables that look a bit like machinery, nothing like that. We do have the element of surprise, which is, ‘Will they make it to the end of this show, or not?”’
Leno questioned Ferguson about how he handled a bad guest. “I kinda zone out,” revealed Ferguson. “Or if they ignore me, that’s basically the worst…so I start playing with things on my desk.”
As if on cue, Ferguson noticed Leno’s desk microphone, a tradition of The Tonight Show for decades, and continued, “I don’t have a microphone like you do…is it a Freudian penis?” Leno countered that the microphone wasn’t connected and had a neat little TV moment when he attempted to demonstrate his belief by yelling into it, but he was definitely wrong [his crew corrected him]. Ferguson grinned as Leno forcibly unplugged the mic, saying “There will be a lot of meetings about that.”
All too soon, the 12-minute segment was history. The camera faded to black as Leno left Ferguson with these parting words: “Craig, my friend, come see us again, and don’t make it 14 years.”
Ferguson stuck around for actress Rose Byrne’s segment, and viewers caught a wonderful water-cooler moment midway through her interview. While discussing the blockbuster Bridesmaids [Byrne had a co-starring part], the subject of male lap dancers came up, and without skipping a beat, Leno asked Ferguson to demonstrate.
Ferguson gamely jumped up on Byrne’s chair and did his best impersonation, getting tremendous screams and howls from the audience, especially the ladies. The wonderful impromptu bit was already on The Tonight Show’s official website before it aired, and the laugh-out-loud footage can be seen here.
Ferguson subsequently pulled double duty at 12:37 a.m. with The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, albeit on CBS. In his three-minute cold open, Ferguson couldn’t help but discuss his experience with Leno, and this conversation came up time and time again with amusing results.
Legendary insult comic Don Rickles was featured on The Tonight Show the following night, and it was a shame he couldn’t have been booked along with Ferguson. Now that would have been mind-blowing.
In complete contrast to Ferguson’s appearance on The Tonight Show, on July 27, 2011, he visited Letterman. Dressed in a proper suit with corresponding black and white tie, the New York atmosphere didn’t really suit Ferguson’s outspoken, naughty-boy style of comedy.
Widely considered to be the best interviewer in late night when his solid 33-year tenure ended voluntarily in 2015— Letterman relishes tough questions— it was especially disappointing that their rapport didn’t evolve beyond the typical “guest walks out to promote his product, talk about their family/product, then exits” mantra that robs so many late night shows of their spontaneity. Letterman was on autopilot. In all honesty, Ferguson was suppressed, which definitely wouldn’t have been the case if he could have time traveled to Letterman’s inspired, off-the-wall Late Night NBC show in the ’80s which ignited after 12:30 a.m.
Ferguson was engaging and funny on Leno, and that’s the guest spot deserving of your attention. Bonding behind the scenes, the Celebrity Name Game host and Leno wound up leap frogging on one another’s shows up to the present day — the Scottish stand-up even booked Leno as his final guest on The Late Late Show in 2014 and waged a bizarrely brazen Lip Sync Battle. After wrapping his Sirius-XM radio program and filming the Love Me to Death indie movie in Scotland with Today morning show host Kathie Lee Gifford in June 2018, Ferguson is plotting a mammoth 45-plus date Hobo Fabulous stand-up tour of the USA starting on September 7 at the Comedy Works in Denver, Colorado.
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