If you’ve ever wanted proof that the Fringe changes lives, take a look at Craig Ferguson. The Scottish stand-up cut his teeth there, was talented spotted by a Hollywood agent in the Assembly Rooms and whisked away to write and star in movies and sitcoms and host the legendary CBS Late Late Show (current host: James Corden) before returning this year – older, wiser, a legend in the USA, but keen to be just another turn at the Gilded Balloon.
“There’s nowhere like the Fringe,” he says with a youthful enthusiasm belying his 55 years. “I remember seeing a theatre company from a former Soviet state doing a play where they didn’t talk, they just used brooms, then heading over to Late and Live to see my friend Lewis Black dying worse than anyone I’ve ever seen – all on a single night. I don’t know how it will go. I don’t even know if I care how it goes. I’m just happy to be here.”
Ferguson’s showbiz career technically began in Cumbernauld, near Glasgow, with a series of high school heavy metal bands called Stag and Night Creatures. “I was still living with my mum, so we were Night Creatures but home in bed by 10 o’clock,” he laughs. He dropped out to pursue rock n roll, joining a punk band called Bastards from Hell with Peter Capaldi – which explains Capaldi’s guitar playing in Doctor Who.
“Being in a band back then was like Instagram now,” he points out. “Everybody was doing it. The Glasgow scene was so cool at that point – you had Orange Juice and Aztec Camera and we were all hanging out and partying together.”
It was Capaldi who introduced Ferguson to stand-up comedy – and also came up with the name for his first comedy persona, Bing Hitler. “I thought the name would be useful publicity and attract attention,” he explains. “It worked – I only did him for two years but people still talk to me about it”
There’s some old recordings of Bing Hitler lurking on YouTube – sporting wild hair and a damaged suit, delivering frenetic and surreal material like the alarming child of Rik Mayall and Nick Helm. “I had a very aggressive style because I’d usually be on the bill with bands,” he laughs. “The audience were shouting ‘wanker’ before I even got to the microphone, which makes you a little raucous in your delivery.”
Ferguson’s first festival break came in 1986 with a show upstairs at the Café Royal beginning at 1am and stretching into the night, with bands, guests and Bing Hitler as the demented host. “Everything I’ve done in my career really comes from that three week period in August 1986,” he muses. “Without trying to aggrandise myself I think that was my Cavern era – wild all night drunken mayhem.”
And he was very drunk. He was an alcoholic – a self-destructive mess. He tried to kill himself on Christmas day 1991 after waking up in a London pub having missed his train and facing the festive season alone. He was leaving for Tower Bridge to throw himself in the river when the barman begged him to have one glass of seasonal sherry. It cued up another binge which would prove to be his last – he checked in with Alcoholics Anonymous and he’s been sober ever since.
“I’d never, ever performed sober – I found was I wasn’t as good as I thought I was but everyone else seemed to think I’d gotten a lot better,” he laughs. “I won’t lie it was a tough and uncomfortable transition, but completely necessary – I was pretty out of control.”
He started working with Harry Enfield, Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson and two years later he was at the Assembly Rooms doing stand-up and performing in the Odd Couple when he was spotted. “I went out to LA for two weeks and suddenly it’s 23 years later,” he still sounds slightly surprised. “I didn’t plan on being away so long – I was cast in the Drew Carey Show, a big sitcom out there, and then I got the Late Late Show and I was always working when the Festival was on, so I just never got back.”
He’s kept his hand in with the stand-up though, performing a new show every two years. “When I got the Late Late Show, Eddie Izzard said ‘you have to be careful if you do this job – it’s so visible that people will think it’s all you do,’” Ferguson explains. “He’s a smart guy and it made sense. I was working for such a big slice of corporate America that the only way they wouldn’t own me is if I re-started my stand-up life. All you have to do is turn up in a town and get on a stage. There’s no-one else involved. And, of course, stand-up is a little bit like crack – you’re never really free of it…”
Having left the Late Late Show – “I swore I’d only do eight years, but they filled my mouth with gold and I did 10” – he now splits his life between LA in term time – where his two sons go to school – and his Ayrshire home. He hosts a two hour talk show on SiriusXM Satellite Radio and that’s the basis of his Fringe run.
“Basically I’m hosting the show live from Edinburgh,” he shrugs. “I’ll have my buddy Joe Boulter and Josh Robert Thompson, my long term side kick from the Late Late Show who used to appear in skeleton robes. Then I want as many guests as possible. I don’t think I’ll do material as such, but I’ll definitely be riffing with everyone.”
As for Auld Reekie itself, his heart is torn in two. “There’s so many happy memories but so many sad ones too,” he explains. “People who are no longer around and places that mean a little too much. I’m glad to be back and I’m raring to go, but for me this is a city of ghosts – and some of them are still a bit scary…” he pauses for a heartbeat then gives a quick laugh. “But hey, what could possibly go wrong?”
WORDS: Steven Armstrong
WHERE & WHEN
The Craig Ferguson Show, Gilded Balloon at Rose Theatre, 7-18 August (not 12, 13), 10.45pm
from £16 Tel: 0131 622 6552