Comedian Craig Ferguson ‘an immigrant with a lot of heart’

Comedian Craig Ferguson has been to Milwaukee before, and the former host of The Late Late Show knows exactly what to expect when he gets here.

“You know you’re in Milwaukee when polite people accost you on the street and offer you cheese,” Ferguson says.

Ferguson last visited the Cream City in May 2015, when he performed a night of standup at The Riverside Theater. He’ll be back at the Riverside with The New Deal Tour on April 8 (the performance was originally scheduled for Nov. 4).

“Milwaukee to me is the quintessential American city,” says Ferguson, who was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1962. “It’s cool and clean and kind of pretty, but I haven’t been there in the really horrible weather.”

Talking to people and gay robots

Most people know Ferguson from the 10 years he spent hosting the late night CBS talk show with the able assistance of Geoff Peterson, television’s only gay skeleton robot.

Voiced and operated by comedian Josh Robert Thompson, Geoff was created by Mythbusters’ robotics expert Grant Imahara, who bet Ferguson he couldn’t attract 100,000 Twitter followers. Imahara lost the bet and had to build the comedian’s sidekick.

Geoff still sits quietly in the corner of Ferguson’s Los Angeles office, but he is rarely switched on anymore, the comedian confides.

Ferguson walked away from The Late Late Show in late 2014, content with the time he spent there, but anxious to try other comedic avenues. He wound up hosting the syndicated show The Celebrity Name Game, for which he has won two Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Game Show Host.

The difference between his two television gigs is, well, not that different, he explains.

“The truth is the shows are kind of the same because I’m kind of the same,” Ferguson says. “When you do a talk show, of course you’ve got to talk to people. In a game show, you’re playing a dumb game. It allows people who are not necessarily good conversationalists to play around on TV.”

Road to the Riverside

Ferguson entered the entertainment industry in the early 1980s, drumming for what he describes as “some of the worst punk bands in the U.K.” While working as a bartender at a Glasgow pub, he met Michael Boyd, then artistic director for the city’s Tron Theatre, who persuaded Ferguson to try acting.

The drummer/bartender quickly discovered he had a knack for comedy and the rest, as they say, is entertainment history.

Ferguson rode the English comedy circuit and even had his own BBC series, The Ferguson Theory, before coming to the U.S. in 1995 to star in the short-lived ABC comedy series Maybe This Time with Betty White and Marie Osmond.

However, it was his portrayal of Nigel Wick in The Drew Carey Show that really launched his American career.

“When I think of Wisconsin I also think of my friend Kathy Kinney (who played Carey’s nemesis Mimi Bobeck on the show) who’s from Stevens Point,” Ferguson says.

In addition to comedy, Ferguson also is an accomplished actor and voice artist, has written scripts for feature films like The Big Tease and Saving Grace, and made his directorial debut helming the film I’ll Be There, which he also wrote and starred in. In 2006, his first novel Between the Bridge and the River from Chronicle Books was published to positive public response.

‘Great day for America’

Ferguson also is an unabashed admirer of the United States, where he has lived for 21 years. He counts becoming a citizen of his adopted homeland in 2008 as one of his greatest achievements.

“It was a huge thing for me at the time,” he says. “You don’t change your country like you might change your haircut. It was surprisingly moving for me and gave me great empathy for those who came before me.”

He counts America’s cultural and geographic diversity as among its biggest differences with Scotland. But there are similarities as well.

“Overall, America is a little bit bigger than Scotland and everyone has nicer teeth,” he notes. “But there are parts that are extremely like Scotland. Drew Carey and I used to talk about how Cleveland and Glasgow could be the same city.”

Indeed, Ferguson used to start each episode of The Late Late Show with the same phrase that eventually became his tagline: “It’s a great day for America, everybody!”

“I started saying it, people seemed to like it and it just kind of stuck,” he explains. “I still open my shows that way, and it kind of feels good.”

Ferguson’s sense of humanity makes it easy to understand his ongoing appeal in so many different mediums.

“The comedy I enjoy has a sense of naughtiness and fun without being heartless,” Ferguson explains. “It has to contain wit, humor, intelligence and bravery. It has to have intellect and romance, which I define as a little bit of magic, with a certain mystery and wildness about it.”

So, what can Milwaukee audience members expect from Ferguson’s April show at the Riverside?

“They can expect a sophomoric, ill-rehearsed, amateurish performance done by an immigrant with a lot of heart,” he says. “I don’t really have an act. I am who I am and I say what I say,” Ferguson says. “But I try to have a good time because if I am having a good time chances are the audience has a good time, too.”

On Stage

Craig Ferguson brings The New Deal Tour to The Riverside Theater, 116 W. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee, on April 8. The show was originally scheduled for Nov. 4.