Boisterous Brainiac

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Boisterous Brainiac For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

Any of you energetic enough or insomniac enough to stay up until after midnight might have already latched onto The Late Late Show on CBS, hosted for more than a year now by the Scottish comedian Craig Ferguson, who seems more at ease in front of a camera than just about any of his competitors.

On a recent show, in a Scottish accent that would be funny even without punchlines, he began a typically tossed-off monologue by saying, "Relax! Take your girdle off. Rub yourself with cocoa butter. It takes care of the stretch marks."

On that same show, he pretended to write a letter to David Letterman about Tom Cruise, who had just appeared on Letterman's show. "What's he going to tell his children," Ferguson asked, "when they grow up and start jumping on the furniture?"

But for all his hilarity, Ferguson is actually a closet philosopher, a book-toting intellectual, which might surprise some people who remember him only as the boisterous, cocaine-sniffing boss on The Drew Carey Show, where he excelled in dead-on impressions of Sean Connery and Michael Caine.

The concept of the comic-philosopher is not new, of course. Lenny Bruce was one, although he would never have said so, and Richard Pryor, despite his pyrotechnics and profanities, was cerebral above all else. Even the Monty Python guys reveled in metaphysics, often while wearing frumpy dresses.

But Ferguson goes deep into the ether of the subconscious in his first novel, Between the Bridge and the River, a Jungian jaunt through evangelical extremism, terminal illness, fleeting love and Hollywood excess.

Ferguson's book is revelatory about its author in ways that perhaps not even he intended. And yet, in an interview the other day, the 43-year-old Scot was careful to point out that he abhors philosophical pontificators.

"I have a great resistance to pseudointellectualism, and by that I mean judgemental academia," he said. "The challenge is not to be unhappy. Open a newspaper if you want to be unhappy. The challenge is to be happy, help others, do the right thing. Now there's a challenge."

Ferguson said he is intrigued with how the universe works and what his place in it is and, as such, reads voraciously. Over the years, since clearing his head of numbing distractions like alcohol and drugs, Ferguson delved into some heavy reading, icluding Kafka, Sartre, Camus, and Dostoevsky.

"One of the first things that really liberated me was reading Descartes' Discourse on Method," he said, referring to the seminal work by Ren-- Descartes, who some consider a founder of modern philosophy. "That suddenly freed me up to be a dilettante. He decided, 'I'm going to live my life as a philosophical experiment.' I said, 'Fine, I'm with you. Me and you, Ren--, we'll figure it out together.'"

On a lighter note, Ferguson, who moved to Los Angeles a mere 11 years ago, gleefully goes after Hollywood phonies in his book, but doesn't worry about the possible consequences.

"To hurt someone's feelings in Hollywood you'd have to find someone with feelings, and then hurt them," he said. "Hollywood is big enough and ugly enough to take a few hits from me, and it needs it. My job as a late night talk-show host, as a comedian, as a writer, is to be an iconoclast. Therefore I don't go after the little guy. The little guy gets beaten up all the time. I go after the icons. That's my job."

It's a relief to know that in the bowels of commercial television land of mindless celebrity sightings, grasping game shows and corporate firings by the blow-dried Donald Trump someone is doing some real thinking.

This is Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan