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Craig Ferguson on America, Hitler, and his weird, entertaining new history-based talk show

What he would ask Socrates: "Did you say that, or did Plato make it up?"

Craig Ferguson hosts Join or Die.
Craig Ferguson hosts Join or Die.
History Channel
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

When late-night hosts leave their shows, they tend to disappear. Look at how David Letterman has settled comfortably into retirement, or how Johnny Carson made only a handful of public appearances after he left The Tonight Show.

This has not been the case with Craig Ferguson, who hosted CBS's The Late Late Show for a tremendous decade of great, gag-filled TV, leaving the series behind in December 2014. (It's now in the hands of James Corden.)

Ferguson brought to the air a superbly silly show that featured recurring characters — including a dancing horse and a robot sidekick — and dizzyingly complex, story-filled monologues that usually centered on one topic instead of a bunch of headlines and gained laughs from his impeccable, Scottish-accented delivery.

Immediately after leaving, though, Ferguson started working again. He won a Daytime Emmy for hosting the game show Celebrity Name Game, and now he's launching a new late-night panel discussion series on the History Channel. In Join or Die With Craig Ferguson, the host and a panel start with one impossibly large question — like, say, which drug changed human history the most — and then narrow down their options from six to four to just two, at which point the studio audience votes for the final winner. (I've seen two episodes.)

It's at once a bit goofy — how can you adapt history into a weirdo game show like this? — and superbly honest. In the discussion of drugs I just mentioned, for example, Ferguson delves into his own history with addiction, while actress Maria Bello fumes over how sugar should also be a regulated substance. The premise prompts the sorts of conversations most other late-night shows avoid, with the aim of achieving depth and forthright honesty.

I recently sat down with Ferguson to talk about leaving late night, what he learned about America from immigrating to it, and what he would ask Socrates if he could have him on the show.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

On how he hosts a TV show: "I had to learn how not to be ashamed of my past"

Join or Die with Craig Ferguson.
Craig Ferguson (right) discusses a topic with a panel including (from left) Howard Bragman, Jen D'Angelo, and Jimmy Kimmel, in the premiere episode of Join or Die With Craig Ferguson.
History Channel

Todd VanDerWerff: The monologue that you open each show with certainly has a lot of resemblance to The Late Late Show's monologues.

Craig Ferguson: Well, I'm still me!

TV: How did you arrive at that visual of the camera staying locked down but you moving around and away from it?

CF: That started as a style because we only had that camera at the beginning of The Late Late Show. There was only that camera, and we couldn't move it. So there was no option. That was it! [Laughs.] It was a selfie, basically.

TV: What do you like about it that led you to port it over to Join or Die?

CF: I'm used to it. It's how I work. It's how I talk to the camera. I don't like interrupting my thought process artificially in order to turn to a camera or a light. That's acting. And while it's a skill that can be mastered and done very well by other people — not me! — I don't want to do that when I'm doing a monologue that contains a lot of improvisation, because then I'll start trying to hit a mark. That's not what I want to do.

TV: You're so open about sharing your own personal experiences and your own personal history. Has being that open come naturally to you?

CF: I had to learn how to not be ashamed of my past, nor wish to close the door on it. Sometimes people are ashamed of mistakes and bad choices they have made. And certainly if I could avoid having made those choices, I would.

But I don't think there's anything to be gained by shaming someone for taking a drug they realize they shouldn't have done, or getting involved in a situation they wish they hadn't. That doesn't help anyone. I think not being ashamed of who I am now helps that. Whether it be your history with sex, whether it be your history with drugs, whether it be your history with food, whether it be your history with alcohol — everybody's got a story. That's what history is, whether it's personal or global.

TV: You say in one episode that a drug doesn't have a moral. The drug is just what it is. Do you think we too often assign blame for our own failings to objects in our lives?

CF: Absolutely. Oxycontin is a legal drug; heroin is an illegal drug. Heroin is actually just an inferior type of Oxycontin. Both the heroin and the Oxycontin, they have no minds. They have no souls. They have no decision-making processes. They are substances.

The drug doesn't care whether or not it has a legality. It's just not interested in our paperwork, and I think that we sometimes put great value on our value systems and think they have an effect. A legal drug will kill you just as fucking dead as an illegal drug, probably faster and more efficiently.

TV: A lot of people, when they leave late-night television, which is a real grind—

CF: No shit, really? Is that true? [Laughs.]

TV: So I've been told! They usually retire and only do things every so often. You've kept working, not as much as you were on The Late Late Show, but still working. What is it that keeps drawing you back?

CF: I like the work. I like what I do. I enjoy myself. I'm privileged enough and lucky enough to do a job that I enjoy. Really, that's why I do it.

You're right. I don't really have to do it, but I like doing it. And I hope that I can contribute in some sort of moral way to a dialogue which is perhaps from the enlightenment and civilized.

TV: You do comedy, music, writing, acting. What do those different pursuits feed in you?

CF: This is a therapist question! I think it's a tic. It's an expression. I do what I do in order to feel validated to myself, in order to be part of the discussion. I want to contribute to this planet while I'm lucky enough to be on it. I want to be — in whatever small way — a positive input, rather than a negative one. That's all.

On his relationship to America as an immigrant: "Xenophobia doesn't tend to work"

The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson
Craig Ferguson hangs out with his robot sidekick in the waning days of The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson.

TV: As someone who's immigrated to this country yourself, what do you make of this current moment of our discussion about immigration?

CF: It's a very tricky situation. We are a country made up entirely of immigrants, whether it was your grandfather or your great-grandfather; unless you are a Native American, your people arrived here sometime in the last 200 years, either by force in the case of slavery, the great, dark shame of the United States, or by their own volition or in order to escape some persecution elsewhere.

Xenophobia doesn't tend to work. Historically, it has no real value. It tends to lead to conflict. I would suggest that perhaps there is more knowledge to be gained. Villainizing large groups of people because of their nationality is racist. I don't think that's helpful in creating a more enlightened world.

TV: A lot of times, people who come to America from other places say they're surprised by how much race is a topic of discussion in the United States. Was that your experience when you first came here?

CF: It was something that over time I became more cognizant of. I was certainly aware of it academically. I wasn't unaware of slavery and its history in the United States. I think what happened was there was a lightbulb moment when Cornel West, who was a guest on the late-night show, said to me, "Black people have never had the luxury of believing in American innocence," which is a very succinct and important phrase.

That, for me, was in some way a turning point. It didn't make me any less proud to be an American, but it's a more complex story than it was at first.

TV: When you look at American history as someone who came here from elsewhere, what are some things that you find interesting about it that we maybe take for granted?

CF: I think the extraordinary nature of how the country came together — the confluence of business deals, wars, tragic acts, huge immoral pieces of behavior. Hugely brave and moral pieces of behavior. It's too rich a subject to single out one particular thing.

[Join or Die], for me, although it's not just about American history, what we should do as we progress with it is get more specific about certain things, like perhaps look at the best business deals that were involved in putting together the US, or the most successful military campaigns.

Obviously, there's no academic value to which [particular answer] wins the show. That's not what it's about. It's really about stimulating a discussion of these periods in time. I don't know that the show's purpose is to educate people. I think it's more to stimulate a discussion. A lot of people might not know what we're talking about, and my job is to ask those questions too.

On his new show: "It's not a democracy. It's just a TV show."

TV: When you're putting together a panel on this show, what are you looking for in a mix of guests?

CF: I'm not actually the one that puts these things together. I have veto power if they say, "What about that guy?" and I go, "No, I hate that guy." [laughs]

The celebrities tend to be, in fact in every episode so far, people that I've interviewed before, that I like, that I'm comfortable with, that I know they are comfortable with me and we already have a rapport. You do 2,000 shows in late night, that's a big group. I've got a lot of people like that.

Then we tend to use standup comedians, because standup comedians have to be observant, witty, and think on their feet. They tend to be looking at what is going on in the world right now. That's useful.

Then the third guest for most shows, as much as it's possible, is an expert on the field that we're discussing. So it's an academic or a reporter or somebody who is involved in that field heavily and knows what they're talking about.

TV: What were some things you learned from talking with some of those people that you were really surprised by?

CF: Trying to pluck that out of the air would be quite difficult for me. There's a lot of that that goes on. What tends to happen is that people will tell you about what they know, and in the process they tell you who they are. That's fascinating to me also. When you find out that [country singer] Trace Adkins's knowledge of the Civil War is very academic, that was a surprise to me. I don't know why it would be, but it just is.

TV: What is it about the strong format of the show that makes it work?

CF: It allows you to drape the clothes on it. I already have started fucking around with it. I'll start removing it. In one show, I rejected the audience's answer and put it back. It was America's greatest Founding Father. I took a contrary view to everyone else in the room. Not everyone else in the room, but most people. But then again, it's not a democracy. It's just a TV show!

TV: You've mentioned you have an expert, you have a standup comedian, you have a celebrity. If you could pick any topic and any three people from the history of the planet, what would be your dream show?

CF: Do you take someone like Hitler and say, "What the fuck were you thinking?" Or do you take someone like Socrates and say, "Did you say that, or did Plato make it up?"

I feel that it's too vast. What I want to do with this show is to not make it neat. Even though the format is six-four-two-one, in that way, that in my own small way is subversive. It doesn't make any sense. You can't choose the best dictator or the worst dictator. It doesn't make any sense. But what it does do is stimulate conversation.

I can't do that, because that's the antithesis of what I want to do with this show. I don't want to say one-two-three, A-B-C, because if there's any lesson to take from this show, it's that history is the story of us, and it's vastly more complicated, difficult, frustrating, and hard to understand than perhaps its popular portrayal. It's not just good guys and bad guys. There's a lot more to it than that.

Join or Die debuts Thursday, February 18, at 11 pm Eastern on the History Channel.