Scottish entertainer Craig Ferguson has moved on from “The Late Late Show” (which he hosted from 2005 to 2014) to hosting the nationally syndicated game show “Celebrity Name Game,” which premiered on Sept. 22, 2014. In “Celebrity Name Game,” celebrities pair up with non-celebrity contestants to guess celebrity names based on clues. The show’s grand prize is $20,000.
Former spouses Courteney Cox and David Arquette, who are executive producers of “Celebrity Name Game,” are among the stars who make appearances on the show. Other celebrities who will be on the show include Sheryl Crow, Lisa Kudrow, Mel B, Tom Arnold, Peter Facinelli, Mario Lopez, Vivica A. Fox and Mena Suvari. In a recent telephone conference call, Ferguson talked about “Celebrity Name Game” and what to expect on the show.
How do you want to approach “Celebrity Name Game” and not make it just “Hollywood Squares” or something like that where everything is just prewritten and canned and hackney?
It’s exactly the same way of approaching late-night. That’s why I went at this forum on a game show. There was a bunch of game show formats around, but this one works for me because it’s the loosest in the terms of there’s not a lot of crap that I need to get through and explanation. It’s a pretty easy game, so it’s wide open for improvisation.
And it has the same set of late-night you have to have a monologue, you have to have a sidekick, have to have a band, you have to do this, you have whatever it is, you have to see that movie. So this format that has the minimal amount of explanation. Publicists will tell you, I won’t allow the “you can ask this and you can’t ask that thing,” which I’m sure I’m enforcing on all of you guys today. So it’s kind of like one thing is I’m a hypocrite, but also I feel there’s enough room to deconstruct it here.
I also think, though, that it will take me a while to do it, just like it late-night. That’s why I’m hoping that this thing gets at least a second season, because it took me a couple of years to get where I wanted to get in the late-night show and break it down a bit. But we’re getting there fast, I’ve already made about, gosh, nearly a hundred of these things already, and it is beginning to some people would say fall apart, I would say get better.
Of the people coming up who are going to be taking part in the game show who are some of the folks whom people will recognize?
Well, there’s definitely people that are crossover guests on the show, because I kind of want to be around friendly faces. But also there’s people who you wouldn’t expect to be on a game show, like Lisa Kudrow and people that have been on my show a lot. But there’s also like Sheryl Crow. It’s kind of like people that you wouldn’t expect to see on a late-night show. And then, of course, I made Courteney [Cox] and David [Arquette] do at least a few episodes each.
So it’s kind of it’s a mixture of both; it will be people that have been regulars on my show, and there will also be kind of people who are more comfortable at least having something to do. The good thing about having a celebrity on a game show is that you don’t really have to — all you have to do is play the game, and so it helps you relax, there’s less pressure.
You mentioned deconstruction earlier. Can you give some examples?
Yes. There’s round three of the game where I have to give the clues to who the celebrity is, and sometimes the contestants, as will happen in any game, just don’t know who the hell I’m talking about. So last week, I was doing a show where I said the answer to the question was Anna Paquin, and no one has to press a buzzer and say the name.
So I said to the contestants, “All right, I give in. The answer is Anna Paquin.” And they still I had to say it twice, because they didn’t expect it. And then we had the same trouble in the next part with the next question, so the answer was Dennis Quaid, and I said, “All right, it rhymes with Mennis Wade,” and someone pressed the buzzer and said, “Mennis Wade,” as being the answer. And I kind of love that that disaster kind of was really funny on the set.
So kind of like there are some rules that I have to follow, because of the legality of it, you know there is this legal stuff involved in game shows. I can’t look like I’m giving stuff away, and I don’t want to be biased with one contestant against another. But also, apart from that, I want it to be as informal and as messy as possible.
So are you bringing the Dalek with you from your hallway?
The Dalek is under copyright protection from the BBC; that would be too much. The robot skeleton is unavailable and the horse has got another gig I think. I don’t know. Maybe later.
So that probably means you can’t kiss the women either, because that’s already copy-written as well.
I don’t know if kissing women has been copy-written, but certainly you try and find your own thing. I’m going to go for having an accent. That would be my thing.
Well, Richard Dawson had an accent, too.
Oh, OK then. In that case I’m ripping him off. You got me.
This game show is a very different sort of format from what you’ve done before. Did you have any sort of pre-set ideas that you brought in when they first said that they wanted to do a game show with you?
Only in I wanted to find a format which would allow an attempt, and I don’t know if I’ve been able to do it yet, but an attempt at some form of deconstruction. I felt that when we were most successful in the late-night show it was lovingly trashing the conventions of it, and so what I wanted to do was find a game show that wasn’t so complicated that you couldn’t do that. And part of choosing this format was that it would allow, it had enough breathing room and enough room for me to kind of experiment and grow inside of it, and that’s why I took this one and that’s why I’m doing this one.
How did you end up working with Courteney Cox and David Arquette?
Well, you know they’re very powerful people. They can have you hurt if you say no. And also it was a good idea. We’ve been doing it for three years. This was in development for a long time, this thing. Originally the show was placed at CBS, and then they passed on an hour-long pilot of it and then Tribune picked it up later. So it’s a story that’s been around for a while.
Are a game show fan or not? Did you study or look at any of the other game show hosts or game shows that had been on or on the air? Are you aspiring to break Alex Trebek’s recently made record through game show hosting?
Well, the truth is I approach this the way I came into late-night, which is I kind of drifted into it. Of course I was aware of it, but it wasn’t like a big part of my world until I kind of happened upon it. So, yes, I’ve looked at other hosts, but if you know anything about me, and the recent news will confirm it, I don’t want to do anything for 30 years. A 10-year run in late-night is long enough for me and 10 years of doing this, if we should be so lucky, will be just fine. I don’t want to do it forever.
The idea of watching other hosts not really, maybe a little bit of Steve Harvey at “Family Feud,” because he exists as himself inside it; he doesn’t approach it like it’s the way a stand-up [comedian] approaches it. And that’s what I hope I can do is that you bring whatever talent, if you have any, or whatever it is unique to your own sensibility you bring that to the format, which Steve, I think, has done very done successfully in “Family Feud.” He made it his.
But right at the very beginning of doing late-night I remember both Howard Stern and David Letterman, and, in fact, Regis Philbin, who has, of course, hosted a game show, he said that the thing you have to do with any show is make it your own. So that’s what I’m trying to do here as I develop. I don’t know if it happens in the first 10 shows or the first 100 shows, but, hopefully, eventually you find a voice which is yours.
Because of the nature of the game, need people who have fairly significant name recognition to make this work, both for your players and for your audience. So the challenge is to get people who have that kind of name recognition on a regular basis. How hard is that, and are you going to dig into past stars or do they have to be contemporary stars? What level of stars do you think you’ll use?
I don’t know. I don’t know how it’s measured anymore, to be honest. I agree with you conceptually, but there are people, my kids will see somebody and go, “That guy’s really famous,” and I have no idea who it is. I think that things are a little more diverse than they used to be.
Yes, I think, of course, the producers are going for big name recognition, and there’s some pretty heavy-hitters in this first season, but I think it’s more about affability and being able to play the game. That’s what I think it’s about. But I don’t know how you measure it anymore. I don’t know how it comes out, because what an 18-year old thinks is a big star I think maybe a 50-year old might have a different idea.
When you say heavy-hitters, can you give us any more names?
Well, let’s see, there’s David and Courteney, obviously. Lisa Kudrow, Sheryl Crow. There’s Vivica Fox, Cheryl Burke, Cheri Oteri, Billy Gardell. I’m just looking at the list here of people. I’m just kind of picking them out. Sherri Shepherd.
I hope I’m not leaving people out. Luke Perry is there, Mel B is there, Mario Lopez is there, Darren Criss is there. Mena Suvari … She was pretty good. There’s a lot of people coming through.
How do you think “Celebrity Name Game” will match up to NBC’s weekly game show “Hollywood Game Night”?
I don’t know. I must confess I haven’t seen it, and I probably should. I think Jane Lynch is lovely and I like Sean Hayes very much. But I don’t know how it’s going to go up against it, because I don’t know if it is up against it.
[“Celebrity Name Game”] is on every night, so I’m guessing it’s not really comparative. I know that we’ve been developing this thing for longer. I don’t know that that matters, to be honest. I think there’s probably enough room for everybody would be my guess.
Considering this is your first game show you’ve hosted what were some of the challenges that you’ve encountered and experienced within the first season?
Really, the legality of it and the actual mechanics of having to follow a certain set of rules, not only because it’s expected practice within the industry, like in late-night, but also because legally you have to do it. So there are people there making sure you don’t cheat, which in other areas of show business that doesn’t exist.
So that was a little surprise to me that there’s certain little bits, and there’s tiny little bits, I think it’s like two or three in a game, where I actually have to say words a certain way, or not even a certain way but to say certain words to make sure they’re said, like giving instructions to how the game is played in the first round and that kind of thing. So that was a little challenging for me, because I’m not normally in that position. But it gets to a point where now at this point I just kind of do it and move on, it’s like all right, something that has to be done.
If you had your choice in the celebrity partner people compete with on the show who would you have on your team?
Always Betty White is the answer to that question.
You had mentioned working with Courteney Cox and David Arquette. What sort of hand, if any, have you had in developing the show, and how has that been?
Well, quite a lot in the sense that as we kind of fumbled towards getting the format that was right for us we built rounds end, which allowed both celebrities and contestants, and I suppose, for the most part me, the ability to improvise. So there were certain rounds that we tried. We played the game off camera over and over again. Some rounds were successful, some were over complicated, some took too long, and we fell within the format that we got.
For example, in Round 3 of the game the celebrities sit out of that round and I just work with the contestants giving them clues. So I’m kind of working my ass off at that point trying to do both; you try and be funny, hopefully, and also get the clue across. So it was an ongoing process over a number of years.
What makes “Celebrity Name Game” different from “Family Feud” or “Hollywood Game Night”?
I think it’s different because, my feeling is, and I don’t even know if this is the party line but this is what I feel, I think the show is something which is evolving. It will eventually become, I think, a comedy show in which a game is played and money is won, but basically it feels like an improvised comedy show. But that’s what I think it is as it progresses.
I think hopefully it survives long enough, and you never know in this game, but hopefully it survives long enough to make a second season and to get to a point where I can really start to break it down, because that’s where I think its true nature lies. But it will take a time, because that’s what happens, that’s what happens in these shows. You need to go at it for a while to find what feels right and what works.
It seems like the idea of celebrities playing games has become very popular lately. Why do you think the viewing audience kind of likes seeing celebrities playing these kinds of games?
I think it’s a twofold. One, I think audiences like seeing the humanizing effect of somebody being as informal as that, because once you’re playing a game it’s a little more difficult to remain aloof. If you’re playing beer pong or you’re playing “Celebrity Name Game,” it’s difficult to maintain that sort of grand distance. And I think audiences like that, audiences, particularly television audiences, I think crave intimacy from the medium.
I also think that the guests like it because the pressure to remain grand and aloof and also the pressure to somehow appear sparkling or inspire a conversation is off. All you have to do is play the game, so the guesswork is out of it. So I think for both sides of the equation that’s the attraction for it. So it’s a win/win. It makes sense, I think.
And was there anyone in that list you named of people who have been on the show that have surprised you with how funny or spontaneous they were when you maybe weren’t expecting it?
Yes. I actually was shocked and rather taken aback by the game-playing ability and comedic timing, as I said. Mario Lopez, who I thought, “Mario, will I be surprised?” And he’s good at his job, but I thought he’s a talking head on TV. But actually he’s got chops; it was nice to watch.
You keep referencing how long it took to get this show on the road, if you will, in production and out there. What kept you with this project?
Because of the unique nature of the format of the game allowing growth and improvisation within its format, and also it was a game that had not been established. If you take a game like, I don’t know, “Jeopardy” or “Wheel of Fortune,” they are games that have been played for years and years and years, and people know the format and love the format and don’t want you messing with the format. So the game is the thing.
With this the game is new, I’m new, so we all kind of stumble towards something that we all like together. So that was very appealing to me. And because of the nature of Courteney and David, who are very open, very easy to collaborate with, because they’re actors so they want to try things differently, and that helped a lot. So it was really about the availability of adaptation within the format that kept me with it.
Are you surprised about how little or how much people know about their favorite celebrities?
I’m pretty shocked at the things they know about them. Certain clues that people give, I’m like, “I had no idea.” There is a great deal of knowledge. I’m also sometimes shocked that people who are super-famous I had never heard of or people who I think are super-famous that nobody has ever heard of.
And I’m not talking about celebrities on the show, I’m talking about clues in the game. It’s a really interesting generational thing to watch. If, for example, someone gets a clue that the answer is Alfred Hitchcock it’s interesting to watch someone under the age of 30 try to deal with that.
Joely Fisher wasn’t the best when it came to knowing celebrities. Were there any stars or any celebrities that surprised you with their lack of knowledge when they tried to get the contestants to guess the celebrities?
It wasn’t so much a lack of knowledge. I’d hate to bust somebody on that. A lot of these people know each other anyway, the celebrities will know the people who are the answers and the clues; they can be friends or they can be enemies.
What I kind of enjoy is sometimes in the heat of the moment the celebrities being indiscreet about how they feel about these people. That really makes me laugh. And I’m not going to give that away right now, but there are some real shocks in there about how some people feel about some other people.
And what do you think about your connection to Pat Sajak? He hosted a late-night show, and you’re in his studio, and he’s a game show host, and now you’re a game show host.
I hadn’t made the connection, but now that you said that I’m scared. I’ve never met Mr. Sajak, but I wish him well.
You were talking about developing the show and getting in improvisational part. Can I ask you a little about your own development in that? Can you talk a little about your development and how you became an improvisational speaker?
I think it’s what happens if you’re a high-school dropout, and you don’t make a plan that you ultimately end up hosting a game show. Because it’s kind of I didn’t have a plan. I’ve always kind of done the thing in front of me.
The only through line in all of it really is I always did stand up, and I’ve always done that, even back when I was in the band I always did stand-up, even then. So that seems to be the through line, that’s the kind of ink, that’s the thread.
It’s a skill, which I think has many different areas where it can be of use. I think it’s of use in late-night. Clearly other people do, too, because there are other stand-ups who do it, of course. And also to do it in game shows it seems like the right fit to do.
Acting has always been something that appeals to stand-up comedians and doing sitcoms has always drawn stand-up comedians. I think it’s to do with stand up, really. I think it’s a stand-up with not a good plan about how to proceed.
You not only have to depend on what you can do as an entertainer and as somebody who can up with a line, you have to draw people out. And is that more difficult on the game show than it is, even though we mention that they are a little bit more aloof and they don’t have to be as sparkling, is that harder to do on a game show than it is on talk show?
I haven’t noticed any discernible difference. I think that’s something that you learned being raised in a passive aggressive family, and it just stays with you.
You created a big story in France with your number-one fan named Arthur. He copied your show. And now that you’re doing “Celebrity Name Game,” do you think that Arthur will copy your show? Will you ever have him as a guest on Celebrity Name Game?
Well, two things. One, I suggest that the word “copy” is a little harsh. I think “tribute” is probably a little better. He’s become a friend of mine. It’s the weirdest thing. First all that happened, and then I invited him over to be on “The Late Late Show” to berate him, but he was so charming and funny, and he came over, that we ended up being friends. And I’ve been on his show in France, and absolutely I would have him on the game show in a heartbeat. He’s very nice. He’s a charming bastard, I have to tell you.
For more info: “Celebrity Name Game” website