Onion Talking: Fergus Craig goes Hoff the Record
This week sees the launch of Hoff the Record – the brand new partially improvised mockumentary about David Hasselhoff, in which the 80s legend stars alongside TVO regular Fergus Craig.
With numerous other familiar faces appearing across the run, and this being Fergus’ most high profile role in quite some time, we were keen to sit down with the man himself to learn a bit more about working with The Hoff, and his past, present and imminent future.
“He doesn’t look like anyone else in the room.”
Fergus Craig knocks it out of the park when his co-star in Dave’s new sitcom Hoff The Record is naturally, the topic of discussion.
“We’re all pale, podgy English people,” he adds, with humility, “and he looks like 1980s California. He doesn’t really look real. You can see why he was – and is – a superstar. You know, he might not be to everyone’s taste, or the coolest guy, or whatever, but he’s got that star quality to him.”
In terms of casting dynamics, it’s fair to say TVO really didn’t see this one coming. Hoff the Record brings cult legend David Hasselhoff – seemingly immortalised thanks to his roles in Knight Rider and Baywatch – to a whole new audience as he stars in his own mockumentary sitcom, together with British comedian Fergus Craig – known for his roles in Star Stories, Sorry I’ve Got No Head and Colin & Fergus – as his useless sidekick.
Craig plays The Hoff’s dodgy British manager, Max Coleman, capitalising on his cult status in the UK to try and make some money off his back. In real life, Hasselhoff has had notable success in the UK over the last decade, including a top three hit in 2006, and a brief period as a judge on Britain’s Got Talent a few years later. In this fictionalised and exaggerated version of his life, however, the career has dried up, and he’s found himself completely unemployable in the States, whilst almost everyone here in the UK treats him like dirt. To his enormous credit, The Hoff has no qualms about making a fool of himself on screen.
“I think he really relishes it,” suggests Fergus of this persona assassination. “Max probably says the harshest things, and so far, so good.” He laughs, and adds: “He’s not got upset with me yet!”
Craig has form for poking fun out of celebrity egos – in Star Stories he got to play exaggerated versions of celebs as diverse as Sam Neil, Nigel Martin Smith, Gareth Gates and John Prescott, and join in the ribbing of Tom Cruise, Simon Cowell and Take That amongst others. Yet saying mean things in front of the man you’re saying them about, even if they’re in the room and in on the joke, must nonetheless, feel a little weird.
“He seems alright with it,” Fergus says measuredly. “You do remember that you’re talking about a real guy’s life, to some extent, but he does see the humour in it, and brings a lot of that into it as well. He tells lots of stories about all the crazy things that have happened to him. When we’re going through the plot, he’s always saying: ‘You wouldn’t believe how much of this shit has actually happened to me.'”
It is perhaps understandable that, when news of Hoff the Record‘s production was announced, parallels were immediately drawn to the work of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, particularly so soon after Life’s Too Short, in which Warwick Davis played a fictionalised version of himself in increasingly awkward situations. Fergus’ former comedy partner Colin Hoult even made recurring appearances in that series. But where the parallel ends is perhaps in intent, and genuine delivery: Hoff the Record doesn’t go for the cringe factor that Gervais & Merchant thrive on. The laughs are rarely at the expense of its star, even when they’re ripping his ego to shreds. Whereas Life’s Too Short perhaps made Warwick too unsympathetic a character, this time around, it’s clear we’re on the Hoff’s side while he is surrounded by idiots.
“Every now and then in rehearsals,” Fergus reveals, “it’s mentioned that we don’t want to go too Extras. That’s a reference sometimes. It’s not a criticism of what they did, at all, but we just don’t want to do what they’ve already done. And David’s from a different place. Maybe if he was a British guy, he would have naturally slipped into that Gervais thing like most comedy has in the last ten years, especially in improv. We are living in the era of the Gervais. But he doesn’t come from that. He doesn’t naturally go towards that awkward style.”
And whilst the show had its critics before a single frame had been filmed, TVO is keen to stress that the results are impressive, and above all else, very, very funny, which Craig puts down to the genuine drive behind the series from every level.
“Originally I thought: ‘Oh, they’re making a sitcom with David Hasselhoff are they?'”, he explains. “‘Okay. Erm. Let’s go along and see what that’s about.’ And they showed me a taster, which was really mental, but funny. When we got in there, the audition was just improvising. There was no script. We just came up with ideas for characters, and you realised very quickly that they wanted to make something good, and get good people involved. I realised it was going to be interesting, and if we had a really good cast, improvising around a great script, there’d be something really funny at the end of it.”
Initially auditioning for the role of The Hoff’s long-lost German son Dieter, Fergus wound up playing his agent, Max, and the result is a dream pairing. Useless at his job, Max wangles The Hoff an over-enthusiastic cab driver, and an inexperienced PA, but forgets vital details that lead to career faux pas. In the first episode, he’s signed David’s life story away to a young, pretentious film director (Craig Roberts, who Fergus says is “Amazing: He’s got that stillness of a frustrating good actor.”). In the second, he’s signed Hasselhoff up to promote a Knight Rider themed fragrance for men, which leads to the poor man being described as a leather sofa by advertising ninny Dylan Turnbull (a stonking cameo from Toast of London‘s Tim Downie).
Roberts and Downie are just two of the impressive names making guest appearances in the show, which also includes Steve Oram, Simon Greenall, Anna Crilly and even Christopher Biggins – one of the UK’s very own self-depreciating Hoff-like cult figures we can’t help but adore. For Fergus, getting to work with some of comedy’s finest talents was one of the perks of the job.
“I’d never worked with Tim Downie,” he tells TVO, “and he’s a right laugh. Really fun. I’ve worked with Anna loads. It’s always really good to work with her. Simon Greenall’s in Episode Five, and he’s amazing. He’s just proper hilarious, though I think a lot of what he improvised was unusable for being so non-PC. But he’s amazing in it. Steve Oram’s in it, too. I wasn’t in his scenes, but he’s in there, and is always great.”
Another perk was the scope for improvisation, as the scripts were shaped by the cast’s suggestions.
“We’re actually rehearsing the second series now,” Fergus explains. “The writers and producers come up with plots, then they write a very, very vague script in which this happens, this happens and that happens, without any dialogue in it. We workshop the scenes, improvise them, film it, and then they use the footage to gradually work up genuine scripts. On the day we’ll have that script, a lot of which comes from what we worked on, but even on the day we can suggest things to add in or change around, or the director will leave the camera running to capture fresh ideas. It’s all very improvised.”
And it works, with the second series commissioned before the first has aired, and early reviews being extremely positive – with good reason. Released the same week as Dave’s first original scripted sitcom, Undercover, the show marks a key moment in the channel’s history, and a sign that they mean business as producers of new, innovative comedy. Given the vast number of aborted pilots and shows that never-were in recent years, another name making a serious commitment to comedy on television right now can only be a good thing, though Fergus is understandably hesitant to suggest this will bring about a resurgence in alternative comedy.
“There’s always been pilots for shows that didn’t go,” he states, when the subject of his role in recent BBC One pilot Monks – which failed to leave a lasting impression – is breached. “It’s always a struggle to get shows made, but in a way, that’s kind of the way it should be. A lot of people talk about the good old days, and it’s true that in the 90s for example, there was a real consistent stream of good output. But now, there’s more channels, and there are more slots and more opportunities than ever before. It’s just that there’s also a lot of people trying to make shows to fill them. If you do get something made, it’s even harder to find an audience for it. Chances are if you made your show in the 90s, you were probably on BBC2 or Channel 4, and if you made two series, you’d get a really nice house in Notting Hill. It’s not really like that anymore.”
“But,” he adds with stark honesty, “that’s fair enough.”
One major benefit of today’s changing world is that a show no longer has to find its audience straight away to be loved, even if the discovery of its perfect crowd may come too late to see more episodes commissioned. Thanks to repeats and the ever present internet, there are still new audiences discovering Craig’s early work with Colin Hoult as duo Colin & Fergus, many years after their radio shows first aired, their attempts at getting a BBC Three show stalled, and they went their separate ways. TVO itself, still tries to do its bit in keeping the flame alive, but as so many comics have found, growing older takes its toll on chances to be creative.
“A few years ago,” Fergus reveals, “When we were all doing Edinburgh, and doing sketch nights in London, we all saw each other a lot. So it did feel like a gang, all part of the same generation. There are still some people I see quite regularly, but you get older. You don’t see each other as much, and some of the people I used to do shitty little gigs with are now superstars. A few of us were going to put on a sketch night, but you soon realise people are so busy. Their priorities are different.”
He laughs, and deadpans: “You start focusing on the things that pay.”
Recently, that’s been a shift behind the scenes – with Craig filling in gaps between his work on screen with writing gigs on sketch shows such as Cardinal Burns and Anna & Katy. For a natural performer, who trained at Manchester University’s prestigious drama school and has appeared in the West End as well as sold out runs at Edinburgh Fringe, it could be hard relinquishing material for others to ‘claim’ as their own. Craig, however, found the experience surprisingly enjoyable, particularly due to his admiration for the performers in question.
“I loved them both so much as acts,” he states. “You could see what they would do well. You see Anna and Katy, or Seb and Dustin [Cardinal Burns] bring those jokes to life, and just to feel that you were involved in those great shows in a small way is really quite good. Besides, there was a lot of collaboration, and you can’t be precious about any individual ideas or gags. You have got to have the confidence that you can come up with another great one tomorrow for yourself.”
It isn’t as if Fergus has been short of those, either. In the last year or two, he’s appeared in a string of viral videos for BBC Comedy’s Feed My Funny strand, and his own hilarious Tour Guide videos, whilst his ‘Tips For Actors’ Twitter page led to him writing a whole book of them.
“One night,” he explains when asked how the book came to light, “I thought of an idea of giving some bad acting advice in YouTube videos. At the time I didn’t know how to make a YouTube video, so I thought I’d set up a Twitter account. And quite quickly it got quite a lot of followers. I guess actors find it funny, and they retweet it, and a lot of actors have quite a lot of followers. It just grew quickly, and I found there was more material than I thought there would be, so I thought: ‘Hang on, there’s a book here.’ Amazingly, my agent managed to get me an actual book deal with a proper publisher.”
Tips for Actors, released last year, has become a cult favourite, and Craig cites it as one of the most satisfying parts of his career. “I just sat there for three months,” he enthuses, “writing a book. They didn’t really give me any notes, which on the one hand was frightening, but on the other hand gave me absolute freedom. I’d like to do another, but something different, so it’s not 10,000 jokes about the same thing.”
There are lots of ideas for the new book, which TVO won’t go into so as to give Fergus time to develop them, but as he glides off to return to rehearsals for more Hoff the Record, it becomes clear that, whatever he does next will be given the same passion and drive he has demonstrated time and time again. Now that’s something The Hoff would be proud of.
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