On Christmas morning 1991, Craig Ferguson was ready and determined to end his life. After an all-night bender, he woke up in the storeroom above a London pub, covered in vomit and piss, and decided he couldn’t take it anymore. “I was a drunk, a loser and a disaster of a human being,” he writes in his 2009 memoir, American on Purpose. So the then 29-year-old Ferguson came up with a plan: He would walk down to the Tower Bridge and take a swan dive into the Thames River. On his way out he ran into a drinking buddy, who offered him half a pint of sherry for the road. Ferguson ended up getting so drunk he completely forgot to kill himself.
What a difference 20 years can make. The raging alcoholic who once thought suicide was his only option is now clean and sober—Ferguson went into rehab shortly after his near suicide attempt—and the host of CBS’s critically acclaimed late-night talkfest The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson. The show has jockeyed for first place over the years with the competing Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and Ferguson is widely considered to be the brainiest host in late-night television, thanks to his stream-of-consciousness monologues and unscripted interviews. Forget the Emmys: Ferguson is the only talk show host who’s won a Peabody. He’s upbeat and inventive. In a cynical world, he begins every show by announcing to the audience, with nary an ironic wink, “It’s a great day for America.”
That kind of unwavering optimism doesn’t happen overnight, especially for a guy with Ferguson’s troubled backstory. Born in Glasgow and raised in a working-class town 15 miles to the north called Cumbernauld, he had a relatively happy home life with his postal worker father, schoolteacher mother, two sisters and a brother. But Ferguson’s early education, both at school and on the streets, consisted almost solely of drugs, booze and fighting. He eventually discovered punk music but soon moved on to comedy, doing stand-up or small TV roles in Scotland and abroad, before moving to Los Angeles and getting cast as the pompous British boss Nigel Wick on The Drew Carey Show. Since then he’s tried his hand at almost everything, from animated-movie voice-overs (How to Train Your Dragon) to novels (Between the Bridge and the River) to screen writing (Saving Grace).
His true calling came in an unlikely place, when he was picked to replace Craig Kilborn as host of The Late Late Show in 2005. Almost immediately Ferguson demonstrated that he wasn’t interested in doing another by-the- numbers talk show. Some nights he’s thoughtful and contemplative, explaining his pride in becoming a U.S. citizen, eulogizing his deceased father or inviting Archbishop Desmond Tutu on to talk about South Africa and apartheid. Other nights he’s divinely silly, putting on skits with a repertory ensemble of hand puppets, including a foulmouthed bunny and a pig who pontificates about swine flu, or exchanging bons mots with his robot skeleton sidekick, Geoff Peterson. Sometimes he can be both at the same time, as he was so expertly this past summer after receiving an envelope filled with a white substance briefly thought to be anthrax. He addressed the subject frankly on that night’s show and then turned it into a game, grilling two of his interns to find out who had reacted the most cowardly.
We sent writer Eric Spitznagel, who interviewed Paul Rudd for playboy in October, to meet with Ferguson at his Late Late Show studio office in Hollywood. Spitznagel reports, “From the moment I walked in, Ferguson was outgoing and gregarious. Of course, putting strangers at ease is pretty much his job description. We talked for most of the afternoon on his office couch, and wedged between us was a small throw pillow with the phrase tick fucking tock hand-stitched on the front. Ferguson told me that he’d had the pillow made shortly after his father’s death, as a reminder that life is fleeting.”