FERGUSON: I block them. Anything remotely negative, I block them. That’s the most fantastic thing about Twitter. It’s like Stalin without all the death. If I don’t like you, I just get rid of you. It’s funny. People always tell me, “If you read the good reviews, you’ve got to read the bad reviews.” No you don’t. I want to read only good shit about me. I don’t want to read bad shit. What do you think I am, insane? I already think enough bad shit about myself.
PLAYBOY: You’re not curious why someone dislikes you?
FERGUSON: I’m really not. I used to be curious. I used to want to know what I did that made them so angry. Now I’m pretty sure they were already angry long before me. They were mad before the joke turned up. They were heckling before they got to the club. They were just doing it in their mind.
PLAYBOY: Do you think that’s what happened this summer when somebody sent you a package with white powder that resembled anthrax?
FERGUSON: The cornstarch killer from Belgium? [laughs] I don’t know. Probably. Anyone who sends powder to this show was angry long before they ever heard of me. But I don’t like to dwell on it or wonder what might have set him off. It doesn’t do you any favors as a comedian to think you might be annoying some psycho. Psychos are going to be annoyed. Unfortunately, that kind of thing happens from time to time. Personally, it didn’t bother me much.
PLAYBOY: It didn’t change your behavior at all—how you get to work, what kind of jokes you make on the show?
FERGUSON: It didn’t change my behavior in the slightest. It did change the behavior of the security around here a little bit. It’s strange. There’s plenty of stuff that could make me skittish, but not that.
PLAYBOY: What could make you skittish?
FERGUSON: Anything that would frighten or impair the life or enjoyment of my children. That would frighten me. But angry people who are like, “I don’t like your comedy!” Okay, fine, watch another channel. I really don’t care. For some reason, it just didn’t register as legitimately dangerous to me.
PLAYBOY: You’ve been close enough to actual death a few times to probably tell the difference.
FERGUSON: [Laughs] You know what? You’re right. Maybe that’s what it was.
PLAYBOY: Speaking of that, you have a big anniversary coming up. On Christmas day it will be 20 years since you almost committed suicide.
FERGUSON: That’s true. It’s been 20 years since the big nonevent.
PLAYBOY: Does it still scare you to remember how close you got to doing it?
FERGUSON: What still scares me about it, what I find especially chilling, is that there was no emotion involved. I just woke up and decided, This is it; I have to end it today. I also think about that glass of sherry, the one I drank instead of going out and jumping off a bridge. I have never tasted anything better in my entire life, in all my years of drinking. It was just fucking sherry, but it was unbelievably good. I remember thinking, even at the time, If alcohol tastes and feels this good, there’s probably something wrong with me, because it shouldn’t feel that good. It should feel like, Yeah, that’s nice. Have a beer and relax. But this stuff was like the nectar of the gods. It was rocket fuel.
PLAYBOY: There’s a weird irony in setting out to kill yourself because of alcohol but forgetting to do it because you drank too much alcohol.
FERGUSON: The paradox of alcoholism is that the very thing that’s killing you is the only thing keeping you going. It’s like having an allergy to air. It’s a complicated and tricky condition, and it gets misdiagnosed and misrepresented in the media all the time.
PLAYBOY: Couldn’t you get out there and help set the record straight?
FERGUSON: I am leery of doing that. I won’t go on those doctor panel TV shows and talk about alcoholism. I’m quite happy to talk about my story, but I’m not an expert and I’m not foolish enough to think that because I’m on television it’s given me some sort of medical degree. It hasn’t. I don’t know how it is for other people; I only know how it is for me.
PLAYBOY: How would you define your alcoholism?
FERGUSON: [Pauses] If I’m going to drink, I’m going to get drunk. Good and drunk. And if I can’t do that, I’m not interested. You know when people are drinking and they say, “Oh I’m starting to feel it. I better stop.” No, no, no. Starting to feel it is the start of drinking. That’s the point of drinking. That’s my perspective. And I would suggest that that perspective is probably unhealthy. It certainly was for me.
PLAYBOY: Do you acknowledge the anniversary of your near suicide every Christmas?
FERGUSON: Acknowledge it how?
PLAYBOY: Do you pause and reflect on that day, just to remember how far away it is in your rearview mirror?
FERGUSON: Not really. I think about it on the anniversary, but I also think about it at various times during the year. Let’s say I do a bad show. There’s a quick escape route from the feeling of “I did a bad show.” In that sense it becomes a useful piece of perspective. I think everyone does that in their life. But you said something that resonated with me. You asked if I reflect on it just to remember how far away it is in my rearview mirror. I don’t see it like that. I see it out of the corner of my eye. It’s still right there. I don’t understand it when people say, “Oh, you conquered your fear.” I have never conquered a fear in my life. I have only altered my perspective on that particular emotion.
PLAYBOY: How do you alter your perspective? Give us an example.
FERGUSON: I used to have a terrible fear of flying. To combat that, I took flying lessons. I became a pilot, bought a small airplane and flew it around for a bit. I wasn’t flying it enough, so I sold it. That’s a fear I confronted by running straight at it.
PLAYBOY: And you didn’t conquer it?
FERGUSON: Oh no, not at all. If you get me on the right day, I still have the same fear of flying I had before I became a pilot. Which is insane.
PLAYBOY: So the experiment didn’t work?
FERGUSON: No, the experiment always works. There’s no such thing as an experiment that doesn’t work. There are only results, but results may vary. Here’s what I learned: When I’m flying the plane, I’m fine. When you’re flying the plane, I’m not as good. So the experiment yielded results. What I’m afraid of is not, in fact, flying. It’s you. [laughs]
PLAYBOY: There’s a lot of fear wrapped up in alcohol as well, especially for comics. Did you ever worry that without the booze you wouldn’t be as funny?
FERGUSON: Yeah, sure, because you don’t know where the comedy comes from. You think, If I take that away, will it just disappear? But you eventually learn that your talent is not really your business. You have no control over it. There are nights I go out there with nothing. Sometimes I can sell the shit out of it, and sometimes I can’t. The difference for me, how I’m comfortable doing it without the alcohol, is I’m quite happy to fail. Failure is always an option. That’s why I fell in love with MythBusters. When those guys took two big rigs and spray-painted failure is always an option! across the sides and then crashed them into each other, I thought, These are my people. I like these guys.
PLAYBOY: When pop star Britney Spears was having a very public meltdown a few years ago, you announced on The Late Late Show that you wouldn’t be making jokes about her. Why did you single her out?
FERGUSON: It wasn’t really about her. What happened was, the same weekend she shaved her hair and was clearly having some kind of bipolar episode, I was 15 years sober.
PLAYBOY: It was the anniversary?
FERGUSON: That’s right. I’d been troubled for a while by the material we’d been doing on the show. So much of it was about pop culture and attacking celebrities. Then the Britney thing happened. I came into work on Monday morning and the writers were just salivating. They couldn’t wait to write jokes about Britney Spears. I was like, “Get out, all of you! I’m going to do this one myself.” I wanted my monologue to explain why I wasn’t going to make fun of this individual at this point in her life. In order to do that, I told the story of my failed suicide attempt.
PLAYBOY: It almost seemed as if Britney Spears wasn’t the point; it was just an excuse to get this stuff off your chest.
FERGUSON: That’s exactly it. It wasn’t about Britney Spears at all. It was about where my head was at during that time and why I didn’t feel right making fun of her. It could have been any celebrity who had a meltdown at the time. I was trying to be clear that it wasn’t a manifesto for other comedians. I wasn’t making a moral judgment about what anybody else should or shouldn’t do. It’s not necessary for everybody to do the same thing. But I felt it was necessary for me to make a foot stomp, to declare what I was going to do on this show and who I was going to be.
PLAYBOY: Have you stayed true to that? Have you managed to avoid making any jokes about celebrities struggling with addictions?
FERGUSON: There are a couple of things I regret. I made a couple of gags about Lindsay Lohan here and there, and I probably shouldn’t have. When you do a show every night, you can’t catch them all. And let’s face it, weird behavior is sometimes funny. It’s attractive as a comedy target. But the writers know I’m not interested in those kinds of jokes, so they don’t bring them to me. There are no Amy Winehouse jokes, there are no Charlie Sheen jokes, there are no Lindsay Lohan jokes. If people are in trouble and you attack them, that’s not funny. But if people are in power and you attack them, that’s funny.
PLAYBOY: You didn’t attack George W. Bush when you met him at the 2008 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.
FERGUSON: I didn’t, no. I thankfully didn’t fall victim to my own adolescent huffiness.
PLAYBOY: Adolescent huffiness?
FERGUSON: If you want to get unsolicited advice, tell someone you’re going to be speaking at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Boy, will they show up. “You tell him this, and you tell him that!” Look, you don’t think the opposition Bush faced in the Senate every day would probably have done a better job than me at a cocktail party in the fucking Hilton? What’s he going to say? “You know what, Craig, I hadn’t thought of that. Thanks for the idea. Cheney, get in here. You’ve got to meet this guy.” What ridiculous arrogance that is. So I decided to treat the moment like the moment it was, to treat the human like the human.
PLAYBOY: Do you have an opinion on his presidency?
FERGUSON: Do I agree with the job he did? Quite frankly, no I don’t. But that’s not what that moment was about. My feelings about George W. Bush don’t matter in this story. What mattered to me at the time was, here I am standing in a room on my own with the president of the United States. I wasn’t being formally introduced to him; it was just two guys talking backstage, like two comics at the Chuckle Hut. “You ready to go?” “Yeah. Hey, you know that guy?” He’s an easy conversationalist and a funny guy.
PLAYBOY: Had you become an American citizen yet?
FERGUSON: Yeah, just two or three months earlier I’d taken the test and signed the forms. I was in.
PLAYBOY: So maybe you were still in the honeymoon period of new citizenship.
FERGUSON: [Laughs] Maybe so. The glow of new patriotism? That could explain it.
PLAYBOY: You have a charming lack of cynicism when you talk about being an American. Most of us who were born here find it too easy to be cynical.
FERGUSON: I don’t think that cynicism is a lack of belief in America. That cynicism is despair at the complications of process and government. It doesn’t have anything to do with the belief in what this post-Enlightenment country is and can be. This is a great idea, and if you mishandle a great idea, you could end up in a lot of trouble. But it doesn’t mean it’s not a great idea. It’s still a great idea. We may disagree on how to handle that idea, and that’s unfortunately part of the great idea.
PLAYBOY: Give us your sales pitch for the United States. Why do you love this country so much?
FERGUSON: It’s where all the cool stuff is. [laughs] It’s America!
PLAYBOY: It has to be about more than that.
FERGUSON: To me, America is like baseball. If I swing at a pitch and miss, what am I going to do, give up the next two pitches? If I swing and miss at this pitch, that’s just a swing and a miss. There’s no morality attached to failure. Failure morally has a moral component, but failure in a creative or professional sense is just information. That’s one of the big things for me about the U.S. Our kids, by the time they’re five years old, know that if they can hit a ball three times out of 10 pitches, they’ll go to the Hall of Fame. They know that seven misses or seven failures are no disgrace. That’s just playing the game. Beat that attitude!
PLAYBOY: That’s an infectious argument.
FERGUSON: It’s the core of my patriotism. And it’s a patriotism that has nothing to do with geography or even history. It’s a philosophical patriotism. It’s about “Okay, we screwed up. Let’s try it again.”
PLAYBOY: Let’s talk about the tattoo on your forearm. It says join, or die with a drawing of a snake cut into eighths.
FERGUSON: That’s right. It’s a Ben Franklin cartoon from 1754.
PLAYBOY: It was originally a battle cry for American colonists to unite. What’s the significance for you?
FERGUSON: Stephen Fry is fond of a quote by W.H. Auden that he uses all the time: “We must love one another or die.” “Join, or die” is a similar belief system for me. There has to be cooperation or we’re fucked. There has to be dialogue, there has to be interaction, there has to be—and I know everybody hates this word—compromise. If you can’t compromise, you can’t do anything. And for me it also has an undertone of.… [pauses] It’s kind of what I do to counteract my alcoholism. If I’m separate and apart, it’s probably not going to end well. I need a support system. Plus, I think it looks cool. [smiles and slaps tattoo]
PLAYBOY: You have a few other tattoos, right? A family crest?
FERGUSON: I have the Ferguson family crest right up here [pulls down shirt to expose upper right arm], and my mother’s up here [exposes upper left arm], and I’m going to put my kids’ names here. [points to biceps] I don’t think I’ll go much beyond that. I’m not interested in getting a full sleeve, but I like dabbling in them.
PLAYBOY: You’ve said your dad hated tattoos.
FERGUSON: It’s the Celtic paradox, isn’t it? A tattoo to remember a man who hated tattoos. It’s interesting, though. The tattoo I got after my father died—that was my first—I had done by Ami James, and it went on very quickly. It took him about an hour and a half and it was relatively pain-free. It wasn’t a big deal at all, just like my relationship with my father. When my mother died, I got another tattoo on the other arm. Two fucking days! Excruciating pain! And I went, “Yep, there you go.” That was pretty much our relationship in a nutshell.
PLAYBOY: You grew up in a town called Cumbernauld. How would you describe your hometown to somebody who’s never been there?
FERGUSON: If you imagine Scotland as a beautiful woman—and Scotland is one of the more beautiful and wonderful places on earth. Everybody’s got an ass, and at one time or another everybody’s had a pimple on their ass. The town I grew up in is the pimple on the ass of a beautiful woman.
PLAYBOY: So you don’t look back on it with rose-colored glasses?
FERGUSON: Not at all. It was a terrible fucking town. I hated it. Not Scotland, not Glasgow—Cumbernauld. Glasgow is a tough town, but it’s a nice town. Cumbernauld, the area I grew up in, was a fucking cesspool. I love Scotland. I go back whenever I can, and I own a house there. But I won’t be nostalgic for Cumbernauld. It’s a shit hole, but I do sometimes feel nostalgic about the scars I have from living there.
PLAYBOY: You played drums in various punk bands around Scotland, including one called the Bastards From Hell.
FERGUSON: Yes, lovely name, wasn’t it?
PLAYBOY: What appealed to you about it? Was it the self-destructive aspect of punk music?
FERGUSON: Punk burst onto the scene when I was 15 years old, and however long I live, I think it will inform everything I do. A lot of my identity is wrapped up in that. It was a small subculture. It’s not what it is now. It was reviled. To be a punk was to be an outcast. It wasn’t “I shop at Hot Topic. I’m a punk.” There was no Hot Topic. I can still remember the first punk rock song I ever heard. It was a double-A single by the Damned, with “Neat Neat Neat” on one side and “New Rose” on the other. A friend of mine had it, and we listened to it in his bedroom. The moment I heard that opening bass riff on “Neat Neat Neat”—doom-didda-doom-didda-doom—well, that just changed everything.