On Christmas morning, 1991, Craig Ferguson was ready and determined to end his own 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 wrote in his 2009 memoir, American On Purpose. So the then 29-year old Ferguson came up with plan; he would walk down to the Tower Bridge just a few blocks away and make a swan-dive into the Thames River. On his way out, he ran into the pub’s owner and bartender, who offered him a half-pint of sherry for the road. Ferguson ended up getting so drunk that 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 one of the few talk show hosts to win 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 backstory. Born in Glasgow, Scotland and raised in a working class town just fifteen miles to the north called Cumbernauld, he had a relatively happy home life, living with his postal worker father and stay-at-home mother, and 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, playing drums in a string of bands with colorful names like the Tonesters and the Bastards From Hell, among many others, none of which had any commercial success. He soon moved on to comedy, spending most of the 80s and early 90s doing standup or small TV roles in Scotland and abroad, before moving to Los Angeles and getting cast in his breakthrough role, as the pompous British boss Nigel Wick on the ABC sitcom The Drew Carey Show. Since then, he’s tried his hand at almost everything, from animated movie voiceovers (How to Train Your Dragon) to novels (Between the Bridge and the River) to screenwriting (Saving Grace).
His true calling came in an unlikely place, when he was picked to replace Craig Kilborn as host of the Late Late Showin 2005. Almost immediately, Ferguson demonstrated that he wasn’t interested in doing another talk show by-the-numbers. On some nights he’s thoughtful and contemplative, inviting Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the show to talk about South Africa and apartheid (for which he won a Peabody Award) or explaining his pride in becoming a U.S. citizen or eulogizing his recently deceased father. 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 bon mots with his robot skeleton sidekick, Geoff Peterson. Sometimes he can be both at the same time, like he did so expertly this last summer, after receiving a letter 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 which 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, instantly making me feel like an old friend. That’s probably not much of a surprise, given that 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. A fitting piece of decor, given some of the subjects we discussed.”
PLAYBOY: You seem to legitimately enjoy every guest that comes on the Late Late Show. But that can’t be true, can it? There must occasionally be a few people that annoy you.
FERGUSON: Oh sure, yeah, I fake it all the time. But it’s not like I see them for that long. “Host” really is the perfect description of my job. It’s a party and you have to be a good host. Some nights, I feel like a host at a restaurant. I’m the guy in a monkey suit standing next to a podium waiting for the next fat cat to come in. It’s a service position. Not that I’m being subservient, but you kind of have to be nice to people even when you don’t feel like it. They’re your guest.
PLAYBOY: You sometimes start an interview with “Where are you from?” Do you think geography tells you a lot about a person?
FERGUSON: It’s just something to say when I can’t think of anything. Everybody’s from somewhere. I’ve never really thought of myself as someone with any kind of deliberate strategy for interviews. I like to be spontaneous. I don’t do any research on people before they come on the show. I don’t care. I’m doing a little comedy show, not investigative journalism. I just want some laughs.
PLAYBOY: That may be true most of the time, but then you devoted an entire show to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Obviously you didn’t invite him for the hilarious banter.
FERGUSON: Well no, not really. [Laughs.] Although that would be funny. “Keep it light, Desmond! Bad room for apartheid!” As you probably saw, in the course of a conversation with Desmond Tutu, there are a lot of silly moments. There’s a lot of horror too, certainly, but you’ve got to take it all.
PLAYBOY: You never worried going in that you might be over your head?
FERGUSON: Not really. I knew he was a charismatic speaker. Maybe it’s a weird kind of arrogance, but I felt “It’s going to be alright, I can do this.” Because if I screwed up, this is a man who set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. You know what I mean? He’s not going to come down hard on me for fucking up an interview. I kind of felt that the gift of the Desmond Tutu interview was Desmond Tutu. There’s no need for me to compete with Desmond Tutu. So why not just enjoy the luxury of being able to talk to someone who’s been so influential in the world.
PLAYBOY: You had a similar humbleness with Dr. Cornel West earlier this year, when you invited him on the show to talk about Black History Month. You began by confessing that you don’t know a lot about American history in general.
FERGUSON: I’m not afraid of someone knowing something I don’t, because a lot of people do. Probably most people do know something I don’t. Maybe it’s a product of age, but I care less about whether people think I’m smart or not. If smart people think you’re smart, that’s great. If dumb people think you’re smart, what’s the fucking point? Why should I care what they think? Why should I care what most people think? There’s no endorsement in numbers as far as I’m concerned. Millions of people thought the earth was flat and it fucking isn’t. So when it comes to validation from the mob, I just don’t care.
PLAYBOY: There was a time when it seemed like getting the Tonight Show was every late night talk show host’s dream. But is that the golden ideal anymore?
FERGUSON: I can’t speak for anybody else, but it definitely isn’t for me. I don’t want it. I don’t understand why anyone would want it. Clearly it’s not a route to happiness. I think I have the advantage over other guys who do late night shows in that I didn’t grow up with Johnny Carson. I respect and admire him, but I didn’t grow up watching him on the Tonight Show. I can appreciate his genius, but I don’t want and I never wanted to become him. It just comes with too many compromises.
PLAYBOY: That could be true. When Conan O’Brien got the Tonight Show, some of his more salacious characters like the Masturbating Bear disappeared.
FERGUSON: I know it would alarm me if I got an earlier time slot and some executive said, “You can’t have the skeleton sidekick anymore.” I’d be like, “What the fuck are you talking about?”
PLAYBOY: “We need you to get rid of the puppets.”
FERGUSON: How about “fuck you” no puppets? No puppets, no me. I don’t like it when people tell me how to do my job, or think they know what works and what doesn’t work. I’m always amazed when a writer pitches a joke and then says “This will get a big laugh.” Oh really? How the fuck do you know? Anybody who’s worked in comedy for any length of time will tell you, the best case scenario is that every joke has a shot. That’s all. You get no guarantees beyond that.
PLAYBOY: There’s so much improvisation on your show, what do your writers actually do?
FERGUSON: There’s not much written material. Most of it’s spontaneous, and I come up with it while we’re taping. But we do write the monologue in advance. And occasionally they do bits and pieces for other ideas.
PLAYBOY: What was the genesis of the puppets? Did you come to work one day and say, “Puppets are funny, let’s do something with puppets?”
FERGUSON: That has a complicated backstory. It actually started with a buddy of mine named Steve Jones, who’s a guitarist with the Sex Pistols. He had a radio show in Los Angeles called “Jonesy’s Jukebox,” where he’d play all these records from his collection. I was driving to work one day, listening to his show, and he’s playing the “Lonely Goatherd” song from The Sound of Music. [Sings.] “High on a hill was a lonely goatherd/ Lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo.” It just made me laugh. So I came to work and said, “You know what? I’m going to lip-sync that ‘Lonely Goatherd’ song on tonight’s show.” There were these hand puppets lying around the office, and we used them for the bit. And that was kind of the beginning of it.
PLAYBOY: What appeals to you about puppets? Is it just the silly stupidity of it?
FERGUSON: Probably, yeah. I like things that are different and weird. When I was first trying out for the show, I remember thinking, if I ever do this, I want it to be something fucking different. There are too many of these shows already, I don’t want to be like everybody else. Let’s fuck with people’s expectations. If there has to be a sidekick, then let’s make it a skeleton robot.
PLAYBOY: Geoff Peterson.
FERGUSON: Geoff, right, yeah. Although that’s an odd thing. Geoff is emblematic of my failure to deconstruct the genre. Because we created Geoff as a protest against the idea of a sidekick. But Josh Thompson, the guy who operates him, is so fucking good that he’s just become a really good sidekick. So we’re back to fucking square one. But that’s alright, he makes me laugh. That’s the number one rule. If it makes me laugh, it’s in.
PLAYBOY: What’s the story behind Geoff? Where did he come from?
FERGUSON: It started with the Ghost Rider movie, which I really liked. Any movie that has a skeleton on fire riding a motorcycle, I mean fuck, what else do you fucking need? Come on! If you don’t fucking like that, you probably live in a cave in fucking Bora Bora. That was part of it. And then I used to say this thing to annoy Milo, my oldest son, who’s ten now but he was about 8 at the time. I would pretend to be a villain and I’d say, “I’m going to get my own robot skeleton army and take over the world.” He’d go, “Dad, you can’t do that!” “No, I’m going to do it!” And then I started to say it on the show, because the line between your private life and your TV life begins to blur after awhile. And then Grant Imahara, who’s one of the guys on (the Discovery Channel show) MythBusters, said to me, “I’ll build you a robot skeleton as a sidekick if you got me 100,000 Twitter followers.” I tweeted that out and he got 100,000 followers in about two days, so he had to build it.
PLAYBOY: Do you spend a lot of time on Twitter?
FERGUSON: Not really. I come and go with it. Sometimes I love it and sometimes it makes me angry.
PLAYBOY: How does it make you angry?
FERGUSON: I remember someone on Twitter gave me a hard time for doing an anti-atheist joke in Nashville. Because it’s such a religious town, apparently he thought it was pandering. He wrote something like, “What’s next, an anti-Arab joke in Israel and an anti-woman joke is Saudi Arabia?” Hey, atheism is a stance! It’s a position, it’s an opinion. Being a Jew and being a woman is just something that you are. But if you have an opinion on something, be prepared to defend it. And by the way, if you’re an atheist and you can’t take a joke, you’re not a proper atheist.
PLAYBOY: Everybody thinks they’re an expert when it comes to comedy.
FERGUSON: And they are! It’s the one area where everybody is legitimately an expert. What makes you laugh and what doesn’t make you laugh, you’re in charge of that. And that’s it. You’re the expert. But people forget that it’s still subjective. When people say, “That guy’s not funny.” Oh shut up! Why, because he doesn’t make you laugh? So if Steve Martin doesn’t make me laugh, he’s not funny? (Makes a game show buzzer sound.) No, wrong, of course he’s fucking funny. It’s like when people say, “I don’t like rap music!” Well don’t worry, Grandpa. It’s not for you.
PLAYBOY: Do you just tolerate the “experts” when they criticize you on Twitter?
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 only want to read 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. But 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 corn starch killer from Belgium? [Laughs.] I don’t know, probably. Anyone sending 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’ve 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 very much.
PLAYBOY: It didn’t change your behavior at all? How you get to work, what kinds 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, you can probably tell the difference.
FERGUSON: [Laughs.] Yeah, you know what, you’re right. Maybe that’s what it was.
PLAYBOY: Speaking of, you’ve got a big anniversary coming up. On Christmas day, it’ll be twenty years since you almost committed suicide.
FERGUSON: That’s true. Twenty years since the big non-event.
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 un-be-lievably good. I remember thinking even at the time, if alcohol tastes this good and it feels this good, there’s probably something wrong with me. Cause 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 you setting out to kill yourself because of alcohol but then forgetting to do it because you drank too much alcohol.
FERGUSON: That is the paradox of alcoholism, I think. The very thing that’s killing you is the only thing that’s keeping you going. It’s like having an allergy to air. It’s a very 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: (Long pause.) 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 really 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 if 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 rear-view mirror?
FERGUSON: Not really, no. 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 very quick escape route for the feeling of “I did a bad show.” In that sense, it becomes a very 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 rear view 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 ever 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 and 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 that I confronted by running straight at it.
PLAYBOY: And you didn’t conquer it?
FERGUSON: Oh no, not at all. 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 in fact not 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. So 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. I think 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 the Mythbusters TV show. When these 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 that she shaved her hair and was clearly having some kind of bipolar episode, I was fifteen years sober.
PLAYBOY: It was the anniversary?
FERGUSON: That’s right, yeah. I’d been troubled for awhile by the material we’d been doing on the show. So much of it was about pop culture and attacking celebrities. And then the Britney thing happens, and I come into work on Monday morning and the writers are just salivating. They can’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. And in order to do that, I told the story of my own failed suicide attempt.
PLAYBOY: It almost seemed like Britney Spears wasn’t really the point, it was just the excuse for you 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. But it could’ve been any celebrity who had a meltdown at the time. I was trying to be clear that this wasn’t a manifesto for other comedians. I wasn’t making a moral judgement about what anybody else should or shouldn’t do. It’s not necessary for everybody to do the same thing. But I felt that 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 done that. 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 that I’m not interested in those kinds of jokes, so they don’t bring them to me. There’s no Amy Winehouse jokes, there’s no Charlie Sheen jokes, there’s 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 Correspondence Dinner. Boy, will they show up. “You tell him this” and “You tell him that!” Look, you don’t think that the opposition Bush was facing in the Senate every day would have probably 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 a ridiculous arrogance that is. So what I decided to do was to treat the moment like the moment it was. 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 formerly 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 a very easy conversationalist, and a very funny guy.
PLAYBOY: Were you an American citizen yet?
FERGUSON: Yeah, I was. Just two, three months earlier I took 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 a despair at the complications of process and government. But 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’s got to be about more than that.
FERGUSON: To me, America is like baseball. If I swing at a pitch and I miss it, 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 are five years old, they know that if they can hit a ball three times out of ten pitches, they’ll go to the Hall of Fame. So they know that seven misses, or seven failures, is 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 not patriotism having to do with geography or even history. It has to do with philosophy. 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” and there’s 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 U.S. colonists to unite against the British. But what’s the significance for you?
FERGUSON: Stephen Fry is very fond of the quote by W.H. Auden that he uses all the time, “We must all love each other 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 dialog, 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 also for me it has an undertone of… (long pause, considers his tattoo and flexes his forearm.) 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 his tattoo.)
PLAYBOY: You have a few other tattoos, right? A family crest?
FERGUSON: I have the Ferguson family crest right up here. (Pulls down his shirt to expose his upper right arm.) And my mother’s up here. (Exposes his upper left arm.) And I’m just going to get my kids’ names put here. (Points to his 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: And you’ve said that 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 one — I had it done by (Miami Beach tattoo artist) 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 that much of a big deal at all. Just like my relationship with my father. When my mother died, I got another tattoo put 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 very 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 that I grew up in, was a fucking cesspool. I love Scotland and I go back there whenever I can and I own a house there. But I won’t be nostalgic for Cumbernauld. It’s a shit hole. I won’t be nostalgic for the place, but I do sometimes feel nostalgic about the scars I have from living there.
PLAYBOY: Why nostalgic?
FERGUSON: Because it’s part of you, it’s part of your story, it’s what’s carved into the tree trunk. I have a bad scar right there (points to his right hand) and a broken finger on the same hand.
PLAYBOY: Are there stories behind what happened?
FERGUSON: There are, yeah. And one of them’s true. [Laughs.] That was a fight (points to right-hand scar) and that was a fight (points to broken finger) and I lost both of them. The broken finger I got from a guy named Cal Calhoun. It was at the Spur Hotel in Cumbernauld village. Cal was a famously bad, bad man. And unfortunately, he walked into the lounge bar at the Spur Hotel one evening about 8:30 and found his young woman sitting on my knee.
PLAYBOY: Oh my goodness.
FERGUSON: That’s what I said. [Laughs.] Or maybe that’s what Cal said. She was a fine looking woman though. Completely worth it. But here’s the funny thing about it. My son, who was born twenty or so years after the event, has the same disfigured finger. He came out with his finger bent in the same weird way. That’s how hard I got hit.
PLAYBOY: You played drums in various punk bands around Scotland, including something 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 fifteen 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 very small subculture. It’s not what it is now, it was reviled. To be a punk was to be an outcast. It wasn’t like, “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” was 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” (imitates bass guitar) doom-didda-doom-didda-doom, well that just… (pause, smiles) that changed everything.
PLAYBOY: What felt different about it?
FERGUSON: It sounded like a fight. And at that time, I enjoyed that sort of activity. Listening to that song, it was literally the turning point in my life. One of them anyway. If there are staging posts in your life, hearing “Neat Neat Neat” was one of the big ones for me. I was like “Whatever this is, I’m going this way.” Not just the Damned, but this type of music in general. Punk rock, for me, was the beginning of everything. I think it was John Lennon who said, “Before Elvis Presley, there was nothing.” I understand that thinking. I feel the same way about punk rock. Before punk, there was nothing.
PLAYBOY: How quickly did you make the transition from a fan on the sidelines to playing drums in your own punk bands?
FERGUSON: It felt like overnight. My brother had a drum kit lying around that he no longer used, so I picked it up and taught myself how to play. It was easy to get into a band when you had your own drums. When I got involved with the Bastards From Hell, the rest of the guys in the band were students at the Glasgow School of Art. I was the blue collar import. They were kind of bright young things. Being in a band, it wasn’t just something to do on the weekends. That was the beginning of the idea that I might have a life that didn’t involve working in a factory.
PLAYBOY: Do you have a favorite memory from those years, when you really felt like you were living the punk rock dream?
FERGUSON: There was a night in Glasgow when I was in the Rock Garden Pub. The Clash were playing in town, and Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon came into the bar. Me and a few other guys in my band at the time were standing at the bar and they come up and said, “Hello, boys. What’s going on?” We were like, “Fuck, it’s the Clash!” We got to talking to them, and we ended up drinking around Glasgow with them all night. They left with some girls and I got a girl and everyone went their separate ways. When Strummer died ten years ago or whatever it was, I remember thinking, “Did that really happen to me? That was bizarre.” It seems like somebody else. Guys like me don’t hang out drinking all night with the Clash.
PLAYBOY: Do you wish you could go back?
FERGUSON: Sometimes, sure. I don’t miss all of it, but there was a weird freedom about it. I heard a guy speak at a (makes air quotes) “meeting” that I (air quotes) “attend” on a fairly regular basis. [Laughs.] This group has a tradition of not talking to the media about what we do and I’d like to honor that. But I did hear a guy at one of those “informal gatherings” of friends that I like to go to, who said that just before he got sober, he’d been living out of a van and had nothing, no wife, no kids, no job, no money, and that’s how it was. And now here he was, thirty years sober, with a wife and kids and grandkids and a big house in the Palisades, and he said, “I’ve got to be honest with you, sometimes I miss waking up just me in a van.” I kind of understand that. Being a poor kid in a punk rock band was gnarly and dirty but I was eighteen and it was fun. I sometimes miss being eighteen. Usually before coffee in the morning.
PLAYBOY: If you never moved on and found success as an actor and comedian and late night host, would you have been as happy if you stayed in Scotland, playing in obscure punk bands and being the drummer with the great sense of humor?
FERGUSON: I don’t think so. I still love it, but I don’t think I need it like I needed it back then. There was a wildness in me back then that needed punk rock, needed that outlet to let myself go and get crazy. II don’t think my story would’ve been happy if I’d followed the prescribed route for somebody from my background. I think it would’ve been much, much worse. For me, being in a punk band wasn’t just about burning off steam. It was about finding a reason to be hopeful.
PLAYBOY: After the Drew Carey Show ended in 2004, you said you were thinking about giving up on show business. Would you have gone back to drumming, or tried something else?
FERGUSON: It wasn’t really serious about that. I just didn’t know what I wanted to do next. I ended up writing a novel, which was the right thing to do.
PLAYBOY: Was it just a transitional thing, or would you do it again?
FERGUSON: No, I’ll do it again. In fact, I’m kind of (groans, with a pained expression) I’ve started work on another book but it’s going to take awhile.
PLAYBOY: You don’t seem happy about it.
FERGUSON: I’m happy, but it’s fucking hard work. You just have to put your head down and focus on the page in front of you. Aw fuck, just thinking about it is making me sick. I don’t know where it’s going, I don’t know how long it is. I know it’s a book, that’s all I know for sure. I’ve written enough of it to know it’s a book, so now it kind of has me.
PLAYBOY: You don’t have to finish it, you know. Failure is always an option.
FERGUSON: [Laughs.] Very nice, yes. Used that one against me, didn’t you? I suppose you’re right, but from my experience, writing a novel is like having sex with a gorilla. You ain’t done till the gorilla’s done. You know what I mean? You might think, “Well when I’m done I’ll be done,” but you’re not done. The gorilla’s still going.
PLAYBOY: Thanks for that mental image. I’ll never be able to write another word without imagining being sodomized by a gorilla.
FERGUSON: Hey, hey, I never said sodomized.
PLAYBOY: Making love.
FERGUSON: Exactly! Making love. It’s a sensitive gorilla. [Laughs.] It’s a gentle, caring gorilla.
PLAYBOY: Your first stand-up gigs were at a dance club in Scotland. Was it as horrible as it sounds?
FERGUSON: It really was, yeah. There were no comedy clubs, so the only place you could perform comedy was at a disco. They’d stop the music and the DJ would say “And now here’s some guy who thinks he’s funny.” They’d be heckling before you reached the microphone. The first time I did it, I was wearing a kilt. It was a big Scottish punk festival. I walked out there and my knees were shaking, and these girls standing near the front of the stage saw it and started chanting, “Iz knees are knockin’, iz knees are knockin’!” When you’re faced with that much hostility, you develop a certain aggressive style. And it thickens your skin. It’s a great boot camp in a way, although it don’t feel like it at the time.
PLAYBOY: Are those skills still applicable today? You never seem particularly aggressive on the Late Late Show.
FERGUSON: I try not to be. No, it’s not really same thing anymore. Back then, it was a job, or it was something I was trying to make a job. Today, it’s just who I am. My pulse doesn’t change from talking to you to taping a show. Adrenaline in comedy is not your friend. It’s certainly not for me. You can be excited, sure. But when you’re in fight-or-flight mode, that’s not good.
PLAYBOY: You still occasionally do standup shows across the country. What’s the appeal? Do you just enjoy the freedom of being able to swear?
FERGUSON: Sure, absolutely. I never understand when comics get attacked for saying something controversial in a club or a theater. And even worse, when those standups apologize. For what? You said it, you annoyed somebody, man up. I thought the idea was that dictators can take anything from you but laughter. I get it on TV. I understand that. When I’m doing the Late Late Show, I’m in your house. It’s your TV, you paid for it, I’m a guest. But if you come to see me, you know the rules.
PLAYBOY: And the rules are, you say what you fucking want?
FERGUSON: I say what I fucking want! And if it offends you, too bad. It’s called a joke.
PLAYBOY: What about at your home? You have two sons, Milo and a newborn named Liam. Does the “I say what I fucking want” rule apply there?
FERGUSON: Absolutely not. On our refrigerator door, we have something called the Swear-O-Meter, which my son Milo came up with and constructed himself. He doesn’t swear at all and he doesn’t like it when I do, so he put a tariff together. Depending on the cuss word, you have to pay a certain amount.
PLAYBOY: What’s the price scale?
FERGUSON: Motherfucker is at the top. It’s a two dollar cuss word in my house.
PLAYBOY: Is that because it has mother in it?
FERGUSON: I don’t know. You’d have to ask Milo, he invented the tariffs. So it’s two dollars for motherfucker, a buck for a fuck. And after that I think it goes down through shit, asshole, all that. Retard is a swear word, you can’t say that. And then h-e-double hockey sticks is fifty cents. That kid is making twenty bucks a week out of me right now. And that’s just what he hears. I used to cuss a lot more than I do now. I try not to cuss at all around him if I can help it.
PLAYBOY: Because you can’t afford it?
FERGUSON: No, not just that. Because he doesn’t like it. It’s a mark of respect. If he doesn’t like it, I don’t do it. In all my life, all the teachers and TV executives and publicists, everybody who tried to get me to stop cussing, the only one who could do it was my son.
PLAYBOY: You’re on your third marriage. Why does this one work where the others didn’t? Have you changed, or have you finally found the right woman?
FERGUSON: I think it’s a little of both. My wife Megan, and I know it’s corny to say this, but she’s my best friend. We have an open communication. I’m not hiding anything from her. If I’m away from home, I can call her and say, “I need you to go into my desk drawer and find something for me.” The freedom of that is fantastic.
PLAYBOY: She’s not going to find any phone numbers scrawled on matchbooks?
FERGUSON: She might’ve if she was married to me ten, twenty years ago. But not today. I think until I met Megan, I wasn’t at a place in my life where I was capable of being with a woman like Megan. She’s a spectacular individual. And besides, I’m too old to date. I don’t want any part of that. “Hey, do you like puppies? I like puppies. Do you like cheesy biscuits? I like cheesy biscuits!” Fuck that. If Megan ever leaves me, I’m done.
PLAYBOY: Is it just dating you don’t like, or all social situations?
FERGUSON: All of it. I don’t care for being out in public if I can help it. It’s a product of being happily married, I think. The only reason I ever went to parties was to get laid. So what’s the point in going? If I go home, I’ll get laid. This is just wasting time.
PLAYBOY: What about dinner parties?
FERGUSON: Only if I absolutely have to. Success has encouraged in me a certain social isolation. I think it was always there anyway. I don’t like large parties. I’ll have friends over, but it’s pretty low-key. I partied for a long time when I was younger. I feel like I hit that spot pretty hard. Chris Rock has this great bit in his standup routines, where he says “You don’t want to be the oldest guy in the club.” I totally agree with that. I don’t want to be one of those guys driving up and down Sunset Boulevard in a convertible with dyed eyebrows.
PLAYBOY: Are you afraid of growing old?
FERGUSON: Not at all. But I want to get George Carlin old or Pablo Picasso old. You know what I mean? That’s the way to grow old.
PLAYBOY: That’s not as easy as it sounds. You’re in an industry that’s very youth-centric.
FERGUSON: Not to me it ain’t. It’s youth-centric if you let it be youth-centric. It’s youth-centric if you buy into it. I don’t give a shit. I don’t give a shit about who the Kardashian or Lady Gaga of the moment is. It doesn’t matter to me. I don’t care if the people watching my show are 16 years old or 65 years old. I don’t make the show for any particular age group. I was very clear on that when they gave me the show. I told them, “We’re not going after a demographic.” The first thing I did when I got the job, I said to the writers, “Don’t give me any jokes that are going to make middle-aged women feel bad about themselves.”
FERGUSON: Because I watched my predecessor and all he did was rag on middle-aged women. I don’t understand that at all. Why is it a bad thing to be a middle-aged woman? Some of the best times of my life have been spent with middle-aged women.
PLAYBOY: How many more years do you want to be hosting the Late Late Show?
FERGUSON: I don’t know, man. That’s a good question. That’s one I’m asking myself.
PLAYBOY: How much longer do you have on your contract with CBS?
FERGUSON: I’ve got a few more years, so it’s nothing immediate. It may not even be my choice whether I keep the job. So there’s always that. (Long pause.) I don’t see the show as being the only career option for me. I’ll do it a little longer and then maybe I’ll do something else. It’s not the be-all and end-all for me, and it never has been. But at least for now, I’m really enjoying it. You were asking me before whether I’m afraid of growing older. I don’t dwell on it a whole hell of a lot. But there are things that I like to do that I’ll miss when they’re over, or I’m too old to do them anymore, or I’m dead. And that’s the whole point of living, isn’t it?
PLAYBOY: I don’t mean to get all mushy on you, but you’ve come a long way from that guy who wanted to jump off a bridge twenty years ago.
FERGUSON: I don’t understand that guy anymore. I don’t relate to him. I don’t understand the desire to not experience what you’re experiencing. “I don’t like my life, i’ll jump off a bridge.” “I don’t like getting older, I’ll dye my eyebrows.” Well, you can do that, I suppose. Or you can just deal with it. What was that great quote by Betty Davis? Getting old is not for pussies.
PLAYBOY: I think she said sissies.
FERGUSON: Was it sissies? Well, I think she meant pussies. That seems more accurate.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the December 2011 issue of Playboy.)