Craig Ferguson’s story of becoming a TV star, late show host, and sporadic auteur has all the makings of a fantastic film. In his excellent memoir American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot, Ferguson proves something I’ve suspected each time I catch a broadcast of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson: this is a brilliant man. He stands out among his colleagues by making his show a smarter experience for his audience (this is a guy who dedicated a whole episode to Archbishop Desmond Tutu). Not only is the comedian a smart, quick wit, but he’s also an excellent writer. As evident with his wonderful fiction work Between the Bridge and the River, Ferguson has the potential of being a literary powerhouse if he chooses to do so.
Ferguson’s tale is very American; an immigrant who finds success in the United States, after dreaming of making it in America. His journey to success was a winding road that has been littered with pitfalls like alcoholism, drug addiction and detours into punk rock. Despite his claim to fame as being a standup comic, Ferguson performed in front of an audience by drumming for a couple punk bands in Glasgow. He fails to attain success as a musician, but is encouraged by his friends to exploit his talent for getting laughs. He moves on to success as a comic before moving to Los Angeles, joining Drew Carey’s sitcom, and eventually taking over for Craig Kilborn as the host for The Late Late Show.
American on Purpose defies a lot of expectations: it’s not a jokey collection of essays a la David Sedaris; nor is it a gossipy tabloid tale, though Ferguson does share anecdotes of his showbiz career – particularly his difficult time at establishing himself as a screenwriter, which has netted much disappointment that the author doesn’t shy away from; he also talks briefly about The Drew Carey Show, the show that brought him success in the U.S., but which also stifled the comedian artistically; there’s also a neat mention of a all-but-forgotten 90s Marie Osmond sitcom that Ferguson starred in with the singer-actress, along with TV legend Betty White. While he has only nice things to say about Osmond (even though he good-naturedly ribs her Mormon faith), he details a great friendship with White – a perennial guest on his talk show.
As funny as Ferguson is, he also allows for some dark moments – most notably his struggles with drugs and alcohol. He writes of these episodes with a bare and unflinching candor that sometimes pictures a disturbing picture of illness and despair. This isn’t a “smiling through the tears” story, nor does Ferguson try to wrap his addiction issues in psychobabble or pop psychology. Instead he writes of his experiences with an awesome eye for detail – especially distressing are the passages that describe his bouts of panic attacks or withdrawal. It helps that Ferguson is so talented and gifts these sections with an incredibly descriptive and lyrical voice that is alarming in its beauty as well as its power to convey the chaotic loss of self-control he’d suffer when in the grips of his addiction.
Books about self-discovery, addiction and depression often fall victim to the touchy-feely Oprah Winfrey-esque pablum. Thankfully, Ferguson avoids any trace of self-indulgence self-pity. Instead he bravely shares his story with his readers, allowing for even the most dire moments to take center stage. But those wary of American on Purpose shouldn’t worry – despite his willingness to remain open and honest about the dark periods in his life, he always tempers his writing with an open-hearted love of life and affection and admiration for those around him – especially his family and friends. He writes of these colorful characters with unabashed devotion, always remembering to tell his story with a survivor’s sense of humor. This is an incredible and bracing reading experience.
Click here to buy American on Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot by Craig Ferguson on amazon.com.