WPPB

Craig Ferguson On Recovery, Philosophy And A Lifetime Of 'Riding The Elephant'

May 11, 2019

Craig Ferguson is in his upper 50s, and it's a small — maybe not so small — kind of a miracle that between drinking, drugs, and hard general hard living, he's around, and a quarter-century sober, to write this book.

Riding the Elephant is a series of reflections on what he's learned along the road of being a comic and a drummer in Scotland, a bouncer in New York, stints on American TV shows, including The Late Late Show, meeting Princess Diana, and all 12 steps of recovery.

"I think part of the legend that reformed alkies such as myself tell is that we were wild and crazy, and kind of Johnny Cash in 'A Boy Named Sue,'" he says. "But the truth is, I think people felt sad for me. I think I was a rather desperate character — desperate to be liked, desperate to feel okay. I was a kind of troubled youngster, more than anything."


Interview Highlights

On what troubled him

I'm not entirely sure. I tried to mess around with what that might be in the writing of this particular book, because it is more meditative than anything I've done, and sort of — I don't know if it's genetic? I think it's certainly partly that. Is it upbringing? As you say, I'm in my upper 50s, so I don't really want to start blaming my parents, or Scotland. I think perhaps, I was very sensitive, I was a very sensitive little boy, and at the time, it wasn't particularly advantageous to be that way. I just know that I became sadder and more kind of desperate as time went on, and alcohol seemed to work for a long time, and then didn't.

On his suicide attempt

It was a dark time. I didn't like the way I was living, I couldn't stop drinking, I wanted to — I didn't really want to stop drinking, but I didn't want my life to continue the way it was. The thought that came into my head, that felt rational at the time, that I must kill myself — on the way to actually committing the act, I had a big glass of sherry with a friend of mine, and that took my mind off it, in that odd way that alcohol saves the life of alcoholics sometimes. The paradox and the conundrum of alcoholism is not that people drink because they're trying to destroy themselves, they're trying to save themselves.

On what it takes to stay sober

I've been sober since I was 29, and as you say, I'm 57 in about a week or two, so I've been sober a long time. Drinking isn't really the issue. It's more about thinking. It's more like, I have a think problem than a drink problem, but of course it could become a drink problem very quickly. Part of the philosophy, the way I live now, and I have done for a very long time, is to try to live in the moment. Not just — it began with a way of not drinking, like today, just today, just this hour, I'll make it through this hour without having a drink. It doesn't feel like that anymore, but there's a great advantage to trying to live in the day and experience life as it arrives and as it shows up. I think that feels, to me, like an authentic and desirable way to get through this thing called life.

This story was produced for radio by Ed McNulty and Ian Stewart, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Craig Ferguson is in his upper 50s. And it's a small - maybe not so small - kind of miracle that between drinking, drugs and hard living, he's around and a quarter-century sober to write this book. "Riding The Elephant: A Memoir of Altercations, Humiliations, Hallucinations and Observations" is a series of reflections on what he's learned along the road of being a comic and a drummer in Scotland, a bouncer in New York, stints on U.S. TV shows including "The Late Late Show," meeting Princess Diana and all 12 steps of recovery. Craig Ferguson joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

CRAIG FERGUSON: Thank you, Scott. The only thing I felt a little uncomfortable with is when you said upper 50s. I thought that - gosh - that sounds ominous.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Well, you're just a shade over the midmark. Let's put it that way.

FERGUSON: Yeah. I'm going to be 57 in a couple of weeks, which is shocking. But...

SIMON: And 57 is the new 25, I think.

FERGUSON: You know what? I totally agree. Actually, I don't know if I'd want to be 25 again. Would you want to be 25 again? I mean...

SIMON: No.

FERGUSON: ...I wouldn't mind being able to physically be 25 again.

SIMON: Yeah.

FERGUSON: But I wouldn't want to be 25.

SIMON: No, I would not. And there's no movement in our family to make me 25 again. They find me hard enough to take as it is.

FERGUSON: Yeah.

SIMON: You know, from what I know of you, which is your comedy and now this book, I like you a lot.

FERGUSON: Oh, thanks.

SIMON: But am I lucky I didn't know you when you were younger?

FERGUSON: You know, I think part of the legend that reformed alchies - such as myself - tell is that, you know, we were wild and crazy and kind of, you know, Johnny Cash in "A Boy Named Sue." But the truth is I think people felt sad for me. I think I was a rather desperate character, desperate to be liked, desperate to to feel OK. You know, I'm - I was kind of troubled youngster more than anything.

SIMON: May I ask, troubled by what?

FERGUSON: You know, it's a fair question. And I'm not entirely sure. I try to kind of mess around with what that might be in the writing of this particular book because it is more meditative than anything else I've done. And so I don't know if it's genetic. I think it's certainly partly that. You know, is it upbringing? But I - as you say, in my upper 50s - so I don't really want to start, you know, blaming my parents or Scotland. I think, perhaps, I was very sensitive. I was a very sensitive little boy. And at the time, it wasn't particularly advantageous to be that way. You know, I just know that I became sadder and more kind of desperate as time went on. And alcohol seemed to work for a long time and then didn't.

SIMON: Yeah. I have to ask about the time you almost took your life.

FERGUSON: Well, it was a dark time. I was - I didn't like the way I was living. I couldn't stop drinking. I wanted to - I didn't really want to stop drinking. But I didn't want my life to continue the way it was. And I thought I - the thought that came into my head that felt rational at the time, that I must kill myself - on the way to actually committing the act, I had a a big glass of sherry with a friend of mine. And that took my mind off it. And in that old way, the alcohol saves the life of alcoholics sometimes. The paradox and the conundrum of alcoholism is not that, you know, people drink because, you know, they - they're trying to destroy themselves. They're trying to save themselves.

SIMON: May I ask - how much strength and time and concentration does it take for you today not to drink or do drugs?

FERGUSON: I - I've been sober since I was 29. And I'm - as you say, I'm - you know, I'm 57 in about a week or two. So I've been sober for a long time. Drinking isn't really the issue. It's more about thinking. It's more like I have a think problem than a drink problem. But, of course, it could become a drink problem very quickly. Part of the philosophy - the way I live now and have done for a very long time is to try to live in the moment, not just - it began with a way of not drinking, like today, just today, just this hour. I'll make it to this hour without having a drink. It doesn't feel like that anymore. But there is a great advantage to trying to live in the day and experience life as it arrives and as it shows up. I think that feels to me like an authentic and desirable way to to get through this thing (laughter) called life.

SIMON: Now, we should explain the title of your book, "Riding The Elephant." The whole idea is that your - you kid yourself if you think you can guide an elephant...

FERGUSON: I think so.

SIMON: ...At some point.

FERGUSON: Yeah. I mean, I - I mean it...

SIMON: I say that as someone who's never tried, but yeah.

FERGUSON: You know, the title refers to a story in the book where I went on an elephant ride, which is not something I would do now. It was a long time ago. And I've since realized or since been informed that riding elephants is cruel to the elephant. And the idea that you're on an elephant is a metaphor for life. You think your inputs are important. But really, if the big, gray creature wants to go in another direction, there's very little you can do about it other than protest and hang on. And so it felt like a nice little metaphor for an odd and scattered life.

SIMON: Craig Ferguson - his book "Riding The Elephant: A Memoir of Altercations, Humiliations, Hallucinations and Observations" - thank you so much, Mr. Ferguson.

FERGUSON: Thank you, Scott. And please call me Craig. Mr. Ferguson makes me sound very...

SIMON: Fifty-seven (laughter).

FERGUSON: A little bit - how dare you.

(LAUGHTER) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.