Books

review | 'Riding the Elephant: A Memoir of Altercations, Humiliations, Hallucinations, and Observations'

Craig Ferguson's charm, 'cheeky imprdudence' comes through in book form

Riding the Elephant: A Memoir of Altercations, Humiliations, Hallucinations, and Observations
Riding the Elephant: A Memoir of Altercations, Humiliations, Hallucinations, and Observations

Grieve no more, those of you still suffering withdrawal pangs from the demise of Craig Ferguson’s “Late Late Show,” which ended in 2015 after a 10-year run. The Scottish comedian is back in a sparkling new memoir titled, “Riding the Elephant: A Memoir of Altercations, Humiliations, Hallucinations & Observations,” and we can safely report that the Ferguson phenomenon is still going strong. The only thing missing is his signature rattlesnake coffee mug, but its lack is more than made up for by the irreverent honesty he brings to this new endeavor, on sale May 7.

Ferguson took some time recently to chat over the phone, from his home in Glasgow, about book writing, his devilish grin and why he loves it when things go wrong.

Q: You interviewed literally hundreds of people on your show. Now that it’s behind you, can you characterize the sort of interviews you gave?

A: Deliberately unprofessional, I’d say. No agenda other than entertaining the people watching.

Q: Would you say you were more of a conversationalist than a traditional interviewer with a set of preconceived questions?

A: I would say so, yes. Or an improvisationalist.

Q: You were an extremely nimble one, always walking that edge.

A: I think many times, in fact, we tumbled over that edge - which served us well. You know, I was mentored by the man who was Johnny Carson’s producer for 30 years. He was always a fan of those moments when things went wrong. Carson himself loved it when a joke bombed. He found it delicious to work his way back. The fun of my show was trying somehow to keep it together until the next stage break.

Q: That edge is getting narrower these days, isn’t it, with the PC police breathing so heavily down everyone’s necks?

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A: Especially so in the last four years since I’ve been out of the game. I don’t know if my show would work if I tried it today. Politics have become so frightful in the U.S., I’m even annoyed with the people I agree with. Everybody shut up!

Q: Such a risky business. Is writing a book as risky?

A: Not nearly. They can’t fire you for writing a book, can they? They can burn it, but that’s not the same thing.

Q: One of the many pleasant surprises in “Riding the Elephant” is how well your raunchy charm translates to book form, even without that smile of yours. Can you describe the smile?

A: Miracle of American dentistry! Especially given that I grew up in Scotland in the ‘70s. But I don’t know. A smile is in the eye of the beholder. What do you think?

Q: Kind of devilish but also kind of vulnerable.

A: That’s me: devilish and vulnerable at the same time. [laughs]

Q: You also describe yourself as having “cheeky impudence.” The wonderful thing about having you in book form is it gives us more time to appreciate your language.

A: Well, that’s right. If you’re doing free-form improvisation you don’t always have time to choose the right word, whereas [in a book], it’s careful and considered.

Q: I frankly didn’t expect you to be such a craftsman. I especially admire your choice of idioms. At one point you describe a hangover as your head feeling “like a brown dog.” A Scottish expression, I take it?

A: That’s an Australian one, actually.

Q: Shows what I know. Still, with due respect, there must be many expressions in Scottish for being hung over. Got any others?

A: Hmm, can’t think. Being put on the spot.

Q: What do you mean? Being put on the spot was your specialty!

A: True. Hmm.

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Q: But you really were quite the accomplished drinker in your day, weren’t you? At one point, you mention that one of your acquaintances said you were the “alkiest alky” she’d ever met. Are there moments when you really miss the sauce?

A: No. Couldn’t have written this book. I’m glad I did it and glad it’s over.

Q: I feel the same way.

A: Are you sober, too?

Q: Twenty-three years.

A: Shut the front door! Congratulations.

Q: How long for you?

A: Twenty-seven years.

Q: Shut the door yourself! That’s quite an achievement.

A: Y’know, quitting was instrumental in my writing. The conversation in pubs I thought I’d miss was more than compensated for by the talk at [AA] meetings. That may be where I picked up my rambling manner.

Q: Apropos of nothing (maybe your rambling manner is rubbing off on me), you confess that “other people’s fame sometimes makes me feel like I have failed.” That’s a painful admission, one I can’t imagine a Johnny Carson would dare. Do you still feel that way?

A: Not anymore. I actively avoid areas where I might. I never read the trades. Avoid social media. I think social media does that to a lot of people. You see everyone having such a great time, it gives you a skewed idea of where you are in the world. I’m very careful about my intake. Never read my own press. I won’t even read this interview when it comes out.

Q: Lucky thing, it’s going to be a vicious one.

A: I figured.

Q: Again apropos of nothing, you throw some serious shade at the British monarchy for being “outdated and cruel,” and vow you will never kneel before royalty. In fact, you say the only place you could ever conceive bowing before another person would be in a sushi restaurant. But if the [queen] called to knight you, would you truly decline?

A: I believe I would, yes. Though I did quite like Princess Diana when I met her after a performance of mine.

Q: All of which raises my final question. Where do you get your favorite sushi?

A: Well, I no longer eat fish. But there’s a place on Manhattan’s West 56th Street that serves the most unbelievable vegan sushi. Called “Beyond Sushi.”

Q: Let’s give them a plug, shall we?

A: Let’s do it! “Beyond Sushi”!

Q: You know, you’re such a companionable guy. I always thought I’d be nervous to be on a late-night talk show, but chatting with you convinces me I wouldn’t. You put people at their ease. I bet it even comes through in this interview.

A: I’ve enjoyed it immensely. Pity I’ll never read it!

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