American on Purpose is part confession, part memoir, and part celebratory essay by Craig Ferguson, host of The Late Late Show on CBS. It reads very much like the monologues he delivers every week night—self-deprecating and funny with an edgy sort of eloquence.
The book opens with a wry account of Ferguson serving as the “vulgar lounge entertainer” at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in 2008. Ellen DeGeneres and Steve Carell had turned the gig down. “I might be a C-lister,” admits Ferguson, “but I was obtainable, willing, and cheap.” Also, “I didn’t say no because between safety and adventure, I choose adventure.”
Ferguson’s life thus far has certainly been an adventure, and the understated style he employs actually sharpens its impact. Reading it is like running your fingers through long grass and receiving an unexpected cut. Born in 1962, his father was a postal worker who “smelled of cigarettes and Brylcreem” and “drank a fair bit—lager in the summer and Guinness in the winter and whiskey all year round.” Ferguson grew up in Cumbernauld, one of the bleak, modernist projects developed in the housing boom of the late 1940s, about fifteen miles outside Glasgow.
His school years were obviously brutal. “The only way to endure a public education in Scotland in the 1960s and seventies was to remain anonymous. Don’t fail. Don’t succeed. Don’t appear. Just don’t.” The sudden opportunity to visit relations on Long Island in 1970 with his father became a bright promise. Touring the Statue of Liberty, up in the crown in 110-degree heat, he said “One day I’m gonnae live in New York, Da.”
The book is a long and well-written chain of stories and anecdotes. He started drinking at 15, dropped out of school and became (among other things) a drummer in a Punk band, an apprentice electrician, a construction worker, a bartender, and a stand-up comedian. He took acid, did cocaine, did crazy things with crazy people, and generally made a mess of his relationships with women and his family for fifteen years until he finally decided to enter rehab in 1992. His big break came when he was cast as Mr. Wick on The Drew Carey Show in 1996, and his first appearance as the regular host of The Late Late Show aired January 3, 2005.
In writing American on Purpose, Ferguson has applied the advice of Jay Leno and Drew Carey, given to him before he played the White House: “read the room, don’t be too blue but don’t be too tame, make sure you smack everybody at least once, and remember it’s not really about you, you’re just the help.” It is certainly a book about Craig, but it is also a book about a grateful, graceful, self-effacing new U.S. citizen who loves his country, and is pleased to show it by entertaining us.