Lisa Ingrassia
June 23, 2008 12:00 PM

When Craig Ferguson beat out 28 comedians to host CBS’s Late Late Show in 2004, he was overcome by nerves. So the Emmy-nominated talk show host came up with a novel cure for stage fright. “The first year, I wore lucky underpants,” says Ferguson, 46. “I’d put them on for the show and then I’d come off the show and wash them and put them on the next day.” It took a few hundred episodes, but the wry Scotsman decided, “You don’t have time for that crap. Just do the show!”

Ferguson is beyond magic britches now. In April Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson began beating NBC’s Conan O’Brien in the ratings. That same month, Ferguson scored another coup: performing at the White House Correspondents Association dinner. His appeal is no surprise to Late Late Show executive producer Peter Lassally: “Craig speaks from the heart. He’s very funny—and he can make you cry.”

Perhaps because he has weathered his share of tough times. Last February Ferguson, who has been sober for 16 years, discussed his own alcoholism during a monologue about Britney Spears. “People always ask me when I hit rock bottom,” he says of his substance abuse. “My address was rock bottom.” Raised in a tough working-class community near Glasgow by his father, a postal worker, and his mother, a teacher, he grew a sense of humor out of self-preservation. “Outside the house it was extremely violent,” Ferguson says. “I spent a lot of time frightened.” At 16, he dropped out of school and became a drummer in a punk band, the Bastards from Hell, before segueing into stand-up under the stage name Bing Hitler. Soon Ferguson was working on both sides of the Atlantic. But his life was out of control. After filming a U.S. TV pilot, he flew to London, then went on a bender. “I remember waking up in a shop doorway at 3 in the morning,” he says. “I thought, ‘I was on Concorde eight hours ago. Now I’m a bum.’ It’s no way to live.”

Broke, he checked into rehab in ’92 (a pal vouched that Ferguson would pay) and never looked back. Three years later he moved to L.A. and soon landed a role on The Drew Carey Show. “They hired me for three episodes,” he says. “I stayed for eight years.” Along the way, Ferguson, who was married briefly in the ’80s, wed Sascha, a gym owner. Although they divorced in ’04 (he now dates art dealer Megan Cunningham), they live on the same block and jointly raise son Milo, 7. “Being a parent introduces a level of terror only people with kids understand,” he says. “[But] it’s the best thing that ever happened.”

“Leaning into fear,” as Ferguson puts it, also led him to conquer a fear of flying and get his pilot’s license. “The first 15 hours, I’ve never been so scared,” he says. “Then it got interesting.” He also gained his U.S. citizenship earlier this year. “I have the intense patriotism of an immigrant,” says Ferguson, who is writing a memoir, American on Purpose. “Look at what this country has done for me.” Including giving him his own late-night perch. From the moment he auditioned for the Late Late Show, “I found it very intoxicating,” he says. “I’m still delighted by it.”

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