On February 20, 2007, almost 14 years ago, this Craig Ferguson monologue on The Late Late Show took a different turn than most late night gag-fests, setting a precedent of class that many would do well to follow. At the time Britney Spears was going what amounted to a mental health breakdown in public, as seen in the new FX documentary Framing Britney Spears. While strange public behavior from celebrities is typically grist for the mill of nightly comedy shows, Ferguson was what was really going on, having faced his own personal demons of addiction, suicidal ideation, and recovery. This led him to announce publicly on the show that he would not be making jokes about Spears.
"For me, comedy should have a certain amount of joy in it," Ferguson said. "It should be about us attacking the powerful people, attacking the politicians, and the Trumps, and the blowhards, going after them. We shouldn't be attacking the vulnerable people. This is totally a mea culpa. This is just for me. I think my aim's been off a bit recently. I want to change it a bit, so tonight, no Britney Spears jokes, and here's why."
The audience was so used to laughing at her that they couldn't help themselves even at this point, as if they were still waiting for Ferguson to turn this whole bit into a punchline. He had to plead with them to realize he was being earnest.
"I'm not doing them!," he insisted. "The kind of weekend she had, she was checking in and out of rehab, she was shaving her head, getting tattoos, that's what she was doing this weekend. This Sunday, I was 15 years sober. So I looked at her weekend, and I looked at my own weekend, and I thought 'you know, I'd rather have my weekend.' But what she was going through reminds me of what I was doing. It's an anniversary, you start to think about it. It reminds me of where I was 15 years ago, when I was living like that. Now I'm not saying Britney Spears is an alcoholic. I don't know if she's an alcoholic or not. But she clearly needs help."
Ferguson then told a deeply personal rock-bottom story about what he called "hopefully my last Christmas as a drinking man," where he woke up after a bender, soaked in his own urine, and felt so "desperately confused and desperately twisted and turned upside-down by whatever the hell was going on in my head" that he had decided to kill himself, and the only reason he didn't is because a bartender friend of his convinced him to have a drink, and "one thing led to another and I forgot to kill myself that day." Two months after that, he finally decided to go to rehab. He stressed that fighting alcoholism is an ongoing battle that he struggled with every day.
"It looks to me a little bit that Britney Spears has a similar problem going on with alcohol," he said. "This woman has two kids. She's 25 years old. She's a baby herself. She's a baby. And the thing is, you can embarrass somebody to death. It's embarrassing to admit you're an alcoholic... Now, I'm not absolving this woman of her behavior, I'm not. You have to be responsible for your actions, sick or well. You have to be responsible for your actions. You just have to be. All of us are accountable... it's your responsibility to deal with the condition that you have in whatever way you can."
This was a watershed moment for late night television as well as for Ferguson himself, whose natural talent for mixing raw honesty with gallows humor forged a special connection with his devoted audience, and it's well worth remembering that we as a society could have treated Britney Spears better then, because a "vulgar lounge entertainer" (his oft-repeated description of his job) certainly did.
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Andy Hunsaker has a head full of sitcom gags and nerd-genre lore, and can be followed @AndyHunsaker if you're into that sort of thing.