Interview: Tim Ferguson Q&A with the Australian

10 Questions for Weekend Australian Magazine: TIM FERGUSON
You had phenomenal early success in your comedy career with the Doug Anthony Allstars. What is your fondest/maddest/clearest memory of those years?
We were doing a gig with U2 in 1988 when the gigantic set collapsed. I was nearly killed, Richard Fidler was nearly decapitated, Paul McDermott was nearly crushed to an even smaller package.

You kept your Multiple Sclerosis (MS) a secret for 15 years, why?
It was nobody’s damn business! I was handling it, still do. And I worked in TV where executives run screaming, their heads aflame, cowering from the audience. Why give execs something else they couldn’t understand? I started working on a new career in writing.

Do you wish you had revealed your MS earlier, or was it the right time?
I saved a lot of people needless worry by bearing it for as long as I did. I don’t recommend hiding or releasing it – others have their own paths. MS makes things harder, but life’s hard for everyone. Challenge just makes life more interesting.

You stood against Andrew Peacock, then opposition leader in Kooyong in the 1990 election, and are running for Senate in 2013. What interests you about politics?
Politics is a polite way of describing the act of spending other people’s money. I believe in making pollies pay for their crackers.

Your new book ‘Carry a Big Stick’, is about a fearless life. Are you ever fearful?
Perspective is the solution to fear. I have bigger problems than worrying my head could fall off. We all live with the unknown. I’ve built a career in the gap between truth and fact. I mind the gap, but don’t lose sleep over it. Besides, I’m a lucky, lucky bastard.
The book has its origins in the show of the same name you wrote with collaborator Marc Gracie. How is the show received? Are you happy with it? Does the audience know whether to laugh or cry?
The response is strong everywhere, which I find disconcerting. Are they coming to see the monkey with a broken wing? As for tears and laughter, comedy’s about creating spontaneous, surprising, involuntary emotional responses. The show’s ruthless in that regard.
Making people cry is easy – laughter is a killer.
Laughter and tears at once is the sweet spot, the comic Everest.

Can MS ever be a laughing matter? That is, has there been a way for humour to help/comfort you in the face of a serious illness?
Humour is the only salve for the ridiculous antics of my brain. I could weep but who would listen? Besides, I was never much of a dancer.

You father Tony died young (58) in 1991; your younger brother Simon died in 2009. How have you dealt with that succession of blows?
It never gets easier, but I try to find a quiet place for them in my heart. Two great men.

Do you have a faith, or belief system, formal or informal?
‘Belief system’? Is that a term to avoid upsetting inner-city atheists? Bugger them and their sensitivities to clarity and the big picture. My faith is formal and informal, ever-lapsing. I like sitting in church, no one bothers me there.

Where are you up to with your performing career? What’s next?
We’re taking the Doug Anthony Allstars Rebirth show round the world. Paul McDermott and I have joined our mentor Paul ‘Flacco’ Livingston (Richard’s sensibly busy on ABC radio). The show is darker, less forgiving, and hopefully funnier than ever.

We felt we owed the fans round the globe a second burst, so we’ve lurched out of retirement. McDermott and Livingston are very funny guys. masters of their craft. I’m enjoying floating in their wake.

How has becoming a Comedy Screenwriting teacher enhanced your life? Writing my comedy screenwriting manual (‘The Cheeky Monkey’) opened a lot of doors. And not just for me, I’ve taught comedy writers who’ve become successful authors and comics which is very satisfying. I now teach everywhere.

But can comedy be taught?
Comedy can be very tricky, elusive, with uncertain outcomes – but its a craft, just like Tragedy or Drama (which are tricky as well). Comedy writing has ancient principles. They can be learnt like any other discipline, through work and imagination. Once you know the principles, the rest is up to you.
Teaching narrative comedy to misery-mongering, pious & preaching screenwriters is the biggest battle of my life. I will change the screenwriting industry or destroy it.
I have no time or use for politeness. I don’t care how many tender creative souls I must harangue and bash to bring true Drama (symbolised by a weeping mask and a laughing mask) to the light. Make audiences laugh and cry and they might start hearing you.
Australian & British screenwriters in particular must stop creating tearful horrors that resemble teenage poetry. No more misery porn!

Do you have any advice for young comedians starting out?
Avoid comedians – they want to screw you or kill you. And so do I.

Is Australia in a golden age of comedy?
It always is. I’d like to see more fire and fury. Comedy shouldn’t be easy to watch. It’s about changing beliefs not confirming them. Some people like warm, fuzzy, lefty comedy. I prefer unnerving truths to comforting giggles.
But, hey, that’s just me.

Tim Ferguson's Memoir
Tim Ferguson’s Memoir