The Doug Anthony Allstars were the monster gods of Australian comedy. In the 10 short years following their 1984 busking debut in Canberra, the trio of Tim Ferguson, Paul McDermott and Richard Fidler became staples of the ABC and BBC, released albums, books, films and toured the globe. At the height of their infamy, they called it a day. No explanation.
‘‘For 10 years we were wondering why we broke up as well,’’ McDermott says.
It wasn’t until later that Ferguson, now 50, would be diagnosed with the multiple sclerosis that had made performing difficult for the Allstars’ last few years, but the trio remained friends and reunited in 2013 to launch the DVD of TV series DAAS Kapital. Now, 20 years after the split, they’re back together for an Australian tour.
The DAAS style of comedy didn’t have many precursors, though it does share some family resemblance with TV’s The Young Ones (Ferguson confirms that the group were all fans). Ferguson says DAAS was probably as informed by the aesthetic of post-punk bands, ‘‘where the music was excessively violent and intimidating. We liked the idea of being violent and intimidating in a performance. Without really thinking it was amusing. But it was useful in terms of our intent, which was to shake audiences up.’’
Comedy was just a by-product. The spirit of the Allstars was always a contrary one, forever seeking new ways to confront and upset. ‘‘I think most people loathed the Doug Anthony Allstars,’’ Ferguson says. ‘‘Even our fans were just tolerating us.’’
Untrue, but we’ll get to that.
One of the group’s guiding principles was to attempt to offend the audience that thinks itself above offence. It’s easy for a young inner-city audience to laugh at the conservatives you’d assume would be the Allstars’ natural enemy, but the group was as likely to target left-wing liberals or atheists – witness songs such as I Want to Spill the Blood of a Hippy and Commies for Christ.
‘‘We were against certainty,’’ Ferguson says. ‘‘We weren’t right-wing snots. It’s just that the laziness of the inner-city atheist left is profound and well worth shaking up.’’
For McDermott, 52, the group’s anti-establishment ways were in part a reaction to a Catholic upbringing and the Christian group he fell in with post-high school, where people spoke in tongues and saw visions of the world’s end. At some point the group decided that McDermott ‘‘was some sort of dark demon. So they sat me down one day and all laid hands on me and cast my demons out. I don’t think it worked.’’ But DAAS’s efforts to discourage fanaticism of any kind – ‘‘political, religious, fashion, musical’’ – somehow attracted a cult following whose devotion was daunting. Live gigs saw lines of fans sporting home-made, hand-painted bolero jackets in imitation of their idols.
‘‘For some reason it did create an atmosphere of blind support,’’ McDermott says. ‘‘I found it very weird back in the day. It was one of the things that made me retreat from people a lot, because I didn’t cope with it very well.’’
The trio were even accused of fascist tendencies. They decided the reason they weren’t nominated for Edinburgh’s Perrier Award one year was something to do with the judge who likened one of their outdoor shows to Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies.
This is a group that loved to lead its audience out of the theatre and into the street (a habit McDermott maintains). At one Montreal show the crowd of 500 attracted the attention of some passing police cars.
The Allstars, typically, pointed out that police couldn’t arrest that many people, and soon had the fans yelling for the law enforcement to ‘‘f--k off’’, says McDermott. ‘‘And these police cars, pretty quickly they did f--k off. The feeling that that generated was a real feeling of people power, that you have a voice.
‘‘I know it sounds stupid but it was quite a cathartic moment for everyone.’’
Though he’s been the most ardent supporter of a reunion, the 49-year-old Fidler’s work commitments as an ABC radio presenter have prevented him from joining the current tour. He’s been replaced as guitarist by Paul Livingston, 58, whose alter ego, Flacco, was a regular alongside DAAS.
The line-up swap isn’t the only change.
‘‘It’s certainly different from when there were three young fellas who could stand up and run around and so on,’’ McDermott says. A back injury late last year means Livingston won’t be pulling cartwheels, and Ferguson uses a wheelchair today. ‘‘If we did have a philosophy as the Allstars,’’ says McDermott, ‘‘him coming on stage and doing what he’s doing is proof of that.’’
The Doug Anthony Allstars play the Yarraville Club on August 22 and 23. yarravillelaughs.com