'It's funny because it's scary'

'It's funny because it's scary'

Tim Ferguson's show is about his battle with multiple sclerosis - and a whole lot more, Ron Cerabona writes

As a member of Canberra-formed comedy troupe The Doug Anthony All Stars, Tim Ferguson seemed to have it all. He was, as he says, ''living the comedy rock-star life … sex, drugs and Benny Hill music''.

Having made a name for themselves in Australia in the 1980s, the trio - which also featured Paul McDermott and Richard Fidler - was ''touring from country to country, selling out bigger and bigger venues''. Life was good.

Tim Ferguson makes the best of a bad situation.

Tim Ferguson makes the best of a bad situation.Credit:James Penlidis

But there were signs something was wrong. Ferguson, 48, says that from the age of 19, odd things began happening to his body: his eyes would become slightly crossed, he would have pins and needles and numbness in his limbs and a fuzzy, buzzy feeling in his head.

''The symptoms would come and go, come and go.''

Doug Anthony Allstars: (from left) Richard Fidler, Tim Ferguson and Paul McDermott.

Doug Anthony Allstars: (from left) Richard Fidler, Tim Ferguson and Paul McDermott.Credit:Neil Newitt

For a long time, he was able to ignore them. He was young and having fun and, besides, the act was going well. He didn't want to cause trouble.

But eventually, while they were in London in 1994, ''the left side of my body went AWOL,'' he says.

He thought he might have had a stroke but hoped it was something simpler, like overtiredness, that a change of lifestyle could overcome. But after going, reluctantly, to the doctor - ''I'm a man; we don't like doctors'' - came the diagnosis: multiple sclerosis.

Ferguson decided he had to return to Australia to live - ''it was best to be stationary'' - and so the All Stars were forced to break up.

He says Fidler and McDermott were ''very upset. It was a juggernaut, and I was the one who said they had to stop.''

It was a few years later that he told them exactly why (''I didn't want anyone to worry''). And two years ago, on McDermott's TV show Good News Week, he went public about his condition, which was becoming obvious.

''I thought I might as well say it and everybody will be concerned and see I'm fine and move on.''

And that's pretty much what happened, although, he says, ''I would have preferred a little more gasping.''

The next stage in his laugh-rather-than-cry openness about his MS came with Carry a Big Stick, a show he devised with director Mark Gracie a couple of years ago that had a sell-out season at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

''I had the idea that it would be good to do a show that explains to the audience what happened,'' he says.

''The main thing is to do a funny show,'' he says.

Sure, MS is scary, he says.

''But it's funny because it's scary.''

Indeed, he says Carry a Big Stick is ''the funniest solo work I've ever done''.

Carry a Big Stick is, however, not just about his battle with MS.

''The idea is to make people laugh and if they want to take some message about dealing with things that are very difficult away, that's a bonus,'' he says.

''It's autobiographical, going from Garema Place to just across the road at the Canberra Theatre Centre.''

He will be discussing the All Stars, obviously, from their humble beginnings busking in Civic to their international multimedia celebrity. They named themselves after the former National Party leader because of the incongruity - he seemed to be one of the least likely people to associate with them - and developed their aggressive, in-your-face performance style to capture and keep the attention of passers-by.

But Ferguson has had other projects, including the game show Don't Forget Your Toothbrush and the sitcom Shock Jock and his writing for The Age (''I've become a bit of a comic rabble-rouser,'' he says). And he'll be talking not just about the performance side but what goes on behind the scenes. Although Ferguson has mellowed considerably since his younger days, there may well be some hair-raising stories. This is not a show suitable for children.

All three former All Stars have gone on to successful solo careers in show business and media. In recent years, Ferguson has concentrated on writing - ''It's something I can do even if I'm dangling blindfolded from the ceiling. I can still talk and with voice recognition software I can still write.''

He's worked on scripts for movies and sitcoms and has also written a book, The Cheeky Monkey, about writing narrative comedy, which he also teaches.

''It shows Australian writers how to write comedy with stories,'' he says.

''I think the people who do it are always coming from the same place: the comedy industry or TV.''

Too many, he thinks, consider comedy a mysterious art, but he breaks it down into basic principles (''the punchline comes at the end''). And he thinks comedy doesn't get the respect it deserves.

''There are two masks - one laughs, one cries: that's what drama is.''

Ferguson was born in Sydney but moved to Canberra at the age of 15 when his father Tony got a job working for the Hawke government. He lived in Narrabundah and went to a ''school without walls'' for a couple of years and then Narrabundah College, which he found to be ''great fun''.

Always keen on drama, he joined Canberra Youth Theatre not long after he arrived and also became involved with other theatre companies such as Canberra Repertory Society and Black Inc.

In 1983, he met Fidler - ''the world's most woeful singer of Cat Stevens'' - and they decided to team up.

''Then Paul McDermott came along and he sang like an angel so we thought, 'Let's do this for real.' ''

Thus, the Doug Anthony All Stars were born. Ferguson says they were modelled on the Marx Brothers - McDermott the acerbic Groucho figure, Fidler being Harpo (''the one you love'') and he being the in-between Chico character (albeit without the fake Italian accent).

''Paul had to undergo a lot of change,'' Ferguson says. ''He's really a shy person who doesn't really like to have to deal with strangers, so it seemed a happier fit to make him an angry Groucho. After the show people stayed away from him.''

He, on the other hand, was ''trained to be gregarious - I went to nine schools so meeting new people was never a problem''.

And Fidler was ''the baby'' on stage, but in real life, Ferguson says, ''he's a financial genius'', the brains behind their merchandising. They were not political comedians except in a very general sense. ''We reminded our younger audience to beware of fanatics and we looked and acted like fanatics: 'Don't trust guys in suits.' ''

And, he says, he is still annoyed by ''any politician who has absolute certainty. The Greens political policy seems ridiculous. Ask them any question and they give you an earnest answer. That surely has to be a problem … Any subject that does not bear levity is suspicious.''

He says that the Greens might say, for example, that global warming is not a laughing matter, which he thinks is unfortunate.

''The effect of laughter is not to belittle something; it helps us deal with things.''

Ferguson is not keen on the idea of ''being socially engineered by someone who went to university a couple of years too long''. But he's no reactionary. Asked what he thinks of gay marriage, for example, he says, ''The only question we should be asking about gay marriage is when it happens, how will we know the difference?'' And he thinks that what he does in the privacy of his own underpants - or someone else's - is his own business. Not that gay marriage directly concerns him: he's been happily married to his (second) wife for the past couple of months: they've been together for five years.

He thinks there are far more important issues - hunger, poverty - to worry about. Not that it would stop him making jokes about them, it seems. Or anything else.

Parliament House is a place ''where all the people are being earnest, unless they're being nasty,'' he says.

''I could never understand why they get called 'honourable': everyone knows they're not.''

But he thinks there's more to Canberra than politics. It is, he says ''a perfect cocoon for new things'' - music, visual art, comedy - because ''it's a city without the responsibility of being a big city, with all the amenities … Canberra is the same size as Geelong, but Canberra has a whole lot more.''

And that, finally, includes Carry a Big Stick. It didn't come here first but, presumably, Ferguson has had plenty of time to polish it for what is, essentially, his home-town audience.

Tim Ferguson: Carry a Big Stick is on at The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, on October 19 at 8pm. Not suitable for children. Tickets $49.80/$43.80. Bookings: 6275 2700 or canberratheatrecentre.com.au.