Tim Ferguson's voice is a little weaker than it once was. The 55-year-old, who announced he had multiple sclerosis in 2010, doesn't sound much like the wild, physically active young man who shouted at audiences as one of the Canberra-grown comedy troupe the Doug Anthony All Stars. But while he now uses a wheelchair to get around, his spirits and sense of humour remain strong.
Ferguson is returning to his home town, Canberra, as part of his Fast Life On Wheels Tour. It includes Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth. regional Victorian and NSW towns and Hobart. A mix of comedy and stories about his own experiences, it won best male solo show at the Adelaide Fringe and the Weekly Comedy Award at the Perth Fringe.
"It's about anybody with a difficulty - and that's everybody," he says.
"I'm showing how I deal with mine - how laughing at problems is usually the best way to deal with them."
The aim, as well as making people laugh, is to help them.
"I usually find we're more uncomfortable with other people's problems than our own," he says.
"When people meet me, because I'm in a wheelchair with MS they become nervous: they don't want to say the wrong thing. When they see I'm OK and can find humour in my condition, it encourages them to relax."
He says that most of A Fast Life On Wheels is comedy "and you, the audience, are starring in it".
The idea, he says, is "You think my problems are bad - think about your own.
"People see their own problems as bigger than anyone else's."
Many people with serious medical conditions - like him - are "accepting of whatever is wrong with them. I'm playing with that plus being a bit silly.
"That's the secret weapon."
It seems to be working. Although the show has plenty of comedy, he says people have come up to him after performances in tears.
Ferguson doesn't want to dwell on the serious stuff or even the new show, though. And he's certainly got plenty to talk about from the past and the present.
Among a certain generation, he is probably still best remembered for the original troupe of DAAS - Paul McDermott, Richard Fidler, and himself - who got together in Canberra in 1984 and began as aggressive buskers in Garema Place. Eventually they moved into theatres and tours, both national and international (they made a splash in Edinburgh) and television, which gave them a wider Australian audience for their brash, anarchic and sometimes abrasive style of comedy.
Perhaps Ferguson got this bolshie streak from his father, Tony Ferguson, who was a war correspondent during the Vietnam War and an executive producer of the long-running prime-time ABC current affairs shows This Day Tonight and Four Corners. Ferguson says his fatherhad "terrible battles with the management of the ABC".
If anyone represented 'ABC bias' it was my father," he says. This Day Tonight, Ferguson says, was "go to your room television" - parents didn't want their children watching it - andwas the first Australian show to have a lesbian family interviewed on TV in 1971.
The women were asked if they thought one day lesbians would be able to get married and they replied, "Of course ...If you fight for it".
Ferguson says it's long been the case that the national broadcaster's management has been conservative while its staff have tended more to the progressive. Perhaps that's how he, Fidler and McDermott landed there, first in The Big Gig in 1989 and then moving in 1991 to their own show, DAAS Kapital, despite their swearing and confrontational style. It's hard to imagine a commercial channel taking them on in those days, though Ferguson himself subsequently went on to the ABC parody of 1970s police shows, Funky Squad, and the Channel Nine light entertainment program Don't Forget Your Toothbrush as well as the clip show Unreal TV.
He was also a musical theatre performer, notably in The Rocky Horror Show, and now does a podcast with friend and fellow comic Maynard.
DAAS broke up in 1994 after Ferguson announced he was leaving. It was because of the worsening symptoms of MS, but he kept his condition secret for many years. They eventually reconciled.
McDermott went on to other TV, radio and theatrical performing ventures and Fidler established a career in ABC radio and hosts popular interview series Conversations.
DAAS reunited briefly in 2003 and returned, minus Fidler but with their longtime collaborator Paul "Flacco" Livingston, in 2014.
They were older and more reflective than in their original incarnation, and Ferguson says one show had an unintended effect: their tour manager, inspired by their life is short/carpe diem message, filed for divorce.
When people meet me, because I'm in a wheelchair with MS they become nervous: they don't want to say the wrong thing. When they see I'm OK and can find humour in my condition, it encourages them to relax.Tim Ferguson
One of Ferguson's main gigs in recent years has been teaching people how to write narrative comedy for film, TV and the web and how to pitch it to different markets in Australia, Britain and the US.
His book on the subject, Cheeky Monkey, was published in 2010.
The most important thing, he says, is "a good idea" - simple but not easy. And then it has to be brought to fruition. But helping with that is part of why he is there.
After writing the script comes choosing the best market for it. In Australia, film ideas have to be kept modest: a $20 million budget for a feature film, while not all that large by US studio standards, would be prohibitively huge here.
"It's hard to compete with Baz Luhrmann," Ferguson says.
Such a script would need the massive resources of Hollywood.
"They're always open to a good idea. They like Australians - we're very much like Americans, except cheaper."
In the US, genre films are more popular, while Britain is more receptive to quirkier, one-off ideas.
He says that even with the many reality shows (a genre that shows no signs of ending any time soon), TV networks are always looking for good sitcom ideas, despite their relative expense and complexity.
Again, Australia - and Britain - would be more open to smaller-budget shows.
While a lot of sitcoms quickly fail, he points out that when they do succeed, they can have healthy runs like Mother and Son (which ran for six seasons on the ABC) and All Together Now, which notched up four seasons on Seven.
Sometimes, he says, ideas can be transformed in unexpected ways between countries (intentionally or otherwise).
He says the American sitcom The Golden Girls - about a group of single older women sharing a house and looking for romance - is very like the recent British film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (and its sequel) in which a group of older British women (and men) take up residence in an Indian hotel in order to have a more affordable retirement.
While the two are not identical, they share the idea of older people living together and their interactions and experiences, romantic and otherwise.
Ferguson's advice is simply to write and pitch and let other people worry about getting the money.
"That's what producers are for," he says.
Comedy is notoriously difficult to get right - what makes people laugh really depends on the individual - but Ferguson has the experience to speak with authority. He's worked a lot in television, of course, seeing how it works from the inside, but he also has a burgeoning big-screen career behind the camera. His first feature film was the romantic comedy Spin Out (2016), starring Xavier Samuel as Billy, who has to convince his longtime friend and ute driving partner Lucy (Morgan Griffin) he loves her during their small town's Bachelor and Spinster Ball.
He co-wrote the film with actor-writer Edwina Exton (who appeared in Romper Stomper) and co-directed it with longtime TV and film producer-director Marc Gradie (Totally Full Frontal, You and Your Stupid Mate). Gracie also directed Fast Life on Wheels. It wasn't easy - getting the script right was difficult, directing even more so.
"Directing a film is the hardest thing I've ever done," he says.
"It uses everything you've got - all of your talent, all of your energy."
And there are "millions" of questions that need to be answered. But he's undeterred: he's now working on the script for a second film.
Ferguson doesn't come all that often to the national capital except when working, but says he's always interested to see how it changes between visits. He remembers when there was only one cafe in the city - Gus'.
"Now there's a whole precinct of cafe and restaurants," he says.
But, he says, Canberra has always been a very cosmopolitan and cultured city and he's looking forward to returning with the show.
Will the original DAAS ever reunite? "You never know ... It's hard to kill zombies like us."
Since he's tending towards the inspirational now, how about, for the next show, conducting a motivational seminar a la the American life and business coach Tony "Unleash the Power Within" Robbins? Complete with a fire walk?
Ferguson ponders the idea, then says he will steal it.
He's probably kidding, but if it comes to be, remember - you read it here first.
- Fast Life on Wheels is on at The Street Theatre on Saturday, October 19 at 8pm. thestreet.org,au.