Wild days: Tim Ferguson says the Doug Anthonys "ran Edinburgh".
When he walks into the café, the face is instantly recognisable: boyish, with an ironic edge. When we shake hands I hear myself saying to Tim Ferguson: “Good to see you again,” although I don’t believe we’ve met. That’s the power of celebrity and a sort of one-way intimacy that can trip you up: we think we know people because they are so familiar.
And as one-third of the Doug Anthony Allstars, the musical comedy troupe that dominated Australian clubs large and small for a decade, and that wowed audiences at the Edinburgh Festival year after year, Tim Ferguson in the 1980s and ’90s was as familiar as you got.
It is good to see him again, and the natural inclination is to ask anyone who once shone brightly in the media firmament when the last time was. Could it have been a DAAS show, with DASSers Richard Fidler (now a radio presenter on the ABC in Brisbane) and Paul McDermott (hosting Channel Ten’s Good News Week)? Was it a sideline show he did that accompanied the 2003 season of Big Brother? Or was it his hosting role on Channel Nine’s Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush?
Since the Doug Anthonys broke up in 1995, Ferguson has been away from the spotlight, writing a film script and teaching comedy and screenwriting at RMIT University. And he’s just published a guidebook to comedy writing called The Cheeky Monkey.
Now he feels ready to talk publicly about living with multiple sclerosis – he was diagnosed in 1995 – describing it as a time when “a major tornado came in”. It was a revelation that changed his professional and personal life but today remains a manageable condition he deals with – sometimes well, sometimes not so.
The diagnosis made some decisions for him. Happily, Ferguson was able to take his performing skills to the classroom and his creativity largely away from the stage and onto the page. “It has forced me to develop a whole range of skills that I was figuring I’d worry about later on in life,” he says.
But first let’s go back to the 1960s when Ferguson and his two brothers followed around his father, Tony Ferguson, a journalist, as first a TV correspondent who covered the Vietnam war. Based in Singapore, Tony Ferguson would “hop backwards and forwards” from Vietnam. Tony Ferguson went on to be executive producer of the ABC’s Four Corners before moving to This Day Tonight. “They all came back from Vietnam, dad and Mike Carlton and all of those guys, and said, ‘We want to make funny current affairs’, and away they went, Carlton doing comedy, (Bruce) Petty animating. They were making it up as they went along.”
Tony Ferguson “got thrown out of the ABC” and the family moved to a small New South Wales town called Blayney, where Tony ran a newspaper called The Blayney Shire Chronicle and also farmed cattle and ran horses. From there the family moved to Newbridge where Tony worked as minder for the future ABC boss David Hill at the NSW rail department.
“David said to dad, ‘We’re going to the ABC. I’m going to be the boss and you’re going to be the guy who stands next to the boss’,” Ferguson says. “So dad returned, the conquering, very quiet hero.”
For all of Hill’s reign, Tony Ferguson stood shoulder to shoulder with the managing director. His title was principal liaison officer. “The minder, they called him,” Ferguson says. “Executive without portfolio. He was the ice to David Hill’s fire. A totally unflappable man.”
Together with Fidler and McDermott, Ferguson formed the Doug Anthony Allstars in 1984, blending sharp comedy with superb harmonies and clever songs. It was a dynamite combination. “It was a licence to do whatever we wanted.”
The decade that the Doug Anthonys toured the world was a wild ride. “Edinburgh, we ran that joint,” Ferguson says. “We were ruthless. Our poster sticker-uppers had baseball bats. Our posters were the biggest and we had more of them, so everybody hated us. If anybody was caught covering our posters – statute of limitations, I suppose I can say it now – our guys would go to work. Not under orders, but they would say (puts on a Scottish accent), ‘We’re enthusiastic about the act’.”
They’d named the act after a dour National Party politician about as far removed from show business as you could be. The man himself never saw it as a tribute, and probably saw the ironic intent.
The three never met Anthony. “We tried. God knows we tried. The only time we ever did a live satellite cross with him was when we were finally packing it all in and he appeared on some show we were on. He had a smile, but he did say, ‘I want to get my name back’.”
DAAS became the biggest stars on the comedy circuit. “We ran Edinburgh, we ran the Australian comedy scene. We just hired rock’n’roll venues because they were bigger and we were ambitious.”
They were rolling in money, but it wasn’t an easy life. “The cost is you do nothing but work. Between shows you sit up late at night and you are writing and rehearsing. Every day off is seen as a rehearsal day, and then we’d be busking on the street trying out material.”
And there wasn’t solace or company to be found in the affection of their fans – indeed, they didn’t have traditional groupies. “We had jokeys, we called them,” he says. “They’re not like groupies because they’re not sexy. Typical comedy fans are wide-eyed, slightly overweight, very high IQs. Comedy is like Star Trek for people with senses of humour. If you want sexy fans, go to rock’n’roll, because comedy, they are not attractive.”
There was a dark cloud to all this fun and success. Ferguson started to notice his body responding strangely during shows. Sometimes there was shaking or muscles not doing what he wanted them to do. He put it down to exhaustion. And when the symptoms kept emerging he chose denial as the default male option.
“It had been around for a long time, they think since I was 19,” he says of MS. “Things would just stop working for a while. Sometimes a leg would be a bit buzzy, pins and needles, eyes would go wonky, writing hand wouldn’t work so well. I always dismissed it, as many people with a condition do, as being something weird again, that this must happen to everybody, and we are having so much fun and we just don’t sleep and we work so hard, well, of course you’re going to wake up and feel a bit sluggish, or whatever it is.
“There were a couple of severe episodes in 1993 on Doug Anthony tours when we were doing the West End in London, which is not the right time to wake up and look like you’ve had a stroke. That was when we thought, ‘This seems to be a real thing now so we better go and check it out’. In fact, because it immediately vanished, I didn’t for quite some time. Then when it came back I thought, ‘I really must check this out because it seems to be something’. In the back of my head I thought, ‘whatever it is, I don’t really want to know. I’m a man, and we don’t want to know what’s wrong with us’.
“It would hang around for a week. My leg would go bung, or my arm wouldn’t lift. I figured, ‘It’s just because I’m tired’. Eventually it was clear I couldn’t remain a Doug Anthony Allstar with whatever this was.”
On stage, Ferguson struggled with the movement required in the act. “I just tried to keep up with the choreography. People probably thought he was just being funny. The others would be dancing with both legs and my right leg was doing all the action. Nobody said anything. The audience didn’t seem to care.
“It took a long time for me to tell (McDermott and Fidler) because I thought I don’t want people to be worrying about me. I felt I’d let them down so the last thing I wanted to do was say, ‘By the way, if you can give me some pity that would be really handy’.”
He says it wasn’t hard to tell the others. “Once the decision was made you just say, ‘By the way, you know that thing that kept happening? It’s got a name’. They were quite shocked.”
He knew those great days travelling the world with his good friends, playing to big crowds and making great money, were over.
“It was incredibly difficult because I loved it. And also I loved, and still do, the boys.”
We’ve moved out of the café and are sitting at a table on the street. I think I read a certain relief in Ferguson finally telling his story, which few people outside his circle of family and friends know.
Ferguson becomes emotional when talk turns to Fidler and McDermott. “I disappointed a lot of people and I couldn’t tell them why because I was terrified,” he says. “I didn’t want other people to know. I didn’t want strangers to know. And really I would have been better served delivering the full picture. But I was just so angry with it. I didn’t want it to be coming up in conversation with strangers. That’s why I was so furious.”
His DAAS days over, in 1995 Ferguson had a brief run on Channel Nine’s Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, a show that sent contestants on holidays and offered generous prizes including jukeboxes, drumkits and – yes – a pony. It was an expensive show to produce, which contributed to it being axed after just one 16-week season.
“The Allstar constituents were furious. I was doing Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, a show with me in bright-purple suits showering money on screaming people, blowing up cars just for the hell of it. It was pure entertainment. There was no double meaning. Nietzsche was never mentioned once. Playing golf with food.”
He enjoyed fame. “I worked out why I liked being famous when things were at their peak, and it’s because I went to nine schools. Someone pointed out to me that that meant you were the new kid eight times before the age of 18. I just never wanted to be the new kid ever again. To walk into virtually any space, here or in the UK, and say, ‘Hi, it’s me’ and people go, ‘I know who you are’. It was a light switched on. That’s what the pathology was about. I never have to be the new kid again.”
Working out his next move, a friend suggested Ferguson approach RMIT University and offer his services to teach comedy. “(She) said, ‘You’ve got these theories, you should call RMIT, see if you could do a class one night’. I called and they said that luckily the teacher, Chris Anastassiades, has just left to (write) a Wog Boy film. So it was, ‘Come in spinner’.”
He lectures in comedy and screenwriting at the university’s School of Media and Communication.
The same friend suggested Ferguson put his theories down in a book. “She said, ‘This will shut you up and stop you complaining about what’s wrong with writers’. I had to sit down and quantify a lot of the principles I’d been working on.”
How did his students react to a celebrity lecturer? “Some regard me with hushed awe. Others have yet to YouTube me. It’s a divide between who’s sitting up the back saying, ‘Impress me’ and who’s sitting at the front waiting on every word. Teaching is like doing a show because if it’s not entertaining, people aren’t learning.”
In his teaching and his book on comedy, Ferguson wanted to “give people practical tools and not analysis about how this stuff works. What are the physics of jokes, the maths of them? I built the course; it empowers the writers to get their heads around this thing that is supposed to be intangible, unknowable.”
In DAAS, it seemed the blue sky, the great days, would last forever. “Yeah. Everybody always says yes. Mind you, that can continue if you play your cards right. After a while you start to learn more about the business, which is how you compensate for the fact that you’re not the fresh new thing which the media loves.”
Shaun Micallef is the supreme example of successful reinvention. “He has reinvented himself yet again, not only as a producer and a writer and an on-air personality but he’s re-geared his on-air persona,” Ferguson says. “On Talkin ’bout Your Generation he’s not playing a caricature like he was on The Micallef Program, a host who’s definitely not the most, kind of character. Now he’s playing Shaun, and it’s a wonderful thing and the audience is loving him for it. It’s the perfect vehicle for him.”
Ferguson, 46, separated from his wife five years ago. They have three children, two sons, 21 and 15, and a 16-year-old daughter. “It was hard, as these things always are,” he says of the separation. “Like anything, every day is an adventure. Some days there be dragons, some days we feast with other Tolkien characters.”
His MS diagnosis meant he had to develop strategies to give himself “insurance”. “I learnt how to produce, to doing pilots at Channel Nine, working with Southern Star as a freelance silly-idea guy.”
Ferguson’s health is good. On some days he walks with the help of a stick, as he does today. “It’s fine. Very easily managed. I’m one of the lucky ones. Repeating and remitting, which means it comes and goes. A wheel falls off every once in a while. It’s not life-threatening. You try and stay reasonably healthy. Everybody’s got something, and if they don’t think they have, it’s because they haven’t worked it out yet. I’ve been very fortunate with this because it hasn’t put me in a wheelchair. Not yet, anyway. I don’t really fear that, apart from the day-to-day annoyance of it.”
He has no official connection with MS societies although he’s MCed some MS fund-raising events. “I’m sure the audience figures, ‘He’s got to be here for a reason. He seems perfectly fine, but he must be dealing with it in some way’,” he says. “I don’t want to be a flag bearer. And there are plenty of other things I do gigs for – children with cancer, the Blind Society, all sorts of stuff. Just nothing to do with greenies.”
How does he feel having spoken publicly about MS for the first time? “Bit of trepidation, but only in the sense that people will mistake it for something that it isn’t, which is a guiding force in my life, or a limiting force. If anything, I use it as the stick to goad me, to get busy, to do things.”
It reminds him that life is short and professional opportunities may not always be there. “The constant reinvention is quickening, and I’m reinventing myself on more than one front.”
It’s now cold, and it’s time to say goodbye. We can take some life tips from Ferguson that are not in his book. They are to do with bravery, honesty and grace.
The Cheeky Monkey: A Practitioner’s Guide to the Art of Comedy Writing can be bought from bookshops or at currency.com.au