It’s my birthday today (yay), and I’m spending it learning narrative comedy writing from a hero. Life is good. To celebrate, I’m bringing back Smart People Talking, and kicking it off with words of wisdom from, well, that hero.
This year, I got to speak to Australian comedy royalty- Tim Ferguson. It’s a big deal, y’all. As an unabashedly huge fan of the Doug Anthony All Stars, it’s pretty miraculous that I managed full sentences. It went well. Our twenty minute scheduled chat morphed into an hour-long conversation about comedy, life, and everything in between- all of which made the original questions I asked pretty much meaningless when transcribing. So here, finally, is the good stuff for the writerly folk:
On the evolution of performance:
When we started, we wanted people to think that we meant well. We wanted to be liked. Now we’re too old for that. We don’t have the patience, or the ability, to try and beguile and befriend an audience. Our subject matter is darker, our jokes are more hurtful amongst each other- the audience gets off easy. We’re dealing with, first off, me being in a wheelchair, being ridden with MS. We’re dealing with Paul McDermott still being well under 6 foot. And god knows what the Enigma, Paul Livingston, is going through. He doesn’t talk during the performance, because he got a fright early on and it’s just scared him silent. We’re dealing with a half-empty deck. The wheels have all come off, yet we are still speeding downhill. We don’t care what we say, we don’t care what the consequences might be, and that makes it funnier.
On political correctness:
We may not be politically correct, because we focus on being politically accurate. Being politically correct takes the agreement and permission of others. We haven’t met those people, so we just concentrate on being accurate, which takes a lot more work and a lot more thought. We’re never sexist, we’re never racist, because that’s stupid. It’s not politically incorrect, it’s just dumb. But we do talk about sexuality, we do talk about ethnicity, we do talk about disability, frailty, and the fact that we are all slowly losing our minds. Everyone on earth is slowly losing their minds. It’s not easy to watch the Doug Anthony All Stars, and it never was. It’s getting tougher to watch because we’re going to places nobody else on the world circuit is talking about. We never set out to offend people, it’s just that given the topics we’re dealing with, it’s inevitable that by the end of the show, everyone will be offended.
On the importance of comedy:
In terms of topics, comedy should be able to go wherever drama goes. We’re only interested in certain things, but we never discount a topic as being too ouchy. Sometimes the timing of that topic will dictate a pause before we start talking about it. But the purpose and function of laughter has nothing to do with the boundaries that some people suggest exist. The purpose and function of laughter is to give people distance from a subject, so that we can stand back and look at that thing. And sometimes it’s just too soon to stand back and look at that thing. But eventually, even the Titanic became funny. And then it stopped being funny. Jokes about the Titanic tend not to work, but for a while there, probably about 5 years after the Titanic sank, you could tell a Titanic joke and get a pretty good laugh from it.
The simple fact is that all the arts, no matter how high they claim to be, operate on a higher level and a lower level. Classical music, no matter which composer, is operating is on a high level, which is to engage the intellect, and also on a low level, which is to engage the emotions. And comedy is just the same. If anything else, comedy is a higher art form, miles higher, than drama could ever be. Because comedy, unlike drama, which purports to recreate a fantasy and make us think it’s real (like say the titanic movie- we’ve got to believe the ship is real or else we won’t enjoy the story), comedy deals with the truth. Drama deals with fantasy, comedy deals with the truth. And truth is as low or high as you want to go.
Why’d the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side. There’s a truth.
There’s a blonde standing on one side of the river. There’s another blonde standing on the other side of the river. The first blonde shouts out, ‘Hey, how do I get to the other side?’ The second blonde shouts back, ‘You are on the other side!’ The truth that it’s dealing with is a truth of human perception. We say blonde, so that the person listening thinks, ‘oh this person must be dumb’, but at the end of the day, it’s one human stands on one side of the river, another human stands on the other side. It’s about our perspective. No matter what the joke is, no matter what the point of laughter is, it can be broken down to a basic truth that the audience agrees with, sometimes despite themselves. Drama can’t make that promise. Because at the heart of it, drama is bullshit, because it’s people pretending it’s real. Whereas nobody ever stood back from watching Eddy Izzard in the canteen of the Death Star being played out by Lego™, and thought it might be real. Because what he’s talking about is the intransigence of the powerful when they come up against every day, mundane problems.
Now, that’s all very boring, but it’s why it fucks me off totally when people make the assumption that comedy is something you do when you’re just there to giggle. They call it ‘light entertainment’ because they haven’t watched enough of it. Or the comedy they watch is very clever and doesn’t let on what it’s true purpose it.
Wit has never been of any interest to us. We’re not interested in being witty, we’re not interested in being on the audience’s side. Comedy is never on the audience’s side. People should be laughing at you, not with you, at all times. If they’re laughing with you, they won’t remember what you said. That’s what I mean that the Doug Anthony’s, it’s not easy to watch, because it’s us watching you. At the end of the day, people aren’t pretty.
For example, if they are that upset about the words ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’, then they shouldn’t do those things as often as they do. If you don’t like hearing the word shit, stop it. Stop shitting. If people didn’t shit so much, hearing the word ‘shit’ wouldn’t have the impact that it does, so maybe they should put a plug in it and stop criticising the language choices of other people. And when it comes to fucking, for god’s sake, they still put an asterisk in the words ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ when they turn up in the newspaper! They beep them on the television. In America, if you raise your stiff middle finger, it gets pixilated on television. It’s what they do. The trouble with that is that it is a lie. It’s a lie that everybody agrees upon. We won’t mention the things that everybody does every day. And if they’re not doing it, they’re thinking about it. So the idea of putting an asterisk in the middle of a swear word is just a generally agreed lie, as if a kid can’t work out that sh*t, given the 26 options, is going to be ‘shit’. It’s not like it’s an unlimited number of letters that it could be. There are 26. So you get rid of all the consonants, you stick with the vowels, and you’ve got ‘shat’, ‘shet’, ‘shit’, ‘shot’, ‘shut’. A kid is gonna know. But we all go along with this lie, with this basic hypocrisy, and this is where humanity is weak. And this is why people will say, ‘The Doug Anthony All Stars are so edgy’. No. All we do is take away the asterisk.
We talk about death, sex, war, and hypocrisy. That’s what comedy deals with. They’re the only topics. Occasionally, you talk about love, but most of the time, you talk about the absence of love, because that’s the most interesting, and frighting. And comedy and fear go together like crackers and other crackers.
It’s important to laugh at the people who least expect it.
You can say whatever the hell you like, and it’s important for comedians to do that. Because comedians are the ones with the real guts when it comes to self-expression. I say anything I like. No matter what you say, you’re going to offend someone. Even if you encourage more people to drink a glass of water in the morning, you’re going to upset somebody who lives in a drought stricken part of Queensland. We have to say what we think.
On being less precious about your creative works:
We don’t care [if people miss the point]. We don’t ask them. We do what we do, we sing what we sing, and we say what we say, what the audience does with it is really just their business. Some people just turn up for the songs. Some people- fewer people now- come for the dancing. My dancing isn’t as good as it could be. We don’t care what the audience takes away from it. This is all information going outward, DAAS puts information out. We don’t take note, we don’t read reviews. We find people who come to review us kind of charming, and quaint. But we don’t read them, because it’s not that kind of show, we’re not that kind of act. Information goes out, it doesn’t come back.
On conquering social taboos:
We exploit MS. We exploit it for laughs, ‘cause why not? It’s only a thing, it’s only a disease- an ailment. It’s an annoyance. You die with it, not because of it. So there’s no reason to treat it as if it’s important. MS is the least interesting thing about me, and I don’t have many interesting things about me.
On getting your ass into gear and chasing your creative ambitions:
“The Man In The Arena” by Teddy Roosevelt. Read it. You’ve gotta get into the arena. The fact is, you want to get into the area, where as the quote says your face will be smeared with blood, and dust, and tears. You’ll experience the great enthusiasm, the great battles- you’ll dare greatly. You’ll fail terribly, but when you do, you will always have more than the cold and timid souls who’ll know neither victory nor defeat. And those people are the critics. Reviews are the opinions of someone too weak to stand up and get into the arena. Which at the moment includes you. What’s gonna be on your gravestone? That’s what you need to be thinking about. Get in the arena, write that book, write that play, do that stand up routine at the open mic night. Get in the arena, it’s never too late to start.
For those wanting more words of wisdom to stitch onto their throw cushions, you can find dates for the DAAS tour and the masterclasses at Tim’s website: http://www.cheekymonkeycomedy.com/ And for those who can’t make it to an in-person comedy writing event, might want to note that the masterclass does come in book form.