No tears for this clown

Tim Fer­gu­son con­tin­ues to laugh in the face of ad­ver­sity, no mat­ter what new chal­lenges mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis may bring

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Cover - Pho­tog­ra­phy BOB BARKER In­ter­view TIF­FANY DUNK

As they wrapped the UK tour of their new com­edy show Near

Death Ex­pe­ri­ence in Au­gust, the Doug An­thony All Stars (DAAS) had re­duced the au­di­ence to tears. But for once, they weren’t cry­ing with laugh­ter. In­stead, the new pro­duc­tion – which throws into sharp re­lief the prob­lems faced by dis­abled peo­ple, the el­derly and their car­ers – had grown men openly sob­bing as they faced the thought of their own mor­tal­ity.

“There are parts where it’s very funny be­cause, of course, we know how to make peo­ple laugh,” Tim Fer­gu­son tells Stel­lar. “But then it’s quite cruel as well. There’s a point where we sing one of our old songs with a video be­hind us as younger men do­ing it. It’s all built to say ‘death is in the room.’”

Fer­gu­son, a found­ing mem­ber of the satir­i­cal three-man troupe that shot to cult sta­tus in the ’80s be­fore dis­band­ing at its peak a decade later, has been through a lot since then. It has been 24 years since he was di­ag­nosed with mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis (MS), with the now 54-year-old go­ing pub­lic with his bat­tle in 2010, choos­ing Good News Week, the ABC show hosted by his DAAS band mate Paul Mcder­mott, as the fo­rum to do so.

It came as a shock to fans as well as to Mcder­mott him­self, who dis­cov­ered that Fer­gu­son pulled the pin on DAAS all those years ago be­cause his body could no longer han­dle vig­or­ous on­stage an­tics. His rea­son for com­ing clean, Fer­gu­son says now, was be­cause his reliance on a walk­ing stick was a bit of a give­away.

Open­ing up pub­licly proved cathar­tic. Fer­gu­son wrote a stage show and then an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy de­tail­ing his jour­ney from his first symp­toms at 19 to the even­tual di­ag­no­sis of MS, which at­tacks the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem. Back then, Fer­gu­son says, he could go months with­out symp­toms like numb­ness, tremors, tem­po­rary vi­sion fail­ures or mus­cle spas­tic­ity. But as he meets with Stel­lar for a photo shoot, he ad­mits his con­di­tion has wors­ened; he now has sec­ondary pro­gres­sive MS (SPMS). “Symp­toms come and go but they don’t re­cede,” he says. “It’s like the back­line keeps com­ing fur­ther for­ward. I use a wheel­chair now. It’s faster and safer.”

For now, Fer­gu­son hopes his de­cline has been ar­rested. But in prac­ti­cal terms it’s re­quired a few changes. “My legs from

the knee down ex­pe­ri­ence spas­tic­ity, they stiffen up. I have a carer who comes in three morn­ings a week and he’ll hose me down. And to­day, he dressed me so it doesn’t take me an hour to get all this clob­ber on.

“There are times when it is more dif­fi­cult, usu­ally when it’s hot­ter; it takes more thought and willpower to do sim­ple things. It would be eas­ier to stay at home, be in bed, eat junk food and watch Net­flix. But life’s not for do­ing that.”

In­stead, he says, he would rather work hard and push ahead. Fer­gu­son and the re­formed DAAS (Paul “Flacco” Liv­ingston has joined the two orig­i­nals in the group’s cur­rent in­car­na­tion) are still rag­ing against the ma­chine, po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect and, at times, bor­der­line of­fen­sive. Mcder­mott is still an­gry. And Liv­ingston is the “one walk­ing around in a fog of de­men­tia”, Fer­gu­son says. As for him­self, in the ’90s he fa­mously de­scribed him­self as the Kylie Minogue of the group – “the least tal­ented, but also cute.” He tells Stel­lar, “It’s still true. But also, my butt is as good as Kylie’s. Eas­ily. I’d chal­lenge her to a butt-off any day.”

The trio is close to com­plet­ing a doc­u­men­tary they hope will air next year. They want to write an­other show to tour and are open to the pos­si­bil­ity of a weekly TV se­ries. Away from the stage, Fer­gu­son and his cinema ex­ec­u­tive wife Stephanie Mills are mak­ing travel plans; spend­ing more than a month apart while DAAS toured Europe was not some­thing they en­joyed. Mills has be­come Fer­gu­son’s pri­mary carer, and he is aware of the toll it takes. “Be­ing a carer is hor­ri­ble most of the time,” Fer­gu­son says. “It’s ei­ther very bor­ing or get­ting in your way. I try to sup­port her as much as I can be­cause she’s at the coal­face day in and day out, and she does it with grace and charm. Most of the time, we have a good time.”

And, as in his youth, Fer­gu­son is push­ing hard as a voice for po­lit­i­cal change. He skew­ers the cur­rent land­scape with a weekly col­umn called Fake News You Can Trust and is us­ing his pro­file to high­light prob­lems fac­ing oth­ers with dis­abil­i­ties – par­tic­u­larly their em­ploy­a­bil­ity. “Peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties are in the same po­si­tion women were in 50 years ago,” he says, cit­ing sta­tis­tics that show 45 per cent of Aus­tralians with dis­abil­i­ties are be­low or near the poverty line. “Fifty years ago we’d say, ‘A woman can’t be in the army. Or if she is, she’s just a nurse. A woman can’t be an ex­ec­u­tive; they’re way too emo­tional. And they have pe­ri­ods!’

“Dis­abled peo­ple can do pretty much any­thing,” he says. “There’s usu­ally just one they can’t. For me, there will be no danc­ing. But I can go on world tours, di­rect movies, I can write, teach and ex­plain com­edy to Amer­i­cans. One thing is wrong, ev­ery­thing else works fine. But peo­ple feel like, ‘Can they work an en­tire day? She’s blind! How will she an­swer the tele­phone?’”

Iron­i­cally, Fer­gu­son says, em­ploy­ers in front of the trend have worked out there are pos­i­tives to hir­ing those with dis­abil­i­ties. He cites a bank that fig­ured out hav­ing a teller with a phys­i­cal dis­abil­ity in front of an an­gry cus­tomer “low­ered the tem­per­a­ture. Peo­ple won’t shout so hard if the per­son they’re talk­ing to has a clear dis­abil­ity and is ask­ing, ‘How can I help you?’ Peo­ple tend to think, ‘ Well, if he’s work­ing here, then maybe it’s not so bad.’”

DAAS dis­cov­ered this for them­selves when they went to Europe. As any sea­soned trav­eller knows, a wheel will of­ten fall off; flights will be can­celled or bags might go miss­ing. So when it hap­pened to them, they pushed Fer­gu­son to the fore. “Be­ing in a wheel­chair means no­body loses their tem­per,” he says. “We need an up­grade? Push Tim out!”

Un­like many comics, Fer­gu­son is un­re­lent­ingly op­ti­mistic. Asked if he re­lates to the idea of the tears of a clown, where a co­me­dian uses hu­mour to mask un­hap­pi­ness, he de­murs. “It’s not the case with me, but it is for the two guys I work with. I come at com­edy from a more prac­ti­cal an­gle. I wasn’t born as funny as they were so they do have those prob­lems manag­ing their own heads. I don’t.”

Fer­gu­son wants to use that sense of prac­ti­cal­ity to con­tinue bat­tling any ob­sta­cles MS may throw up next. Asked if there is one mes­sage he wants to im­part from his story, he does not hes­i­tate be­fore an­swer­ing. “There’s no prob­lem that can­not be over­come. So I’d say keep mov­ing… And for God’s sake, put some pants on.”

“I’d chal­lenge Kylie Minogue to a butt-off any day”

THE LAST LAUGH (clock­wise from top left) Tim Fer­gu­son, Paul Mcder­mott and Richard Fi­dler as the orig­i­nal mem­bers of Doug An­thony All Stars a wheel­chair; the comic with wife Stephanie Mills; per­form­ing at the 2017 Syd­ney Com­edy Fes­ti­val; (op­po­site)...

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