No tears for this clown
Tim Ferguson continues to laugh in the face of adversity, no matter what new challenges multiple sclerosis may bring
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)...