Not many entertainers make a comeback as a stand-up comedian just as multiple sclerosis forces them into a wheelchair. Tim Ferguson has done just that and says he’s in the “sweet spot of life”. He told editor Lynda Schekoske it’s all about remaining hopeful.
At 54, Tim Ferguson still has the boyish smile that led him to be dubbed the ‘good looking one’ of the three members of the legendary comedy troupe Doug Anthony All Stars (DAAS).
He gleefully describes himself as “the hood ornament” of the trio that made a name for its ribald humour, angelic singing voices, and ability to poke fun at every social taboo known.
Having found fame as the bad boys of Australian comedy (although they were better known in the UK before their home country), they ‘retired’ suddenly in 1994 after a decade in the limelight.
Paul McDermott gained fresh fame as host of Good News Week; Richard Fidler as author, broadcaster and host of the ABC’s Conversation Hour; and Tim as a writer, teacher, and television and film producer and director.
The reason for the split remained a secret: Tim had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1996, three years after first experiencing weakness in one side of his body. But it wasn’t until 2010 that he went public, when he realised the number of falls he was having meant he’d have to use a walking stick.
The reprised DAAS - Ferguson, Paul McDermott, and Paul (Flacco) Livingstone – who replaced Fidler on guitar – burst back onto the comedy scene in 2014 with Near Death Experience. This was a brutal and cleverly dark deconstruction of attitudes to diseases such as multiple sclerosis, disability, ageing, and death.
When interviewed for 50 something, Tim and the other members of DAAS were preparing for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August.
“We won last year, so we’ll try to lose this year,” Tim said.
As the magazine went to print, this was still undecided. But one thing for sure, few in this year’s audiences should have been surprised by Tim’s reincarnation as comedy idol.
“Last year, I think many people found it all a bit much because the show’s about the reality that we will all die,” Tim said. “They had no idea that I’d be showing up in a wheelchair because the show was sold out before we arrived, so we didn’t do a lot of publicity.
“A lot of the audience must have thought it was a terrible joke. Even our old manager came along and told us later that if anyone would pretend to have MS and sit in a wheelchair, it would be me. I took that as a compliment.”
As patron of MS Australia, Tim has become something of a champion of people with the disease and disability generally.
“People think everything I do is miraculous, and it’s not,” Tim told one interviewer. “I don’t know how many times we can watch the Paralympics before someone says ‘you know, if you can do that, you could be President of the United States ... maybe disabled people only have one thing that is a disability out of the hundreds of things their bodies and brains do’.
“But until then, I like people coming up to me and saying ‘you are so inspiring’. And I say ‘yes, I am’.”
Tim says older people face exactly the same type of discrimination in the workplace as those with a disability.
“It appals me how employers and customers somehow think that older people have been doing whatever it is they do for 30 or 40 years, and not know something about it.
“And now the government is raising the age at which you can get the pension, inventing the concept of the 69-year-old dole bludger. It’s a very real thing that soon we’ll have someone on unemployment benefits because they are 69 and no-one will employ them.
“Something has to change.”
Tim suggested older people seeking work shouldn’t be shy about selling themselves.
“One thing I’ve learnt from being in entertainment is that it’s okay to express how good you are at certain things,” he said. “Being confident is not being cocky. Don’t go cap in hand to an interview. If you’ve been in the same industry for a long time, it’s OK to say ‘I might have been retrenched because businesses change, but I’m still very good at what I do. Give me a chance – I’ll show you’.”
In the past year, Tim has toured extensively with DAAS in Australia; written and co-directed the film Spin Out; continued teaching narrative comedy; been a member of the advisory committee for Screenability, a program that organises paid internships with TV production companies for people with disabilities; and will soon release a new book.
“I think most of the time that if life does test you, it is only when you have the ability to overcome,” Tim said
“All the people I meet who have MS are so positive. I’ve even met a few who are irritatingly positive.
“My new book is an adventure book for young adults – a story to raise their spirits. Because no matter how bad things are, what you must have is hope.
“Hope is the key – because you can force yourself to be hopeful. I do. If nothing else, when you are hopeful, everyone tells you how wonderful you are.”
This article by Lynda Schekoske originally appeared in the September/October/November 2017 edition of 50 something magazine.