Jacqui James

TIM FERGUSON IS rooted in Australian comedy royalty. Since the 80’s he has been making people laugh by various ways; firstly being involved with the Doug Anthony Allstars (D.A.A.S with Paul McDermott and Richard Fidler) since 1984, later reforming in 2013 (with Paul ‘Flacco’ Livingston). 

What many wouldn’t know is Tim is a lecturer in Comedy and Screenwriting at several universities and colleges around the globe including RMIT University and New York University Tisch School of the Arts. As an ambassador for the Screen NSW ScreenAbility Initiative, Tim is still very involved in writing and supporting Australian movies. 

After being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a progressive physical disability that affects nerves, Tim felt the need to write a book called Carry A Big Stick which became a best seller.  Not only dealing with the diagnosis of MS, Tim wrote about his life in general and his life in comedy. More recently he has been globe-trotting with his comedy show Fast Life On Wheels.

I was lucky enough to chat with Tim who was awesome, giving me nice long answers. 

Hi Tim! How are you? Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions, especially with your comedy show Fast Life On Wheels having worldwide success! Are you delighted with how people have embraced your show, and do you think most people have become more inclusive of people with disabilities?

My show tends to twirl people around until they spew up, giggle and cry. That’s always been my style, I guess. They go up, they come down and wipe their chins. Most people seem happier after the experience.

In the show, I talk about disability employment.  People with disabilities work harder, work longer, and don’t complain like able-bodied people do.  I invite employers to exploit these qualities, {laughs Tim}

It drives me nuts that employers can watch the Paralympics, Stephen J Hawking and wheelchair tennis champion Dylan Alcott, but still imagine people with disabilities can’t do normal jobs. 

I spend a lot of my time working with businesses, trying to convince employers to get their heads around this. The show is part of it.  I hope it’s working.

Being a lecturer of Comedy and Screenplay at RMIT, when you’ve come across people who aren’t that comedic (putting it delicately), how have you dealt with that situation?

I teach all round the world these days, and that question always pops up.  The bottom line is, that “Comedy” is a craft.  Like pottery or dentistry.  Seriously. Some people have a natural talent. This counts for bugger all. The defining factor is persistence.  A dentist two doesn’t practise is a danger to themselves and your teeth. If you want to be consistently, reliably funny for a lifelong living, you have to practice.  Writing, trying it out, cutting it all, starting again – you must work.  Beyond the point where it seems hopeless.

The job is to make the deadly serious, infuriating or sad trials in life funny. Natural talent is roadkill in this pursuit. {For example} too many newbies compete in Triple-J’s Raw Stand-up competition.   They get told they aren’t funny by some judging half-arsed radio DJ – or worse, a journalist – and they give it up. Lazy bastards! The industry is better off without them. Do raw, sure.  Why not?  But it’s just one gig among hundreds you must do each year.

And whatever you do, do not listen to a word the judges say.  If they were successful comedians, they wouldn’t have the time to sit in judgement.  Listen to what the audience has to say.  They tell you everything you need to know. But remember, they are gone when the show is over. Whereupon, a new crowd appears. I’m awake, up work, sideways, again and again and again.

I know it doesn’t sound like fun, but do you want to be a comedian, or do you want to fuck around?  Steve Martin, US comic said, “Persistence is a great substitute for talent.” He’s bloody right.  Get on it, people!

Were you very enthusiastic about writing your biography Carry A Big Stick or were you like “my life isn’t that exciting!”? 

I was very worried about writing an autobiography.  Telling the story of your own life is very different to telling a good story of your life. This involves bending your life into a three-act tale, with a setup, problems, antagonists, challenges, failures, lessons and finally some sort of emotional resolution to your life that you understand.  And you need to craft a simple, compelling central character with clear personality traits, objectives and emotional needs. (Try that at home.)

Oh yeah – with 6 jokes per page. {coughs}

For Carry A Big Stick, it wasn’t the jokes that worried me.  Jokes can always be refined.  But your life can’t be made more interesting or given more value. (try that at home, too. See? It’s awkward. And corners, such as entire people, must be cut in the name of the narrative.) The story, not the life, is paramount.

Living with a physical disability myself, I’ve always thought that I am just like everyone else and my family and close friends always see me for me.  When you first were diagnosed with MS, what was your mindset like? Have you been accepted still as Tim people around you? 

Shit that! Early on, I had to learn something crucial. Having a disability isn’t just a problem for me, it’s a problem for everyone around me. This wheelchair doesn’t push itself.   It takes a village to get this idiot washed and dressed and onto a plane.

Most people come to terms with my disabilities pretty quickly. Our lives move fast on the road.  There is no time for hand-wringing.  No time to repeatedly ask me, “How are you?”  I have enormous trust in my team and my loved ones.  And they must trust me.

So long as people can see I’m all right, they’re all right.  And I am all right, thanks.

What’s your biggest pet peeve you have about the difficulties you face?  (mine is people not getting out of my way when they can clearly see you, especially around Christmas!)

It’s interesting travelling to different countries and seeing people’s reactions to getting the hell out of our way.  In Canada, they’re very polite. When Canadians see people on wheels, they stop in their tracks and wait for us to roll by.  Perfect.

In America, they do the same, but they look irritated at the interruption. In Britain, they apologise.  Before, during and after.

In Australia, the land of the gormless convict pillock {British slang a stupid or annoying person}, they don’t stop.  They keep going a bit faster, so they can:

 Get out of our way

 Get on their own way

Like I said, gormless pillocks.

I have a bell on my wheelchair. Totally recommend it. People obey a bell.

I loved the comedy feature That’s Not My Dog! (2018).  It showed how a bunch of high-profile Australian comedians, including your good-self gathering around, telling jokes to surprise Shane Jacobson’s Dad (who was like “meh” about the whole thing which added to its appeal.) Was it great filming, although it looked bloody freezing?  

Great fun hanging out with all those comics (and Shane’s Dad!)  Funny thing about comedians – when we get together, we’re not so funny.  Because everybody knows how the “comedy sausage” is made. So, we chat quietly and tend to keep it real.  Go figure!

Thanks Tim for taking the time answering my questions.  I wish you the best of luck with show Fast Life On Wheels.