From one of Australia's most successful comedians, Tim Ferguson, comes The Cheeky Monkey, a practitioner's guide to the art of comedy writing. Both insightful and practical, The Cheeky Monkey explains the principles of sitcom writing and guides the reader in how to apply them. Seeded with exercises to aid the developing comedy writer, this book will help you to:
Create funny stories
Build comic characters
Develop a sitcom
Sell your sitcom to producers and TV networks
Tim Ferguson has released a brilliant book about writing narrative comedy called The Cheeky Monkey (published by Currency Press). It’s brilliant because it conveys a great deal of information simply, straightforwardly, and soundly. Every bit of ‘theory’ (often, it turns out, ‘common sense’) is illustrated by a great example of comedy that, if you’re into comedy, you’ll recognise. At the end of each section there is an opportunity to do writing exercises to put into practice what has just been taught. Each time I try, it seems impossible. Until you check some of the suggested answers at the back, and they seem so simple. But that’s the genius of good comedy writing: it is simple. That’s what makes it so hard.
Tim Ferguson is of course a former member of one of the most important comedy troupes to come out of Australia – The Doug Anthony Allstars. I first encountered them on The Big Gig, a cabaret/variety/comedy show broadcast on the ABC in the late-80s that was re-launched more recently as The Sideshow (with the role of the Doug Anthony Allstars played by Tripod. Just sayin’).
But I fell in love with the Dougs well and truly after seeing them play at the University of Technology one O-Week. That was relatively early in my Bachelor of Arts degree. By this stage they were already heading to the UK regularly, where they got massive! In time, they came back to Australia. And broke up.
Along the way I interviewed them. Repeatedly. To the point where they actually seemed to enjoy it. After they went their separate ways, I got to interview Paul McDermott in has capacity as the leader of a new musical comedy trio, Gud, and Tim Ferguson, as the author of the excellent political novel, Left, Right And Centre, and Richard Fidler as the host of Mouthing Off and Race Around The World. And Richard got to not quite interview me, as a frequent guest – the ‘Keeper of the Comedy Archive’ – on his radio shifts.
More recently (a couple of years ago now…) I got to catch up with them as a trio when they got together to promote the DVD release of a compilation of their Big Gig segments. I hope we can do it again for the DVD release of DAAS Kapital. (C’mon, guys, release it.)
I was extremely chuffed to receive an email, out of the blue, from Kavita Bedford at Currency Press, announcing that “Tim Ferguson gave me your details claiming you were the first and last word in comedy”. Pretty chuffed. Of course I’d want to talk to him about his new book. And so I did. One day in April, during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. We had an excellent chat.
It was quite far-reaching, and even covered Tim’s illness - which at the time I’d agreed to keep ‘off the record’. Not because Tim had anything to hide, only that he wanted to go public with it when he was ready. He certainly didn’t want to the story to suddenly be about his battle with multiple sclerosis – or ‘MS’ – when it should be about his book. So I agreed not to say anything about it, taking the line he liked to use when people, spotting his cane, would ask about the gammy leg: ‘I fell off my race horse’. I’ve only added this bit here two months after initial publication of this interview, because Tim’s allowed another journalist to break the story, and since speaking of it himself on an episode of Good News Week, this interview keeps getting hits from people searching for 'Tim Ferguson MS’. So let’s move back on to the actual story.
Tim’s a massive talent; we had a good interview; it’s a great book. If you like comedy enough to do more than merely laugh at it occasionally on telly, buy the book. Heck, consider doing Tim’s comedy writing course.
Dom Romeo: Tim, why a book, and why now?
TIM FERGUSON: I spent a long time trying to put sitcoms together and it’s very hard to find people who know how to write them. And you can’t really do it by yourself; you need people who understand how to build 21 minutes of a complete story with characters doing what they do.
I thought, I know, and a couple of my mates know; I should put it in a book because nobody in Australia has every sat down and said, ‘this is how we do it’. There are a couple of American books out there, but I thought they were talking about things that weren’t covering the whole picture. So I tried to go in deep, in a simple way, mainly so I could give it to people I’m working with so I could say, ‘that’s what I’m talking about.
Dom Romeo: If only you and a few of your mates know, why don’t you corner the market? This way it feels like you’re making more competition for yourselves – and ruining it for the few people who think they can write and don’t need the competition.
TIM FERGUSON: For starters, I’m essentially, effectively, retired. I promised myself that I would stop at 40. So I grabbed the saddlebags and headed for the hills. So this is partly to help new people, it’s also partly to start an argument that I think has to be had in this country, and that is, that screenwriters – and you’ll find them at screenwriters’ conferences – have no respect and no idea about comedy. They haven’t got the first idea.
Part of my inspiration for this was to start the fight with them, which basically says, comedy is harder than anything drama has ever attempted. Yes, the script to Goodfellas is extraordinary, but if you wanted to do a comic Goodfellas would be even harder. Why? Because you can sit through Goodfellas completely silent. But if you sit completely silent through a comedy movie, it’s not working and it’s not funny.
Comedy demands an instant involuntary reaction, a physical reaction from the audience. That’s why it’s harder. And I got tired of seeing the Australian film industy going up like a Hindenburg every time someone said, ‘hey look, we found more suicidal smack mothers, and look, she’s going to have a suicidal smack baby live on camera, and we’ll stop halfway through’. I was sick of those people trying to tell me that was much harder and much more important and had more of a message than comedy did. Because comedy, when it comes to a delivering messages, beats drama with a stick!
Dom Romeo:Partly because comedy fools us into giving us what really shouldn’t be given; you get to say the un-sayable to people who don’t necessarily want to hear it, through comedy.
TIM FERGUSON: And you get to deliver the truth. Drama is all about pretty pictures. We get to believe that Keira Knightley is Elizabeth, that Pride and Prejudice takes place in a real place, that Mr Darcy is a real person. Whereas in fact, they’re bullshit; they’re made of candy floss; there’s no way Darcy could exist in the real world, he’d get the shit beaten out of him. Whereas in comedy, it’s all about just telling the truth.
If someone in Pride and Prejudice was wearing a wristwatch, the audience would go, ‘What? This is supposed to be 17th Century England. The same thing happened in Quo Vadis! This is ruined for me!’ because the fantasy of the drama is ruined. Whereas in comedy, if in Life of Brian Brian himself was wearing a wristwatch at the end, on the cross, nobody would have said anything because in comedy we’re not there to learn as we are in drama; we’re only there to laugh. If we get a thought afterwards, so much the better.
So it’s time for comedy to take its place and save the Australian film industry before the depressing smack films kill it!
Dom Romeo: But what about the last ten years of locally-made comedy films that weren’t saving the film industry?
TIM FERGUSON: Kenny didn’t hurt. And The Castle didn’t hurt. Australia: that film was basically a comedy where a lot of the gags didn’t work. Some of the films just didn’t catch on. But if you think of the highpoints, out of the top 20 Australian grossing films of all time, 14 are comedies, with the 15th being Gallipoli – which I regard a buddy movie until the end when it does become tragic and moving, but until then, it’s two guys going to Gallipoli and being two young Aussies abroad.
Dom Romeo: There are some great, funny moments in Gallipoli. I’d forgotten that.
TIM FERGUSON: Yeah, it’s a very funny film. Not every film’s going to work, but comedy’s got a far better batting average than anything that’s got needles, screaming babies, mothers saying ‘little fish, little fish’ – all of that junk has to go! It has to stop! It has no place receiving taxpayer funding at all. It has no place in the Australian culture. It is only important to people in the inner city, and there’s are only eight of those, and one of them – she doesn’t even go to the movies!
Dom Romeo: What I love though, is, we’ve had a discussion like this before. It wasn’t as long, and it was after you’d written your first novel, which was a great novel, Left, Right and Centre. I asked you why you hadn’t jumped on the dirty realism bandwagon with the dole-bludging smackies, and your response was, ‘what a load of rubbish; there are no dirty realists; if they were really dirty realists, they’d be out being dirty and real and wouldn’t have time to write. Real dirty realists don’t; these authors are just posers, essentially. I see a theme in your creativity.
TIM FERGUSON: Oh, yeah. There is nothing I hate more than wankers. I don’t mind people who masturbate, I think that’s great. But people who do that in there lives and their careers and – worst of all – with our government’s money, should be taken out, branded – with I don’t know, pick a word – and sent running. This has to stop. Because it’s ruined the Australian nation’s faith in its own film industry. All this smack drama, all this ‘oh my god, how depressing’, all this beautiful Kate, incest, precious eggs, my butt! Stick a precious egg here! It has to end, it has to stop! Comedy and light entertainment is what people want. Jesus, we’re in a recession!
Dom Romeo: I take all that on board, but when you say we don’t do that well… Look, there was a time when the colour supplement of every weekend paper used to bitch and moan that Australia can’t make funny sitcoms. They’d stop bitching and moaning come comedy festival time, when there was advertising dollars to be made promoting Australian comedy, but every other issue of the colour supplement would be fair game for the recurring ‘why can’t Australia make funny sitcoms?’ article. And now we’ve had a number of great ones, some that are doing very well overseas. What is it that has to happen for things like that to come about with comedy films in Australian cinema?
TIM FERGUSON: It’s worth pointing out that while people were saying that, Hey Dad…! was one of the highest rating, longest running programs on air, in primetime, in Australia’s history. There are dramas that would have given their eye teeth to be on at the peachy slot of 7pm on a commercial network for eight-and-a-half years. So while those people were saying, ‘why can’t we make a good one?’ we were making a good one. And it had a huge audience, a regular audience and a family audience. The thing was, people who write for broadsheets tend to like little films about suicide. They should never be listened to, those people. The people who should be listened to live in a little place: it’s called ‘the western suburbs’ of each and every one of our major capitals. No other audience is important.
Dom Romeo: Okay, again, that’s interesting. Hey Dad…! was our longest running sitcom. Despite all its flaws – characters who came and went, look-alikes, act-alikes, the sechetary lasting longer than the arch-a-tect even though it was about the arch-a-tect dad and not his sechetary – it lasted. And yet, this is a hard one. If it’s so good, why is it so derided? Have you tried watching any episodes recently? But then again, the follow-up question is, have you tried watching any comedy a decade after it stopped being made?
TIM FERGUSON: Gary Reilly, when he was putting Hey Dad…! together, looked at history and he didn’t look just at recent history, he looked at ancient history. And each one of the characters in Hey Dad…! is based upon an ancient archetype that goes back to Roman times. Similar archetypes you will find in Arrested Development, in Seinfeld… and Gary Reilly just did them Australian style. There’s the idiot, that was played by Betty Wilson, and who is the classic ‘idiot with a capital ‘I’ archetype’ and this character has only so many kinds of jokes that she will use. One of the jokes that the idiot always uses is the taking literally of things that everybody knows shouldn’t be. So a euphemism will be taken literally.
If someone says to an idiot character, ‘it’s so sad, my dentist bit the bullet’, the idiot character will say, ‘he was a dentist; you’d think he’d know better’ whereas we know ‘bit the bullet’ is a euphemism for dying. That’s what the idiot character does and they do it in all the shows: they do it in Seinfeld, they do it in all the cool shows. That’s what Kenneth in 30 Rock does; it’s the same character. That’s what Rose in The Golden Girls does. It’s the same character.
Dom Romeo: So what makes 30 Rock a much better show than The Golden Girls?
TIM FERGUSON: I don’t think that it is. I think The Golden Girls is probably the best sitcom ever made: four middle-aged women on television. For starters, can you imagine trying to sell that concept? I mean, putting middle-aged women behind a news desk still seems beyond most networks. Four women living together, working – again, ancient archetypes. It was brilliant. It’s interesting that Mitch Hurwitz, who was one of the writers of The Golden Girls, said he used the same four archetypes as those four characters as the lead characters in Arrested Development.
Dom Romeo: Oh my goodness. That’s interesting.
TIM FERGUSON: Buster does all the joke-types that Rose did. He does not understand sarcasm. He takes it on face value. That’s because, for the last two-and-half thousand years, that’s been working, so why screw with it? And this is the producer of Arrested Development saying this. Americans are a lot less abashed about using archetypes because they understand an archetype’s role. In Australia people say, yeah, but that’s old. The fact is, it’s so old, it’s in your DNA. Don’t screw with it. Just follow it.
For example, why do you think poor Richard Fidler, who in real life, as you know, is a bloody genius – he’s got a bigger brain that I’ll ever have – played the idiot? One – he was busy with the guitar; and two – because that’s always worked. Why would you screw with it?
Dom Romeo: I must say, back when I was young and ignorant and interviewing you for guys for the first time, I was genuinely surprised to discover that he wasn’t the fool he played on stage in real life – in fact, he was quite a well-read intellectual, though he’d play that down.
TIM FERGUSON: Oh, he’s also a financial wizard. We’d all be driving taxis if Richard hadn’t sat down and said, ‘well, we’re gonna sell out, but this is how!’ The man is a machine. He was the one with the briefcase. Paul and I were just the ones holding flowers, kissing people, trying to make people feel better about themselves.
Dom Romeo: Signing the odd breast, too, I remember.
TIM FERGUSON: Yes! Never the nipple! Never sign a nipple unless you want to go to gaol.
Dom Romeo: Apart from the ‘nipple indemnity’, is all of this theory covered in your book?
TIM FERGUSON: Yeah. There’s no nipple-signing in the book. The book does talk about archetypes, I talk about how to structure a comic story, and break down the different schools of jokes, basically into two types.
One is the stand-alone joke – where you don’t need to know who’s in it or who’s telling it. ‘Three guys walk into a bar…’; that kind of joke. Or just plays on words.
The other kind of joke that I cover is what I call ‘narrative gags’: jokes with a story, jokes that are tied to a particular character. It’s funny not because of the way the language is used or played with, but because we know who is saying it.
There’s a very funny moment in Arrested Development where a pretty girl says to Michael Bluth, ‘so, can I meet your family?’ and he says, ‘no’. Now knowing Michael and knowing his family makes it funny. He just says it deadpan: ‘no’. Because, we know why: they’re monsters.
That’s a narrative gag. So the book’s about how to build those; how to build a comic character so that it’s reliably funny, so that it has the right flaws, so that it’s not so complex that it then becomes like a real person, in which case, it belongs in drama.
There’s a lot of stuff: just what comedy is, how it works, why we laugh.
Dom Romeo: Have you been working on these theories through life? Are these ideas that you’ve learnt by being on stage, writing for television, being on television?
TIM FERGUSON: Yes, but also, talking to professionals who actually know what they’re doing, helps. You learn stuff on stage. You learn what works pretty quickly, because silence teaches you what doesn’t and noise teaches you what does.
Some of the theories I have in the book won’t please some people, and will probably make them angry.
Dom Romeo: Give me an example. Try me on.
TIM FERGUSON: One of the things that I talk about is that the key to doing a good character, dramatic or comic, is simplicity. They are all puppets. It’s when you try to make a dramatic or comic character too complex, people lose the point. Characters should only ever be driven by a couple of things: what they want, what they emotionally need, what they’re scared of, and the way they see the world. That’s it. They’re the only things you have to worry about.
While that sounds easy, the real trick is deciding which quality to go for. Because if you can only pick one… what do they want? What, in the entire world? Yeah. Right now and always, what is the one thing they want? Once you nail that, you’ve got the character. But nailing it means you’ve got to throw out all the other little things you wanted to have in the show.
Dom Romeo: But that makes perfect sense: as in stand-up comedy, if something you say isn’t the punch line, or a feed to the punch line, or doesn’t serve the punch line, you’re wasting time.
TIM FERGUSON: Oh yeah, then it’s just a sentence. Anthony Morgan’s got that great line: ‘sometimes you say a joke, and when it’s over you realise it was just a sentence. It’s very true.
Dom Romeo: But – not even a sentence; if there are too many words in a routine what they’re doing is preventing an audience from laughing.
TIM FERGUSON: Absolutely.
Dom Romeo: So too many characteristics in a character stops you getting to… whatever.
TIM FERGUSON: Oh, yeah. If you look at The Golden Girls, you can pretty well boil down all of those four ladies down – Dorothy, Sofia, Blanche and Rose – to a couple of adjectives each. It was the biggest show of its time for a decade. Why was it brilliant? Because it was simple. Simplicity is genius.
“Yes,” says Albert, “zat’s it. I am happy wiz zat.”
“Anything else? You want to write books about it?”
“Zat is for you to write,” he said. “It is for you to write the books – but zat is all I haff to say.”
Paperclips. Bullclips. People look at things like that and say, “that’s genius”. Only writers say, “there must be more in this character! They should be like me, pulled in ten different directions…” What you end up with is some sort of half-pancake/half-maple syrup slop that nobody likes and nobody wants to watch.
Dom Romeo: Having had a lot of experience making people laugh, let me ask you this: why do people laugh?
TIM FERGUSON: A little over a million years ago, our brains took up about – oh what was it? – 600 square centimetres. They’ve doubled in size in a million years. What that means is that our brains are actually only a million years away from being monkeys’. We’ve grown the front part of our heads, so we’re very good at talking and very good at gymnastics and those kind of things, but essentially, we’re still monkeys. And of course there’s nothing new in saying, ‘we’re the naked apes, except we wear bow ties’, but thinking about this, and making people laugh, particularly in the Doug Anthony Allstars which was – if nothing else – apart from the very gentle, interpretive dance stuff that we did, was quite a confronting little trio of guys. Even Richard, who was supposed to be nice, would come on shouting.
There was a lot of attack. We smelt. We had a bad smell. People knew when the Allstars were in the room because we stank. We didn’t wash our costumes for ten years. Those costumes are in the Performing Arts Museum covering in white mould. We’ve given orders they’ve never to be washed. But anyway…
Dom Romeo: I hope they’re behind glass…
TIM FERGUSON: Oh, I think they’re being sat on by people in winter; they’re warm because of the activity going on within them.
But the fact is, our brain’s very old, and when we laugh, we do something that’s involuntary, that can’t be stopped once it’s started. Laughing’s not something we can decide to do. You can’t say, “Mate, I’m just going outside; I need to relax. Going outside to have a bit of a laugh, and then I’ll come back in.” Once it’s started, it can’t be suppressed. So what’s going on?
When we laugh, of course, our bodies go to work; they give us a little kick of adrenalin. We also get a little trigger of endorphins. Small, but if we laugh for a long time, we usually walk out of the theatre feeling kind of heady and happy. People also say, “it was so funny, I pissed myself”. Or even worse: “it was a cack! It was so funny, I cacked myself at that show.” That’s because these things can occur if you laugh hard enough.
Why is this?
If you look at the fear flight response – when you see a snake and that snake comes slithering towards you at speed, hissing, your body does all those things: it involuntarily makes noise – ‘yah!’; your heart starts pumping because you have adrenalin; you have endorphins which are there as a sedative and to stop you feeling pain; your breathing becomes very low and shallow so that you can sprint for 30 or 40 metres. Fear flight is not about running a mile, it’s about getting out of somewhere very quickly and you only need the oxygen that is there in your system already to do that. You piss yourself so that you stink and the animal won’t want to eat you, and you crap yourself for the same reason.
If you look at the way we laugh and why we laugh, it’s got nothing to do with the fact that we find something witty. It’s got to do with the fact that the new part of our brain is seeing something or hearing something, has a concept in it’s head that it can’t deal with – two things that actually do have a surprising connection. In a jungle, that could be a bamboo tree and a tiger – they both have stripes. “Oh!”
Now the downstairs part of our brain is only designed for a couple of things: it’s designed to say ‘we’re okay’ and ‘we’re not okay’. And also ‘keep breathing’ and ‘keep the heart pumping. So when it gets these messages where suddenly there’s a comic reversal in a joke – I thought I was here, but now all of a sudden, in an instant, I’m somewhere else – where circumstances have instantly changed, the lower part of our brain is only trained to say, ‘when I hear that circumstances have changed: Panic! Fear! Flight! Involuntary noise!’ And away we go. That is laughter.
So if, as a comedy writer, you approach your scripts as thought you are trying to create chaos and fear within people, you will do well. You want things to be upside down. You want to say, ‘these two things that aren’t connected, actually are connected’. You want to make surprising connections, reversals, twists, turns, sudden reveals… All of these things, as Monty Python said, are ‘Fear. Surprise. These are our weapons.’
That’s why we laugh. And that’s all comedy does. Which again drives drama people made. And it’s why they think comedy is not as important or as valid an art form, or as potent a communication art form as drama. Because it’s dealing with our guts and not with the fluffy stuff upstairs that has no real import.
Tim Ferguson launches The Cheeky Monkey in Sydney at the Yalumba Wine Bar (the Enmore Theatre Café) Sunday May 9 at 4pm. If you can’t make it, you can still buy the book and learn how to devise, write and pitch your hit sitcom.