Tim Ferguson's Big Bang Theory
Friday, August 09, 2013
First let me apologise.
I see Wit Large is hosting Tim Ferguson's Cheeky Monkey Comedy Screenwriting Course. (August 17-18, Green Room, Enmore; BOOK HERE).
I'm not apologising for that. It's an awesome thing and I'm looking forward to it. Tim Ferguson knows a bit about comedy. If you don't believe me, read his book The Cheeky Monkey: Writing Narrative Comedy .
Here's Tim Talking about it (I'm in there around a minute in).
I had the pleasure of talking to Fergo about it before.
I'll probably write more about the book, the course and Fergo in the lead-up to this event. But I'm not apologising for that, either.
I've been digging through my comedy archives and found this piece I wrote back in 1998. At the time, Tim was releasing his first novel, the excellent political satire Left, Right and Centre. I was very pleased to read it. It was brilliant. But I was still dirty on Tim for breaking up the Doug Anthony Allstars (that's how I saw it at the time) and making Don't Forget Your Toothbrush, a show format bought from the UK that I hated. It didn't matter that the phenomenal Tim Ferguson was hosting it. It was the kind of light entertainment, to my mind, that the Allstars put to shame. I never appreciated it. The only reason it ever existed in the UK, as far as I was concerned, was because unlike in Australia, England's health policy did not include fluridation of the water supply. They have notoriously bad teeth. A show like Don't Forget Your Toothbrush had a greater cultural significance to Brits.
Now, looking back, I regret being such an arrogant critic. Fergo has always known how to make comedy; Cheeky Monkey proved that for everyone who was ignorant of the Doug Anthony Allstars, or who needed reminding. Don't Forget Your Toothbrush proved he knew how to make money. Not many people can do both. (I feel I should add, '...typed the nigh-irrelevant comedy nerd blogger'). I apologise for doubting Tim Ferguson then.
Left, Right and Centre proved Fergo could write a good political satire, if anybody had any doubt. That's why I got to catch up with Tim in 1998. Read the story if you like. If you love comedy, go to his comedy screenwriting course. And rest assured, Tim's still, still gorgeous. Still.
That's right - the cover to an issue of Stand & Deliver! when it was a hard copy zine. Cover art by Nick O'Sullivan.
Tim Fergusonâs Big Bang Theory
Seated before the besuited Tim Ferguson, one thing is apparent. The former Doug Anthony Allstar, Funky Squader and host of Donât Forget Your Toothbrush is, to quote one of his Allstar catch-phrases, âstill gorgeousâ.
Common consensus holds Ferguson disbanded the Allstars. It was he who decided to call it a day at the end of 1994. Iâd asked him why â after an Allstars appearance as part of Maynardâs live variety show Fist Me TV at Kinselas . âI havenât f*ck*d anything for almost two years,â heâd told me; fed up with a life spent touring the comedy circuit, away from his family, Tim wanted time off. âAll I want to do is lie in my back yard and watch things grow,â he said.
So the Allstars went their separate ways. But in no time, Tim was working again: while Rob Sitch went off to complete another degree, Tim and the rest of the Frontline team made Funky Squad. Unfortunately, the series flopped because its target audience was too young to appreciate the parody of a once very successful hip American cop show called Mod Squad. How important was Mod Squad? Important enough for its star to appear as a special guest presenter at one of the numerous Bert Newton-hoted Logie ceremonies. Heâs the stoned idiot who says âsh*tâ to a younger, slightly thinner and hairier Bert Newton before bursting into tears in that oft-repeated Logies clip. Unfortunately, that clip is virtually funnier than the entire Funky Squad series.
Donât Forget Your Toothbrush followed. It should have been the first in a series of major successes, the show that would establish Tim Ferguson as a kind of Ray Martin-cum-Don Lane for our generation. Instead, the failure of this irrelevant British game show made Tim a cross between Ian Leslie and Tony Barber, and his fans, just cross. Subsequently, Tim Ferguson disappeared. The occasional âzanyâ story for A Current Affair and computer game advertisements were all that we would see of Tim. In all fairness, at least the ads were in keeping with the âWayne Kerrâ character that occasionally appeared in the series DAAS Kapital. Played by Tim, Kerrâs key quotes were âSex is my adventureâ and âJustice comes from the barrel of a gunâ.
The latter quote reappears in Fergusonâs latest work, a book. For Tim Ferguson is back, and his first novel, Left, Right and Centre is a corker. However, before I can start discussing it with him, I must take the opportunity to apologise to the man for having doubted him in the first place.
âIâm sorry, I thought the evil Kerry Packer was keeping you in contractual limbo on a cruel but incredibly lucrative retainer,â I blurt. Tim dismisses this with a laugh.
âIâve been very busy,â he says, explaining that heâs been spending a lot of time âbehind the scenesâ, boning up on all the other aspects of television: âmarketing and sales, lighting, direction, program developmentâ¦â  Tim has been broadening his experience in order to establish himself as more of an entertainer in the classic sense; in the Golden Age of television, personages received training for all aspects of the medium. If this really is Fergusonâs aim, it seems to already be working. To wit: his duet with Don Lane, which Tim describes as âthe highlight of my entire lifeâ. 
Fergusonâs time away has also been spent working on the novel, obviously. Left, Right and Centre, he claims, grew out of a âsense of conscienceâ. No one does political satire anymore, so Tim decided to have a go.
âMy peers havenât put much effort into it,â he says, âbecause they figure that the audience isnât interested.â But an audience would be interested in contemporary political satire if some existed. âSomeoneâs gotta start,â Tim says, citing the likes of John Clarke, Patrick Cook and Bob Ellis, âgreat minds of their timeâ who all must have âstarted sometimeâ. Tim feels that ââthe least we could do is hold onto their coat tails and be dragged along.â
The appeal to conscience is ironic, because Left, Right and Centre tells the tale of a militaristic would-be dictatorâs underhanded rise to power in Australian politics: foundling Luther Langbene, adopted by a Western Australian mining magnate, graduates from Duntroon Military College. A distinguished army career leads to an easy ride into the Senate, a ministerial portfolio, and eventually the ability to rule the country as a crackpot dictator with the threat of nuclear warfare looming in the all-too-near future. It is far too easy to conflate Tim Ferguson with Luther Langbene. As well as making the character likeable, Tim has imbued Langbene with many of his own characteristics, including his middle name .
ââLangbeneâ,â Tim informs me, pronouncing it to sound like âlong beeâ, âis German, and it got put in the middle of our names when Germans werenât so popular.â According to Tim, people called âLangâ are mostly âLangbenesâ attempting to assimilate quietly, or offspring thereof.
âLangs, Longs, Langbenes and Longbenes are all related,â he further elucidates. âAn 80 year-old woman sent me a family tree about the whole thing. So weâre out there: the Langbenes are secretly, many of them unknowingly, out there.â If this sounds like an elaborate conspiracy theory, then consider it preparation for Left, Right and Centre, whose story crisscrossâs Fergusonâs own.
Duntroon graduation, for example, is a biographical detail Tim frequently, fraudulently inserts into books â see the author bios in DAAS Book and DAAS Kapital . Tim, who in fact graduated from All Saints College Bathurst, observed many a Duntroon graduate and undergraduate, as well as all manner of politicians and associated life forms while living and working with the Allstars in Canberra. He has admitted in earlier interviews that Duntroon is only a piece of imagined past, since he is a âtrained loverâ rather than a âtrained killerâ.
The elaborately inflated biographical details were only included in order to âimpress Patrick Cookâ, the self-proclaimed âKing of Rumpy-Pumpyâ admits, adding, âThere are elements of me in Luther but there are elements of me in Michael Gideon, his right-hand man, as well. Iâm probably an amalgam of the two. Iâm Michael when Iâm not working and Iâm Luther when I amâ.
Tim Ferguson has been Luther Langbene through a lot of his working career it would seem, for references to Wagner, Hitler and Nazism abound in his Allstars work. And how about that part and fringe, eh folks? All thatâs missing is the â ahem â toothbrush moustache. However, Tim goes on to say that he doesnât subscribe to all of Lutherâs views... necessarily.
âItâs like writing an argument for a Great Australian Debate. You have to say things that you donât really agree with and you have to argue them fervently and see how good an argument you can construct.â
When pressed however, Tim still maintains, as in the book, that it is âcheaper, cleaner, safer and would be better for our defenceâ to disband the nationâs armed forces and replace them with nuclear weapons. âItâll never happen, so itâs nice to talk about it from the comfy hypothetical.â
The âcomfy hypotheticalâ is one argument that Ferguson happily admits âactually changed his own mindâ in the process of his devising it. âThereâs never been a recorded accident with a nuclear weapon anywhere on earth,â he says. âNuclear weapons are not like nuclear reactors, where youâre shaking and baking and heating it up and boiling the water and moving the parts all the time. You make a nuclear weapon, and most of them can in fact be dumped in boiling oil or burning napalm and left there for days without ever exploding leaking. Nuclear weapons are incredibly safe little gadgets.â
It makes sense in the context of the âbig pictureâ:
âWeâre such a big country with so few people in it that if anyone ever did, God forbid, say âwe wanna take that nice little piece of real estate in the southern hemisphere because weâre getting a bit overcrowded,â how do we stop them? You either try and kill them all, or you deter them from thinking about it in the first place.â
That is the ultimate tenet of the book, and also, Tim tells me, his personal stance on the issue. What with Timâs independent bid for Andrew Peacockâs seat in 1990 and his easy identification with Luther Langbene, the inevitable question seems to be âis Left, Right and Centre a battle plan rather than a biography? Is it Tim Fergusonâs Mein Kampf? Of course, I put the question to him in slightly different, more polite terms:
âYouâre not, by any chance, thinking of running for office again, are you?â
âAre you kidding? Ferguson demands. âIf people found out that I thought we should become a nuclear power, Iâd be taken out and shot. Of course, itâs good fun to talk about it because itâs such a stir. People read the book and are quire horrified, mortified by the very idea; by just about every idea in the book. Itâs quite fun to make people jump around.â
In Timâs opinion, good satire âhas to be in part about the reader, otherwise itâs not satire, itâs just an attack about something.â To be successful, it ought to âmake you feel uncomfortable, and perhaps not make you like the author as much as before you read the book or article.â
Couldnât the latter part of this theory, I suggest to Tim, be viewed as an escape clause for him in the face of potential criticism?
âWell, the bottom line is I can get out of any argument by saying âI just wrote it, I donât believe it. Itâs not me, itâs a work of fictions.â Which is true.â
Well, partially true, if Timâs other answers have also been true. I have a far more important question, however. Is Left, Right and Centre evidence of a burgeoning sub-genre of humorous writing that deals with evil Western Australia-dwelling multi-millionaires who hold the fate of the country at stake, I wonder?
âWho else does that?â Tim wants to know, momentarily ever-so-slightly nervous that his brilliant, original work may be more brilliant than original; itâs as if Left, Right and Centre were too good a first novel to be true.
The answer, of course, is Ben Eltonâs Stark, which really is nothing like Left, Right and Centre.
âWell, I guess that itâs such open territory,â Tim begins. âYouâve got all this desert, all this open space, which means you can do things in secret there and get away with it. And having a couple of billion dollars at your disposal can help a story along.â
Good answer. Tim warms to the topic. âThe budget can be as big as you like; thereâs no point in being meager,â he says. âI canât understand why a lot of authors of our generation are writing stories about people having sex on the dole, yâknow. Why not having sex in their own personal jet aeroplanes, flying from country to country? It doesnât all have to be on a low budget.â
But thatâs what dirty realism is about, surely, I leap to its defense.
âDirty realism is not dirty realism,â Ferguson explains. âIf people really were dirty and realistic, they wouldnât be authors. Authors donât sit around in dirt being realistic, it just doesnât work. Like Brett Easton Ellis; the guyâs not a psycho killer, heâs just a very good middle class writer. Most of the people who write the roll-on-the-dole kind of stories have never been on the dole, God forbid! They were too busy at university.â
Good point. But dirty realism is a hit. After all, Andrew McGannâs Praise is currently being filmed. Which reminds me of advice Tim once gave me, on how to make a hit action film:
âSo long as youâve got enough motorbikes in it and cars being blown up and massive trucks and tanks and an F1-11, people will go and see it,â heâd insisted. âThey wonât give a fuck what the story is.â
What with all the behind-the-scenes experience Tim has been gaining, I can only assume thereâs a film, mini-series or at the very least a tele-movie in Left, Right and Centre. Screen adaptation must be an obvious possibility.
But no, Timâs next plan is an âentertainment showâ for Channel Nine. âItâll be a show with afterburners attached,â he promises. Not quite as high-octane as Toothbrush, he offers, but the studio bosses reckon âweâll just have to put you in the chair, Ferg, the energy will happen all of its own.â
Interesting. Itâs high time Australian television managed to launch a âtonightâ show that could go the distance.  Tim Ferguson may well be the man who could pull it off. Hence his pairing with Don Lane, an example of classical conditioning: since we automatically salivate at Don, by presenting him with someone else, we will eventually âlearnâ to salivate at the presentation of the added stimulus, so that Don neednât even be presented for the same response. Of course, many a fan will tell you that they automatically salivate at the sight of Tim Ferguson anyway. It was the Toothbrush that caused them to gag. 
There is also another book in the works, Tim tells me, and he reckons that âitâs probably going to be a lot easierâ to write than Left, Right and Centre. âYou probably noticed, I set the bar pretty high on this one.â According to Tim, the next book is âa crime satire/thrillerâ involving âshooting and sharks. And politicians, funnily enough, because it is about crime.â
âAny F1-11s?â I ask cheekily.
âAh, no, but thereâs gonna be one now. Iâll dedicate it to you.â
At this point, Iâm happy to declare the proceedings an interview. âDid I use enough big words?â Tim asks as I gather my stuff. âIf not, grab a few more out of the dictionary.â And then I remember the essential question.
âI have to ask this; any chance of an Allstars reunion? I always ask the others when I see them.â
Tim doesnât quite snort contemptuously. âMake sure you keep asking them,â he smiles. âNo,â he adds. âI donât need the publicity.â
So does that mean Tim wonât be appearing on Good News Week while heâs in Sydney?
âNo. I make it a point not to share the limelight with anyone shorter than me.â 
As Tim walks me to the door I canât help but feel tiny despite standing at well over four foot. Timâs edict precludes his onstage appearance with just about anyone. Except Don Lane. (Drool.) Too uncomfortable to depart, I have recourse to one last question.
âAre you still the King of Rumpy-Pumpy?â
âOh yes, very good at that,â Tim assures me. âStill practising. You can always get better, but my pencils are definitely sharp in that department.â
Original page design of 'Tim Ferguson's Big Bang Theory' in Stand & Deliver! issue 4. Original title was going to be 'Tim Ferguson Forgets his Toothbrush Moustache'. Y'know, cos of his Hitlerite fringe, and resemblance to fascist dictator main character in Left, Right And Centre.
1) Fist Me TV was great live entertainment hosted by Maynard F# Crabbes and produced by Simon Marnie. It was, essentially, a live pilot that never made it to television. âI called it that because, I figure, everybody f*cks but not everybody fists,â Maynard told me at the time. Fair guess itâd never make it to television with that title. Oddly enough, a different live variety show hosted by comedians did make it television with the title Club Buggery.  Now be honest: Club Buggery isnât too far removed a concept from Fist Me TV.
2) Yes, thatâs right, Iâm including the word âbuggeryâ uncensored. While some filters will block this content as a result â not quite an example of the so-called âScunthorpe problemâ â at least comedy lovers legitimately searching for info online for Roy and HGâs Club Buggery will find some.
3) This yearâs Comedy Festival reprise of Timâs show Carry A Big Stick included clips from some of the pilots Tim devised during this time. They were pretty funny. Pity none were greenlighted.
4) If you werenât alive to watch Australian television during its first four and a half decades, this will mean nothing to you; it has changed greatly in the last 20-odd years. As it is, the reference to the duet with Don Lane means nothing to me. I can only assume Tim performed with Don and it was âa big thingâ back in the late â90s, when âthe lanky yankâ was still alive and well, albeit mostly retired from television.
5) I suspect Rove [Live] hadnât quite happened at the time of writing. If it had, Iâm a bit of a duffer, arenât I.
6) Still canât apologise enough for hating the show irrationally. Now I regret I never watched it.
7) So glad that attitude changed. After this interview, there were a number âreunionsâ; one was a sad catch-up at the Concert for Holly memorial, adamant that they âwerenât getting back togetherâ; it was a one-off. They caught up again to promote DVDs, with an excellent Q&A/reunion/performance at the 2013 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Where this happened: