Tim Ferguson's Big Bang Theory

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 Ferguson’s Big Bang Theory

Seated before the besuited Tim Ferguson, one thing is apparent. The former Doug Anthony Allstar, Funky Squader and host of Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush is, to quote one of his Allstar catch-phrases, “still gorgeous”.

Common consensus holds Ferguson disbanded the Allstars. It was he who decided to call it a day at the end of 1994. I’d asked him why – after an Allstars appearance as part of Maynard’s live variety show Fist Me TV at Kinselas [1]. “I haven’t f*ck*d anything for almost two years,” he’d told me; fed up with a life spent touring the comedy circuit, away from his family, Tim wanted time off. “All I want to do is lie in my back yard and watch things grow,” 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. He’s the stoned idiot who says “sh*t” 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. 

Don’t 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 ‘zany’ 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 ‘Wayne Kerr’ character that occasionally appeared in the series DAAS Kapital. Played by Tim, Kerr’s key quotes were “Sex is my adventure” and “Justice comes from the barrel of a gun”.

The latter quote reappears in Ferguson’s 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.

“I’m sorry, I thought the evil Kerry Packer was keeping you in contractual limbo on a cruel but incredibly lucrative retainer,” I blurt. Tim dismisses this with a laugh.

“I’ve been very busy,” he says, explaining that he’s been spending a lot of time “behind the scenes”, boning up on all the other aspects of television: “marketing and sales, lighting, direction, program development…” [3] 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 Ferguson’s aim, it seems to already be working. To wit: his duet with Don Lane, which Tim describes as “the highlight of my entire life”. [4]

Ferguson’s time away has also been spent working on the novel, obviously. Left, Right and Centre, he claims, grew out of a “sense of conscience”. No one does political satire anymore, so Tim decided to have a go.

“My peers haven’t put much effort into it,” he says, “because they figure that the audience isn’t interested.” But an audience would be interested in contemporary political satire if some existed. “Someone’s gotta start,” Tim says, citing the likes of John Clarke, Patrick Cook and Bob Ellis, “great minds of their time” who all must have “started sometime”. Tim feels that ‘“the least we could do is hold onto their coat tails and be dragged along.”

The appeal to conscience is ironic, because Left, Right and Centre tells the tale of a militaristic would-be dictator’s 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 .

“‘Langbene’,” Tim informs me, pronouncing it to sound like ‘long bee’, “is German, and it got put in the middle of our names when Germans weren’t so popular.” According to Tim, people called ‘Lang’ are mostly ‘Langbenes’ attempting to assimilate quietly, or offspring thereof.

“Langs, Longs, Langbenes and Longbenes are all related,” he further elucidates. “An 80 year-old woman sent me a family tree about the whole thing. So we’re out there: the Langbenes are secretly, many of them unknowingly, out there.” If this sounds like an elaborate conspiracy theory, then consider it preparation for Left, Right and Centre, whose story crisscross’s Ferguson’s own.

Duntroon graduation, for example, is a biographical detail Tim frequently, fraudulently inserts into books — 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 “trained lover” rather than a “trained killer”.

The elaborately inflated biographical details were only included in order to “impress Patrick Cook”, the self-proclaimed “King of Rumpy-Pumpy” admits, adding, “There are elements of me in Luther but there are elements of me in Michael Gideon, his right-hand man, as well. I’m probably an amalgam of the two. I’m Michael when I’m not working and I’m Luther when I am”.

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 that’s missing is the — ahem — toothbrush moustache. However, Tim goes on to say that he doesn’t subscribe to all of Luther’s views... necessarily.

“It’s like writing an argument for a Great Australian Debate. You have to say things that you don’t really agree with and you have to argue them fervently and see how good an argument you can construct.”

When pressed however, Tim still maintains, as in the book, that it is “cheaper, cleaner, safer and would be better for our defence” to disband the nation’s armed forces and replace them with nuclear weapons. “It’ll never happen, so it’s nice to talk about it from the comfy hypothetical.”

The ‘comfy hypothetical’ is one argument that Ferguson happily admits ‘actually changed his own mind’ in the process of his devising it. “There’s never been a recorded accident with a nuclear weapon anywhere on earth,” he says. “Nuclear weapons are not like nuclear reactors, where you’re 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.”

It makes sense in the context of the ‘big picture’:

“We’re such a big country with so few people in it that if anyone ever did, God forbid, say ‘we wanna take that nice little piece of real estate in the southern hemisphere because we’re getting a bit overcrowded,’ how do we stop them? You either try and kill them all, or you deter them from thinking about it in the first place.”

That is the ultimate tenet of the book, and also, Tim tells me, his personal stance on the issue. What with Tim’s independent bid for Andrew Peacock’s seat in 1990 and his easy identification with Luther Langbene, the inevitable question seems to be ‘is Left, Right and Centre a battle plan rather than a biography? Is it Tim Ferguson’s Mein Kampf? Of course, I put the question to him in slightly different, more polite terms:

“You’re not, by any chance, thinking of running for office again, are you?”

“Are you kidding? Ferguson demands. “If people found out that I thought we should become a nuclear power, I’d be taken out and shot. Of course, it’s good fun to talk about it because it’s such a stir. People read the book and are quire horrified, mortified by the very idea; by just about every idea in the book. It’s quite fun to make people jump around.”

In Tim’s opinion, good satire “has to be in part about the reader, otherwise it’s not satire, it’s just an attack about something.” To be successful, it ought to “make you feel uncomfortable, and perhaps not make you like the author as much as before you read the book or article.”

Couldn’t the latter part of this theory, I suggest to Tim, be viewed as an escape clause for him in the face of potential criticism?

“Well, the bottom line is I can get out of any argument by saying ‘I just wrote it, I don’t believe it. It’s not me, it’s a work of fictions.’ Which is true.”

Well, partially true, if Tim’s 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?

“Who else does that?” Tim wants to know, momentarily ever-so-slightly nervous that his brilliant, original work may be more brilliant than original; it’s as if Left, Right and Centre were too good a first novel to be true.

The answer, of course, is Ben Elton’s Stark, which really is nothing like Left, Right and Centre.

“Well, I guess that it’s such open territory,” Tim begins. “You’ve 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.”

Good answer. Tim warms to the topic. “The budget can be as big as you like; there’s no point in being meager,” he says. “I can’t understand why a lot of authors of our generation are writing stories about people having sex on the dole, y’know. Why not having sex in their own personal jet aeroplanes, flying from country to country? It doesn’t all have to be on a low budget.”

But that’s what dirty realism is about, surely, I leap to its defense.

“Dirty realism is not dirty realism,” Ferguson explains. “If people really were dirty and realistic, they wouldn’t be authors. Authors don’t sit around in dirt being realistic, it just doesn’t work. Like Brett Easton Ellis; the guy’s not a psycho killer, he’s 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.”

Good point. But dirty realism is a hit. After all, Andrew McGann’s Praise is currently being filmed. Which reminds me of advice Tim once gave me, on how to make a hit action film:

“So long as you’ve 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,” he’d insisted. “They won’t give a fuck what the story is.”

What with all the behind-the-scenes experience Tim has been gaining, I can only assume there’s 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, Tim’s next plan is an “entertainment show” for Channel Nine. “It’ll be a show with afterburners attached,” he promises. Not quite as high-octane as Toothbrush, he offers, but the studio bosses reckon “we’ll just have to put you in the chair, Ferg, the energy will happen all of its own.”

Interesting. It’s high time Australian television managed to launch a ‘tonight’ show that could go the distance. [5] 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 ‘learn’ to salivate at the presentation of the added stimulus, so that Don needn’t 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. [6]

There is also another book in the works, Tim tells me, and he reckons that “it’s probably going to be a lot easier” to write than Left, Right and Centre. “You probably noticed, I set the bar pretty high on this one.” According to Tim, the next book is “a crime satire/thriller” involving “shooting and sharks. And politicians, funnily enough, because it is about crime.”

“Any F1-11s?” I ask cheekily.

“Ah, no, but there’s gonna be one now. I’ll dedicate it to you.”


At this point, I’m happy to declare the proceedings an interview. “Did I use enough big words?” Tim asks as I gather my stuff. “If not, grab a few more out of the dictionary.” And then I remember the essential question.

“I have to ask this; any chance of an Allstars reunion? I always ask the others when I see them.”

Tim doesn’t quite snort contemptuously. “Make sure you keep asking them,” he smiles. “No,” he adds. “I don’t need the publicity.”

So does that mean Tim won’t be appearing on Good News Week while he’s in Sydney?

“No. I make it a point not to share the limelight with anyone shorter than me.” [7]

As Tim walks me to the door I can’t help but feel tiny despite standing at well over four foot. Tim’s edict precludes his onstage appearance with just about anyone. Except Don Lane. (Drool.) Too uncomfortable to depart, I have recourse to one last question.

“Are you still the King of Rumpy-Pumpy?”

“Oh yes, very good at that,” Tim assures me. “Still practising. You can always get better, but my pencils are definitely sharp in that department.”


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. “I called it that because, I figure, everybody f*cks but not everybody fists,” Maynard told me at the time. Fair guess it’d 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. [2] Now be honest: Club Buggery isn’t too far removed a concept from Fist Me TV.

2) Yes, that’s right, I’m including the word ‘buggery’ uncensored. While some filters will block this content as a result – not quite an example of the so-called ‘Scunthorpe problem’ – at least comedy lovers legitimately searching for info online for Roy and HG’s Club Buggery will find some.

3) This year’s Comedy Festival reprise of Tim’s 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 weren’t 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 ‘a big thing’ back in the late ’90s, when ‘the lanky yank’ was still alive and well, albeit mostly retired from television.

5) I suspect Rove [Live] hadn’t quite happened at the time of writing. If it had, I’m a bit of a duffer, aren’t I.

6) Still can’t 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 ‘reunions’; one was a sad catch-up at the Concert for Holly memorial, adamant that they “weren’t getting back together”; 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:



Still Here...


May I just say that despite lack of evidence of regular posts here, please be reassured I am alive and well and doing a Melbourne International Comedy Festival show called Stand-Up Sit-Down, where I get up close and personal with a bunch of awesome comedians. Here's the list, where you can also buy tickets. What? You couldn't possibly leave this page and check it out? Okay. Here's the list:

You missed Fiona O'Loughlin last night.

Don't miss:

Tom Gleeson, March 30;
Fear of a Brown Planet, March 31;
DeAnne Smith, April 1;
Sammy J, April 3;
Tim Ferguson, April 4;
Greg Fleet, April 5;
Hannah Gadsby, April 6;
Celia Pacquola, April 7;
Andrew Denton, April 8.

Seriously. Come hang out with Dom ’n’ Tom tonight!

Tom Gleeson photo

I will keep blogging, but mostly as a kind of festival diary for the show. And only when not flyering, seeing shows…

Meanwhile, come see the show.

And failing that, support it through my Pozible campaign. Pledge a small amount, it all helps to contribute to what, in Fiona O'Loughlin's words, is "a fine tradition that has begun!!!!!"

Stand-Up Sit-Down

Coming soon to a 2012 Melbourne International Comedy Festival near you:

MICF2012_reduced_poster_no names_lowres

Tix available now.



The Elephant in the Room


Elvis Presley’s birthday just passed, and it was a big deal – a significant birthday! – cos had he been alive today, he would have been about 1,765.


I admire Elvis like everyone should. Perhaps more than most, because I appreciate the fact that the Elvis we formerly considered ‘daggy’ – ’70s Elvis; Elvis when he was fat and forty instead of thin and thirty – deserves far more respect than he used get. We know now that musically speaking Elvis’s later oeuvre was far more sound. (Go. Get the CDs. Listen.)

But I was six when Elvis died. So I have no vital memory of how his life – or music; or death – affected me.

My most vital Elvis-related memory took place in a glorified pub. It was the Bank Hotel in Newtown, late one night in 1995. I was sat with a big group of friends when a guy dressed as Elvis wandered past our table.

By ‘dressed as Elvis’, I mean, clad in a body-hugging, rhinestone-encrusted, flared white jumpsuit. But that wasn’t all: he also had an elephant mask on.

Why was a man dressed as Elvis with an elephant mask? Perhaps it was a comment on white-jumpsuited Elvis’s size, perhaps. As the Doug Anthony Allstars’ Tim Ferguson used to say at the beginning of their song ‘Dead Elvis’: ‘he was big in the ’50s; he was bigger in the ’60s; he was bloody huuuuuge in the ’70s…”

Perhaps he was somebody’s birthday present: an elephantasy Elvis-a-gram.

Or seeing as we were in Newtown, perhaps it was just another colourful local going about his business.

It didn’t matter why – the important thing was, you can’t really catch sight of a guy dressed as jump-suited ’70s Elvis with an elephant mask and not make a comment. Not even in Newtown. But he was making his way past our table, so I only had about 30 seconds, tops. And nobody else seemed to be reacting. I was going to have to be the one to call it: to point out the elephant – dressed as Elvis – in the room.

But what do you say?

It has to be Elvis related, and yet, also elephantine.

So what’s it gonna be?

Time’s running out.

It’s now or never.

Could I make the call before he passed?

You betcha.

He’s got a trunk, a trunk o’ burnin’ love!
Just a trunk, a trunk o’ burnin’ love!

What’s that?

Did I sing it?



Every comic’s got something to hide
except Tim Ferguson and his
Cheeky Monkey

Tim Ferguson - Cheeky Monkey from Currency Press on Vimeo.

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:
Write jokes
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.


“That’s it?”

“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.

Search for Trevorrow

Hearing Mark Trevorrow on ABC 702 Sydney a couple of weeks ago made me want to dig out this old interview with him. I’d interviewed him previously, during one of his many University of Sydney performances as a stalwart of student entertainment. He was always appearing at beginning or end of term celebrations, it seemed, and one time or other, while working for the University of Sydney Union, I got to interview him for the Union Recorder (as opposed to just producing advertorial – or ‘Dombo Journalism’, as I used to call it – as I did for most Union events back then).

This inteview was pretty special, however. It really came together well. I finally worked out, in my head, who ‘Bob Downe’ was, even though I was interviewing Mark Trevorrow again. I found, in fact, interviewing Mark Trevorrow several times subsequently, that my image of Bob Downe became clearer and clearer, as Mark Trevorrow became more and more distinct as a personality apart from Bob. Indeed, I suspect Trevorrow was finding Bob Downe a more defined character as he continued to define himself more boldly as a separate but no less public, performing entity.

For some reason I found it helpful to compare and contrast, to a certain degree, Trevorrow’s Bob Downe with Barry Humphries’s characters. Interestingly, Humphries was my first real interview, ever, for Honi Soit, the newspaper of the University of Sydney, produced by the Student Representative Council. It was a breakthrough for me. The Bob Downe interview below was my first interview for Revolver, a free entertainment rag. I vividly recall trying not to talk too loudly in my office – the Publications Department (ie my cluttered office) of Cranbrook School (for that was my ‘real’ job, Publications Co-ordinator at Cranbrook School) – as I conducted the interview sans recording equipment or speakerphone, furtively scrawling barely legible notes on a legal pad. As soon as the school newspaper, The Cranbrook Chronicle was being printed, I’d feverishly complete this interview, setting the standard: every week for the next five years (failing to meet the odd deadline here or there; that is to say, occasionally being so late that no piece ran; mostly being late but still in time for one to be published) I presented a different comedy-related interview. In addition to being a crash course in stand-up for me, I felt I was also educating an audience, and all the while, helping educate up-and-coming comics. If Sydney’s stand-up scene eventually got the jump on Melbourne, it was because, for a while there, there were people who had a clear idea what they were doing, why they were doing it, how it ought to be done, who for, and where it all fit in, in the greater scheme of things. Over five years, I pretty much found my voice and an ability to interview.

I have interviewed Trevorrow a number of times since this was written in 1998 (it was 1998, so forgive the dated political outlook; who was to know Kim Beazley’s best impression of a Statesman would be in conceding defeat in an election he should have had no trouble winning, and handing over leadership of his party, in 2001?). Trevorrow continues to be an interested and engaging interview subject – responsible for increasingly involved and ever-more-funny live shows. And for the record, I’ve watched him go from taking the piss out of the Tony Bartuccio Dancers, to working with Tony Bartuccio. I hope to eventually dig out later interviews where Trevorrow discusses all of this.

For more info on Bob Downe and Mark Trevorrow, in his own words, plus updates on tours and performances, and access to heaps and heaps of clips, check out his YouTube page. Meanwhile, here’s the interview.

Bob Downe for Revolver

“You’re talking to Mark Trevorrow rather than Bob Downe,” a jet-lagged voice announces. “Did my manager explain it to you? Bob Downe’s not a real person.”

“What?” I demand, worried. “I suppose you’re going to tell me Good Morning Murwillumbah, the breakfast show he hosts, isn’t a real television program either…?”

“Well,” the voice replies, “I don’t want to break your heart…”

My first conversation with Mark Trevorrow took place in 1995 when he was frequently dashing between England and Australia consolidating Bob Downe’s success. Having been effectively ‘on tour’ with Bob for seven years, 1995 was an important year; Bob Downe met the Queen at The Royal Variety Performance. ‘Yeh Yeh’, a cover of the old Georgie Fame number, had just been released as the lead single from Bob’s then-forthcoming album Jazzy. The album featured the track ‘Je T’Aime’, a duet with Julian Clary. If Jazzy failed to entice as wide an audience as it ought to have, it is only because it arrived too soon, the cocktail music revival failing to take hold for at least another six months. Not that Jazzy was a calculated attempt to exploit a trend; Bob Downe exists beyond genres. He always was and always will be and his kitsch appeal has no beginning or end.

Yet, speaking to Mark Trevorrow then, it was as though he didn’t know this. Bob would rarely speak for himself in interview, and apart from the broad facts as to when and how Bob was conceived, Mark didn’t have much to say about him. Not like — and I loathe the ‘critic’s way out’ that this comparison presents — Barry Humphries. The characters of Barry Humphries all seem to have lives of their own. Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson are frequently interviewed in character, and they make reference to the nebulous Humphries. And his creations have a thriving inner life that enables Humphries to talk at length about them. In performance, Bob Downe would tell us more about himself during between-song patter, but he only existed on that stage.

Within the few years that have passed, things have changed. All Bob Downe, Bob’s  autobiography as written by Mark Trevorrow, has been published by Penguin. Bob’s universe has been fully fleshed out, so much so that the most recent Good Weekend’s ‘The two of us’ column featured Mark and Bob being interviewed about each other. Clearly then, when I rang Trevorrow out of the blue to request “an interview some time,” his response of “how about now” took me by surprise.

“Bob’s something I’ve been doing since I was a little kid to make everyone laugh,” says Mark Trevorrow of his alter ego. Influenced by the high-camp artifice that was day-to-day television programming in this country, as well as film and radio, young Mark had “a little fantasy show-biz empire” with his sister and the kids next door, putting shows on in the back yard. “I never dreamed that it would be something that I’d do professionally,” he says.

After completing his schooling at Murrumbeena High in 1976, Trevorrow pursued (or perhaps ‘fell into’) a career in journalism. Beginning his cadetship as a 17 year-old copy boy at Sun News Pictorial in January 1977, by its end in 1981 Mark had served as a daily pop columnist. However, broader interests were already drawing him in other directions. His years of avid television viewing may have prepared him for his production post on Channel 10’s Together Tonight (a magazine-style show than ran nightly for six months).

Irrespective, Mark was already developing a cabaret act within the comedy group Gloria and the Go Gos. Featuring Wendy de Waal in the role of Gloria, the act was largely “thrown together” as a party turn.

Renamed ‘The Globos’, the band had its first hit in 1982 with the song ‘Tintarella Di Luna’. Pre-empted back into existence by Joe Dolce’s pontificating ‘Shaddup You Face’, the sub-genre of wog novelty discs fell into (or perhaps ‘pursued’) its late-80s nadir courtesy of Con the Fruiterer’s ‘Cuppla Days’. The genre’s zenith was definitely ‘Tintarella…’, which made it into the top twenty charts. When you listen to the song (the high-camp artifice that is contemporary advertising has led to its recent use on a television commercial, but I can’t for the life of me remember what was being flogged) you will hear Wendy and the band give their all. As with Bob Downe’s Jazzy, there are times when you are not entirely convinced that The Globos know whether they’re taking the piss or not.

A second single, ‘The Beat Goes On’, made it into the Top 40 in 1983 and was followed by a national tour with the Total and Utter King of Rock and Roll, Cliff Richard (who, like Bob Downe, is a ‘committed bachelor’). When The Globos broke up in 1984, Trevorrow resumed his career in journalism. Joining Vogue Australia as a staff writer, Mark eventually rose to the position of freelance Arts Editor. However, it wasn’t long before he was once again writing and performing, this time in a double act with Cathy Armstrong. Consisting of sketch comedy, the duo devised a show, A Nice Young Couple, which they performed in 1985. They also went on to write and perform for ABC Radio’s comedy unit. It was from this work that Bob Downe was created, initially as a parody of Entertainment Tonight. Bob Downe went solo in 1987, launching his career at Sydney’s self-proclaimed nursery of comedy, the Harold Park Hotel. A brief internship at Melbourne’s Last Laugh — “it was sort of ‘Comedy Central’ in those days,” Mark explains — gave way to Bob’s foray into Britain in 1988.

I must admit that my first real introduction to Bob was via his work with the Doug Anthony Allstars, particularly in the series Daas Kapital. “I think I started working with the Dougs in ’87, at the Last Laugh” Mark recalls. “They showed me the festival ropes, how to go about doing the Edinburgh Festival. Then we did a lot of touring. I used to support them a lot whenever they were playing in London.” Bob, of course, remembers the proceedings so much more vividly than Mark. In an episode of Daas Kapital, a mermaid (played by Khym Lam, partner of Dougs’ guitarist Richard Fidler) sums the group up thus: “Paul [McDermott]’s the one you want to do it to, Tim [Ferguson]’s the one you think of while you’re doing it, but Richard’s the one you want to marry.” Bob takes us a step further in All Bob Downe: “Tim — like all the pretty ones — just lay there, vaguely sort of indicating. Richard? We just talked all night. And Paul… like a stinky little jackrabbit. In the end I let him hump my leg while I read TV Week.”

All Bob Downe marks a coming of age. Bob Downe has always exploited television. On stage, his Tony Bartuccio Dancer-moves (running directly at the camera and peeling off to the side at the last moment) are exactly how they were done on The Don Lane Show. His version of The Theme from ‘Fame’ bore the garbled lyrics as learnt from the crappy monaural television that you and I used to watch it on in the 70s. Daas Kapital contained the brilliant TV-advertised album commercial — “Jesus loves me, and you will too when you hear Bob Downe for Jesus”. All Bob Downe brings this acute level of parody to the print medium. Bearing the bold and flamboyant typefaces and colour scheme (beige and parrot shit green) of a 70s annual, the chapters of All Bob Downe open with fraudulent newspaper headlines taken from archival issues of the Murwillumbah Irrigator. It also contains all the name-dropping references and photos of Bob’s brilliant career thus far.

Mark Trevorrow recognises the position Bob is now in as the beginning of a new phase. “It’s gotten to the point where Bob is someone you can always depend on to get up and do a silly song. But after 15 years, Bob is ready to host a show, rather than just make spot appearances.” Indeed. Bob’s hosting of the Mardi Gras telecast is testament to his ability and suitability. But that is the very least we should expect from Bob Downe. I put it to Mark that perhaps Bob Downe ought to be the first President of the Australian Republic.

“Bob would leave that to the Ray Martins and the John Farnhams,” Trevorrow advises. “Bob’s civic duty is strictly limited to shopping centre appearances and cutting ribbons at the openings of fetes.” Fair enough. Bob is already acquainted with public office, what with his having been presented to the Queen. Which leads me back to that loathsome comparison again. Edna Everage had reached about the same point in her career as Bob is at now when Gough Whitlam bid her ‘Arise, Dame Edna’. Don’t be surprised if, at some point in the near future, Prime Minister Kim Beazley utters a similar dictum: “Arise, Bob Downe.” That’s if Kim heeds the advice of his physicians to ‘arise, bob down, arise, bob down, arise…”

Tim Lords It With Time Lords


WARNING: the introduction to this interview contains some adult concepts.

Okay, so I’m reading, in that bastion of parochial gossip, council in-fighting and mediocre arts reportage known as The Manly Daily, that there is a Doctor Who-related show coming to Sydney called Doctor Who Inside the TARDIS. It will feature
Colin Baker, the sixth Doctor
and Sylvester McCoy, the seventh Doctor, as well as Katy Manning, who was Jo Grant, the assistant to the third Doctor Jon Pertwee and who, I believe, has lived in Manly for the last few decades, give or take. But what really grabs me is that the show is being MC’d by Tim Ferguson, who used to be part of my favourite musical comedy trio, the Doug Anthony Allstars.

In fact, this won’t be the first time Ferguson and Manning shared a stage: way back in 1994, my favourite media eccentric Maynard F# Crabbes (it’s a play on the name of the character ‘Maynard G. Krebs’, from a show I’ve never seen called The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, which featured Bob ‘Gilligan’s Island’ Denver as the beatnik or hippie or something called Maynard) hosted a live variety show at a club called Kinselas. The show was called – wait for it – Fist Me TV (“because,” Maynard explained to me in an interview at the time, “everybody fucks but not everybody fists”) and it was being filmed as a pilot with some idea of trying to sell it to television. “Yeah, right,” you’re thinking, “who honestly believes that they could market a live variety show on television and call it Fist Me TV?” Well it never did get to television, but don’t gloat so knowingly just yet – shortly thereafter the rampaging Roy Slaven and HG Nelson (Roy & HG) got their own live variety show on television. It was called Club Buggery. Some other philosopher can tease out the ramifications of the differences between fisting and buggery, particularly as they may pertain to humour (or a lack thereof) as this has been a distracting enough tangent as it is.


At one of the performances of Fist Me TV, the Doug Anthony Allstars shared the bill with Katy Manning and Barry Crocker. Although Crocker has been Manning’s partner since 1989, he also has a history with the Allstars: he sang lead on their rendition of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ (one of several featured on the Andrew Denton-hosted show Money or the Gun – but that really is a whole other story).

So, anyway, after all of these inter-related bits of trivia made themselves apparent in my brain, I decided I wanted to interview someone about this, and thought that it would be as good an excuse as any to catch up with Tim Ferguson. I gather that his role is largely that of a ‘Dorothy Dix’ – setting up the questions like a parliamentary stooge, in order to let the Right Honourable Minister for Whatever to shine in giving the rehearsed answer. Not that this is a bad thing: that’s how the recent Goodies tour was structured, right down to the clips and the radio play, and it worked a treat!

Here’s a transcript of the interview. Why not listen to the recording of it, underscored with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s original Doctor Who theme? You can find an MP3 here. A shorter version went to air on ABC NewsRadio on the morning of the first performance. If you are interested, here are the tour dates.

Demetrius Romeo: Hi Tim, how are ya?


Demetrius Romeo: I wanna talk to you about this Doctor Who thing that’s going on.

TIM FERGUSON: Well the Doctors are here. We’ve been rehearsing the last couple of days. They are, as you know, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, and we’ve just been putting this little puppy together.

Demetrius Romeo: How did you come to be involved in this project?

TIM FERGUSON: Well I think I was outed as a science fiction fan long ago and so I guess the guys who came up with the idea thought that they could call me and I wouldn’t hang up. In fact I would begin stalking the cast. Already I have eight autographs from each of them. Whenever I see a Doctor with nothing to do I grab something and make him sign it. I figure a guy has to make a buck out of this.

Demetrius Romeo: What have you had them autograph?

TIM FERGUSON: Well, there was a plunger, of course, t-shirts, underpants, baseball caps – you know, the usual.

Demetrius Romeo: Uh-huh. Good, good. Now, Katy Manning’s involved in this as well.

TIM FERGUSON: You bet! Lively, vivacious Katy Manning is one of our three guests. She’s going to be telling the stories of what it was like to be a plucky companion to Jon Pertwee.

Demetrius Romeo: In addition to telling stories, there are also clips being shown…

TIM FERGUSON: Yeah! We’ve got all sorts of clips from right across the series. All the monstors and creatures and evil doers… The Master, of course, who really picked a good name for himself. I mean, if you are going to dominate the universe, you don’t want to just be called ‘Basil’. “I am Basil…” You want to be able to say, “I am the Master” so that right off the bat, once people have met you, they have an idea of basically what your role is going to be in the universe.

Demetrius Romeo: Now, speaking of ‘roles in the universe’, in a way, you’re the Master – of ceremonies.

TIM FERGUSON: Yes, ‘The Master’… of ceremonies.

Demetrius Romeo: Not ‘The Basil’ of ceremonies.

TIM FERGUSON: No, unfortunately, he’s much funnier than me. It’s my job just to ask the Doctors questions, keep things moving. I’ve been co-writing a radio play; an original premiere performance of a radio play will be happening starring both Doctors, Katy Manning and myself. That’s part of our second act. We’ve just completed writing the thing and I think it’s very dramatic. It’s terrifying; it’s scary.

Demetrius Romeo: Excellent! Now, Sylvester McCoy, to me, always struck me as a very different Doctor because he had that other career before he became a Doctor that was kind of more cabaret and vaudeville.

TIM FERGUSON: Yes, he did study to become a priest. And I think he started from a young age, studying that. I think he said he began at eleven and finally gave that away. Oh, you’re talking about the vaudeville stuff! Of course! After the priesthood he became very much a clown on vaudeville stages of London, the West End… He can play the spoons. He did an act where he stuffed ferrets down his trousers.

Demetrius Romeo: I remember an act where someone got a nail nailed into their nasal cavity…

TIM FERGUSON: That was him! In the Secret Policeman’s Ball.

Demetrius Romeo: That’s right.

TIM FERGUSON: A guy has to have a hobby, and when you’re not being a Timelord you have to think of ways to pass the time, I guess.

Demetrius Romeo: Now, I’ve got to ask you, Tim, being a science fiction nut and all, what do you thing of Doctor number nine that’s currently on our screens?

TIM FERGUSON: I love Christopher Eccleston. I think he’s doing a great job. He’s a bit kooky, he’s a bit groovy, he’s a little bit nerdy… and Rose, his plucky companion, is terrific! She’s enthusiastic, asks a lot of questions: just what you want from a plucky sidekick.

Demetrius Romeo: Now is there anything you’ve learnt from this that you didn’t know before, being a science fiction buff yourself?

TIM FERGUSON: I didn’t know that Colin Baker had a different pussycat badge on his jacket every episode.

Demetrius Romeo: I didn’t even know he had a pussycat badge! I’m just a day-tripper.

TIM FERGUSON: That’s right, it’s been quite a revelation. I have to go back over the tapes.

Demetrius Romeo: Tim, thanks very much.

TIM FERGUSON: Okay. And no ferrets were killed in the making of this interview.

Demetrius Romeo: Excellent.


Demetrius Romeo: See you, mate.