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Sit-down comedy

I’ve got MS and I think it’s hilarious. That’s a better way of coping than just sitting around moping.

When Tim Ferguson was a teenager in Blayney, in central-west New South Wales, he’d watch over the fence with green-lipped envy as his older brother drove away to another Bachelor and Spinsters (B&S) Ball a couple of hundred kilometres up the track.

B&S Balls, once serious, formal social events bringing together unmarried men and women separated by the tyranny of distance in remote Australia have evolved – some might say, devolved – in recent decades. They are now a regular, raucous fixture on the rural calendar, marked by formal dress, beer and Bundy-fuelled dancing, country music and circle work in utes.

In the years since, Tim has been to his share of B&S Balls and remains both amused and intrigued by the phenomenon.

"It’s an Australian tradition and nobody does it the way we do," he says. "No one else turns up in tuxedoes and ball gowns to a shearing shed in the middle of nowhere to woo lovers out to their utility vehicles. They don’t know what they’re missing out on."

Tim, best known as one-third of the comedy act the Doug Anthony All Stars (DAAS), has co-written and co-directed Spin Out, a romantic comedy he hopes will take B&S Balls to a wider audience in Australia – and around the world.

"It’s a celebration of Australia and young people in the country causing trouble. I just figured somebody had to play in this crazy world of B&Ss; it’s such an unlikely place for so many romances.

"I’ve met so many people in the last few years who’ve said they met the person they married at a B&S. It’s quite an ignominious start to things that really end up being quite auspicious," he says, laughing.

So many things tickle 52-year-old Tim’s funny bone. In general, the absurdity of life, politics and society, which provided much of the subversive, wicked schtick for him, Paul McDermott and Richard Fidler in DAAS.

He is also amused by Multiple Sclerosis, the gradually debilitating disease of the central nervous system that has been Tim’s ever more burdensome companion since he was 19.

Tim’s MS now means he performs with the latest incarnation of the All Stars from a wheelchair, writes with the help of voice recognition software and requires some home support. But Tim insists: "I’ve got MS and I think it’s hilarious. That’s a better way of coping than just sitting around moping."

Humour, he has said, is the only salve for the ridiculous antics of his brain. "I could weep but who would listen? Besides I was never much of a dancer."

Now, more reflectively, he says he sincerely believes MS changed his life for the better. "For starters, I eat more healthily. I’m more aware of time and getting things done … more organised, more focussed. I used to ping around like a pinball, going like a magpie from one thing to the next."

He has not only come to terms with the illness but grown "comfortable" with it. "It’s a condition they’re finding more and more about, but in the meantime I drive MS nuts by telling it to get out of my way.

"The main thing is I get by with a lot of help from my friends."

Those friends include not only his "shamelessly good-looking" wife Stephanie, their three adult children and a lot of mates but, three times a week, his carers from Australian Unity.

"They’ll shower me, clean me up and make me look fancy, help with stuff in the kitchen, getting dishes done, hanging up the washing. All simple things I could do if I wanted to, say spend three hours just hanging washing. It’d be good comedy watching me do it."

Tim says he has formed great friendships with the regular carers who have been supporting him at his Sydney home for the past few years. "It’s fun, you catch up, I show them my movie trailer. One is a mad DAAS fan and he gets to catch up on All Stars news.

"Most people with a disability are familiar with their own speed humps and plan ahead. But the care and patience of other people is essential to get anything done … It’s very comforting and life affirming to get great help from people who know a bit."

Tim says the assistance , means he can get his head into all the other tasks he has each day, which include not only the B&S movie but a script for a second; an orchestral piece for children, called Billie and the Dinosaurs; teaching comedy scriptwriting at New York University; and the latest incarnation of DAAS, which toured the United Kingdom in August.

After a decade of provocation, the original DAAS disbanded in 1994, when Tim’s MS – not yet diagnosed – meant touring and performing the group’s very physical comedy was too exhausting. He didn’t reveal the reason, even to Fidler and McDermott, until years later.

"It broke my heart to have to do it and I’m sure the guys were very annoyed," he says. "It was nobody’s business ... and it was invisible. So I thought why worry everybody. Everybody’s got something to worry about but we don’t wear it on T-shirts."

Now, with McDermott and Paul "Flaco" Livingstone taking Fidler’s role, he’s touring the new show, performing from his wheelchair and using his disability to provoke his audiences that little bit more.

"Why not?" he asks. "You can do stand-up comedy, or you can do sit-down comedy."

Words: Gary Tippet Photos: George Fetting


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