7 Min Read

The ‘Secret’ to Comedy Success

Tim Ferguson believes there’s a serious issue in Australia with the teaching of comedy … or more so the lack of teaching. But he’s out to change that.

The Doug Anthony All Stars Member has a career any comedian would envy including sold out world tours and a dedicated fan base, who still pack theatres decades on from the first rumblings of the All Stars. 

Tim doesn’t hide his secrets to success. In fact, he shares them at every chance he can get. 

He has a few things to say and words of wisdom for aspiring comedians and lucky for you , you’re in the right place to hear all about it! 

Hey Tim, What made you want to start teaching?

Around America, the U.K and other European countries, teaching narrative comedy, which is comedy stories for film, TV, literature and plays, is standard. I looked around Australia and there’s nobody doing it. I thought either everyone else is crazy or there’s a gap in the market. So, I investigated comedy and spoke to people who know a lot more about it than I do, and I decided I’m going to start teaching this thing. I wrote a book The Cheeky Monkey which tells you how to do it and I teach at NYU, AFTRS, and I teach privately because somebody has to.

Why do you think Australian unis and other teaching institutions are so lacking on the comedy education front?

Because they’re ignorant snobs. You would have to be totally ignorant not to understand how powerful comedy is in terms of getting an audience, but also in terms of writing drama. Drama has two masks, one’s happy, one’s crying. There’s comedy and there’s tragedy. You put them together and that is drama. Nothing else is drama; no one can argue against the two masks. I’ve never heard anybody prove to me that you can write a good script that has nothing but sorrow, darkness, anger and misery. Because who’s going to go see that? Even Schindler’s list has jokes, narrative jokes. For institutions to say they are teaching writing, they’re not lying because they’re ignorant. They have no idea what true writing is. That may sound like I’m being cocky, but I’m backed up by places like NYU. If NYU is doing it, if London University is doing it, why can’t other universities do it? It’s the world’s most successful genre. 15 of the top Australian box office hits are comedies. That’s 75% of the most popular Australian films. And still people think it’s not worth teaching? Or even worse, they don’t think it can be taught because they are ignorant.

Why do you think people are scared of comedy and can have such an adverse reaction to it?

I was quite shocked the first time I taught at a high school, in Tasmania, a bunch of 15-year-olds trooped in and I started talking about comedy, explained a few joke principles and said, “okay now you write a joke.” They just jumped in and wrote their jokes down. There was no nervousness. Something happens to people, when they’re 17 or 18 where they get all funny about whether they’re funny. I haven’t worked out why. I guess they invest something in being funny and of course when they don’t get anything back they feel like they’ve failed. But with comedy there’s nothing to be scared of. It’s based upon ancient principles. Very simple principles. My job is really quite easy because all I have to do is point out those principles and nobody ever argues. Nobody ever puts their hand up and says, “that’ can’t work, that can’t be true” because they see immediately that it does work, and they’ve seen it work a thousand times.

Can you give me an example?

Okay, you can choose. You can either have Self-Referential or Inescapable Conclusion.

The Inescapable Conclusion.

The Inescapable Conclusion is where you distract the audience into thinking that there is a way out of the premise and then you show there is no way out of the premise. So, it’s basically like saying you can get out of the jail cell, somebody gets out of the jail cell but they’re still in a bigger jail cell. For example, there’s a very old joke where a lady goes to see the soothsayer and the soothsayer scatters the knuckles and reads them and says, “ah I see you will have no children.” To which the lady says, “That’s bullshit, I’ve got 8 children” and the soothsayers says, “hmm tell them to be careful.” We’re all looking the other direction, thinking well she’s got 8 children, clearly that’s not true and the soother says there will be a time where you will have no children. Martha Raye said, “Ask any girl what she’d rather be than beautiful and she’ll say, more beautiful.” Just when you think you’re out it pulls you back in. Once I explain that, people start to say, “oh I know that joke type and imprint.” Even though your subjects are ‘all your children going to die’ or ‘a little girl wants to be more beautiful’, it doesn’t matter. You can see the blueprints are the same.

Then there’s Self-Referential, which again is really simple. You can confirm, negate or turn something into a paradox. For example, you can confirm, “I used to be indecisive but now I’m just not sure.” You’re just confirming indecisiveness. Or “I like the comedy of self-deprecation but I’m not very good at it.” “I wanted to join the optimist club, but they wouldn’t accept me.” Or another good one is Stephen Wright’s gag, “I went to the book store and I said to the lady at the desk, where is the self-help section? She said I could tell you but that would defeat the purpose.” You see every time it’s just a confirmation of whatever it is and then you can negate it like, “I tried to be patient, but it took too long.” “I like to be spontaneous, but I need a few minutes to prepare.”

I love that.

The third one is The Paradox and this is the tricky one. My favourite one of those is Jon Stewart’s line, “Religion, it’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.” So, it just goes on and round and round. Once I explain that, it takes about 3 minutes, I take them through about 100 different jokes, by the world’s most famous comedians, that are all based upon that same principle. It’s then that they start to realise, this loud mouth dickhead might have something to teach us. This loud mouth dickhead might’ve saved them 5 years trying to think of a joke. Instead they’re using five minutes using a principle, a blue print, to create a joke. There are about 26 of these principles and if you know them you end up like several of my students, millionaires. You go visit them in L.A and they’ve got spa baths!

Oh my gosh!

They’re so rich they don’t even have the spa baths on!