There comes a moment in everyone’s life when we realise our heroes are mortal.
No matter how funny someone is, or how beautifully they write or sing, talent isn’t the path to immortality. We try not to think about it, truth be told. We ignore it until the news breaks and there’s nothing left to do but mourn the loss of someone who shaped our world without them ever knowing it.
Death and loss are scary prospects. If anyone was going to take that fear and crack a joke, it was always going to be the Doug Anthony All Stars. Even before Tim Ferguson found himself in a wheelchair, DAAS were the go-to group for comedy on the darker end of the spectrum. They have a reputation for finding humour in taboos, certainly.
Death, though, is a hard topic to joke about. Even if it wasn’t a raw, wounded subject that we’re generally afraid of, we’re also socially conditioned to be earnest and sombre whenever it’s mentioned. To get one laugh on the subject of death seems miraculous. To have a room full of people in stitches for an evening seems an impossible task. And yet, here we are at the Brisbane Powerhouse (30 June).Click here to read our interview with Tim Ferguson.
We’ve all grown up believing in the sick-room mentality. Sit quietly, be helpful. Don’t say or do anything to acknowledge the reality of the situation (never say they’ll die; never. Always say there’s a miracle coming, even if they’re eyeballing the angel of death while you’re talking).
It’s second nature to shy away from the realities of aging, disease, disability and death, and there’s something incredibly freeing about the chance to find humour in those dark nights of the soul. Laughing in the face of inevitability isn’t always easy, but it feels really, really good. And DAAS have a point: if we’re all going to die anyway, why be precious about it?
It’s perhaps a little harder to watch with Tim Ferguson being in a wheelchair. It’s easy to read the start of a goodbye in the performance, and no punches are pulled in admitting that sooner or later, Tim will be unable to perform.
It would be easy for ‘Near Death Experience’ to devolve into a tedious, earnest conversation about the big issues; a sob session about the inevitability of losing one of our finest comedians to a particularly shitty disease (MS). Instead, it’s a morbid romp through the comedic minefield. It’s a bittersweet sort of laughter at times, but that doesn’t make it any less funny.
‘Near Death Experience’ isn’t always the easiest watch, but then, DAAS has never been a passive, comedy experience. If you’re looking for a sombre exploration of life with multiple sclerosis, this is not the show you’re looking for. Tim Ferguson is brutal in his attack on the disease eroding his dance moves, even as he plays it up for laughs.
But in poking fun at MS, we’re reminded, quite viciously, that there’s more to Tim than the wheelchair, and more than the ghost of a dynamic, hyperactive labradoodle bounding around the stage. That sick-room mentality has a secondary characteristic: we romanticise anything done by someone with a life-altering disease or disability as utterly heroic. Got out of bed this morning? You’re a champion. You’ve got cancer? Nope, you’re battling bravely.
We’ve created an idea about illness and disability that is all about inspiration, heroism, and stoicism. Often, that means ignoring the realities, and even silencing those voices that deviate from the healthy person’s idea of how illness or dying ‘should’ be experienced.
When Tim first announced he had MS, online spheres were rife with debate around why he wasn’t doing more to support awareness and research causes, as though illness creates a duty to educate and fundraise, and live up to the inspirational stereotype. It’s worrying to think how many people are faced with that sort of enforced duty, conscripted into a cause without consent.
Tim’s new comedic focus has a habit of poking holes in our flimsy justifications. After all, why would we be uncomfortable around someone joking about their illness unless we thought there was a ‘right’ way for them to behave? He doesn’t so much eviscerate the idea of the goodly invalid as he crams it down the throat of anyone fool enough to try and force him into the role. It’s hilarious to watch, and just as interesting to watch people’s reactions.
All the while, snark deity Paul McDermott plays the affable larrikin struggling his way through the carer role, cheeky grin in place as he viciously and mercilessly rips apart the ideas around care giving and selflessness that show up when a loved one falls ill.
The beauty is that all of this conversation is so subtle you’re laughing even as your brain is making those connections, so subtle that a day later you’ll still be realising just how effortless DAAS makes comedy seem.
‘Near Death Experience’ isn’t a passive show. It makes us think about subjects we usually ignore, and maybe even points us towards being more open to the range of experiences people have around life and death. But all existentialism aside, it’s damn good comedy.