‚ÄúThe primary problem can be that people think being funny is the job of writing comedy, whereas in fact it doesn‚Äôt have much to do with being funny,‚ÄĚ he said.
‚ÄúWriting good comedy firstly means you‚Äôve got to start with something important, start with something serious, and it might be something sad, something scary, you start with that and then you start to tumble it around.
‚ÄúEven really light-hearted jokes, you don‚Äôt have to look too hard to see there‚Äôs something sad or tragic or scary or morally questionable going on.‚ÄĚ
Ferguson recalls what he calls the ‚ÄúMacca story‚ÄĚ, where friends of the eponymous ‚ÄúMacca‚ÄĚ tell him he‚Äôs a hoot, he should go on stage at an open-mic night.
So Macca goes on stage and pulls out all the stops, including his usual pub antics, but because the crowd doesn‚Äôt understand the context, it falls flat, and Macca leaves dejected.
The reason Macca flopped on stage, Ferguson explains, is because he didn‚Äôt focus on a topic that could be tweaked and examined in a way that it can be laughed at and, as a result, digested.
‚ÄúComedy goes first on issues,‚ÄĚ he said.
‚ÄúThe feminists of the 1970s ‚ÄĒ the most successful ones were the most funny ones. Germaine Greer‚Äôs The Female Eunuch is a really funny book.
‚ÄúAnd that‚Äôs what cuts across; it wasn‚Äôt just an angry rant, it was a woman using humour to make a point; or Phyllis Diller in the 60s and 70s, they were the first ones crossing the bridge into people‚Äôs homes, onto their televisions, that everybody loved.
‚ÄúNobody knew they were getting feminism when they saw Phyllis Diller or Lucille ball.‚ÄĚ
There is construction in comedy ‚ÄĒ certain tropes, like other forms of writing ‚ÄĒ that can guide a writer in putting together something to make a crowd laugh.
Ferguson pulls out some quick, basic premises as examples: ‚ÄúI‚Äôm not paranoid, who‚Äôs asking?‚ÄĚ Or, the classic paradox: ‚Äúnobody goes there, it‚Äôs too crowded!‚ÄĚ
But in an era where nearly everyone seems to be offended, how do comedians walk the line and avoid telling a joke ‚Äútoo soon‚ÄĚ?
Ferguson, who is now in a wheelchair due to advancing multiple sclerosis symptoms, knows better than most the power of jokes that make people gasp before they laugh.
But he laments that many people seem to take offense on others‚Äô behalf, instead of actually being personally offended by a gag.
He cites the example of Jerry Sadowitz, an American-born Scottish comedian who prides himself on being the most offensive comedian in the world.
Ferguson caught one of Sadowitz‚Äôs shows a couple of years ago, when the UK was reeling from a tragedy that gripped the nation and Sadowitz opened with the quip: ‚ÄúIs it too soon to bring out my Grenfell Towers material?‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúBut of course Jerry‚Äôs point about being offensive is that if you‚Äôre offended now, what do I have to wait six weeks and you‚Äôll be less offended?‚ÄĚ Ferguson said.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs kind of talking about the hypocrisy of taking offence. Quite often people take offense on someone else‚Äôs behalf.
‚ÄúYou will get able-bodied people calling up the radio saying ‚Äėyou can‚Äôt say that about disabled people!‚Äô
‚ÄúWell thank you very much for your help ‚ÄĒ speaking as someone who travels in a wheelchair, I don‚Äôt really need the help.‚ÄĚ
Tim Ferguson’s Comedy Writing Masterclass runs at Screenwest on Saturday November 17 and Sunday November 18. Tickets are available from TryBooking.
Cameron Myles is a homepage editor with WAtoday. Prior to joining the team, he was a journalist, sub-editor and editor at several publications up and down the West Australian coast, going from the red dirt of Karratha to the vineyards and beaches of Busselton and Margaret River.